You Asked For It: There are Indeed Ethics Issues Raised By Inexplicable Choking In The NBA Play-Offs

Prolific commenter slickwilly wrote in one of the Comey threads,

Jack, we need a post on how the Spurs were aided in their win by either a) James Harden point shaving, or b) someone slipped him date rape drugs How ethical are the accusations?

I had been vaguely aware of the surprise rout the short-handed San Antonio Spurs inflicted on the Houston Rockets to win their NBA play-off series, but as the NBA is far-off my ethics radar due to the fact that I consider it a fake sport played by too many ethically-challenged athletes who achieved fame and wealth thanks to the corrupt college basketball system,  a direct query like this was required to get my attention. Here is what happened, courtesy of the Sporting News, as the Houston Rockets superstar delivered an epic choke when his team needed it most:

With Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker out for Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, James Harden was expected to dominate the Spurs.

Instead, Jonathon Simmons and LaMarcus Aldridge led a perfectly executed game plan by Gregg Popovich to hold Harden and the Rockets to just 75 points in a 39-point win. Harden made just two field goals, had six turnovers and registered a minus-28 as Houston shot just over 30 percent in the loss.

The Washington Post later elaborated on the shocking details:

In the wake of the Spurs’ playoff series-clinching, 114-75 rout of the Rockets on Thursday, it was hard to know which was more shocking: that San Antonio could play so well without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, or that James Harden could play so poorly. The Houston star scored just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting in more than 36 minutes of play, looking nothing like a leading contender for NBA MVP honors…Harden not only failed to take advantage of the absence of the league’s best perimeter defender, he was stunningly ineffective in the final four minutes of regulation and through the five-minute overtime period. In that span, Harden scored four points on 1-of-6 shooting, turned the ball over four times, and committed two costly fouls, including an offensive foul on what could have been a game-winning possession with seconds left in regulation.

This is not just an example of a star player having a bad game, like “Casey at the Bat.” Harden is regarded as a strong contender for the 2017 NBA MVP award. Nobody could remember a similar example of a healthy NBA super-star playing so poorly for so long in a crucial play-off game, and there is no sport where a single great player’s performance can make the difference between victory and defeat more surely than basketball. Harden has not explained his flop, so people are making excuses for him. The popular  theory seems to be that he was suffering from a concussion following an elbow to the head suffered in the previous game two days earlier. This is pure speculation, however, and as the Post notes,

“If Harden did have a head injury, it didn’t stop him from hitting the club after Thursday night’s game. TMZ has video of him partying at Set in Houston and reports that he followed that up with a trip to a strip club.”

Other observers have suggested a more sinister explanation. An NBA executive texted one sportswriter: “Has an NBA player ever been investigated for point shaving?” On a podcast after Game 5, sports provocateur Bill Simmons said, “I really hope Harden had his bell rung, or something, because he was just [terrible].”  Simmons hopes that, because the alternative is too horrible for NBA supporters to contemplate. ESPN talking–well, shouting—head Stephen A. Smith also demanded an explanation for Harden’s choke, saying, “I think there needs to be an investigation, to be quite honest with you. He looked like he was drugged out there, for crying out loud. Literally comatose.”

(Well, if he were literally comatose, they should have dragged him off the court.)

All but the anonymous texting NBA exec are flying in the face of Occam’s Razor, which declares that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. Drugged? Brain-addled? There needs to be an investigation to determine if a top NBA star was paid off to lose a game.

For a long time, the assumption has been  that NBA stars are paid so much money that none of them would ever shave points or throw a game. Harden is a prime example: he made 28.3 million dollars this season. However, the ability of elite athletes to get in financial trouble regardless of their income is legendary. I have a next-door neighbor who was just hired by the NBA to create and administer a program to instruct young stars regarding the perils of having too much money and fame with too little experience and common sense. Many NBA stars live outlandish life-styles, hand out money to old friends and relatives, maintain entourages, pay child support to multiple ex-sex partners, and have gambling debts. Basketball remains one of the most popular sports for big-time gambling. The odds in favor of the Rockets, in the wake of widespread knowledge that the Spurs would have to play a make-or-break game without two key stars, were prohibitive. Someone, and maybe many someones, made a bundle on Harden’s “bad day.”

The NBA has a duty to uphold the integrity  <cough!> of its sport and relieve any doubts an episode like this naturally raises for any objective observer. An investigation is not only a reasonable course, it is a necessary one that both Harden and the Rockets, which has also been mum about why its leader forgot how to play basketball in one of the most important games of his career, should welcome. To answer slickwilly’s question, “How ethical are the accusations?”, the answer is “Completely ethical.” When shady characters stand to make big money from any sports upset and a player plays that uncharacteristically, these suspicions must be put to rest, and the only way that can happen is if someone verbalizes them.

Maybe the NBA should have James Comey look into it….


Pointer: slickwilly

24 thoughts on “You Asked For It: There are Indeed Ethics Issues Raised By Inexplicable Choking In The NBA Play-Offs

  1. An NBA investigation into point shaving? Hah. Adam Silver is on the record in favor of legalized gambling nation wide, run by and profiting the NBA owners. The NFL is going to have a team in Las Vegas. The integrity of the NBA is at stake? What integrity?

  2. Well, suggesting that nefarious elements are at play may not be UN-ethical, I suppose, but is it worth the time-of-day in this instance? Surely we need a little more than this. Sometimes players have bad days. Rather than being a reflection of something seriously amiss in hoop-world, such speculation may be more the result of too much air-time that must be filled … and nothing sells more shaving cream than a nice controversy … evidence, or not.

      • Exactly. But why? Are we confusing the aftermath with the event? I question that it is an objective evaluation of Mr. Harden’s performance that is prompting the voicing of these suspicions. Where is the objective evaluation of his performance?

        The co-incidence of the relative “importance” of the game and the need for “shouting heads” to justify their own existence may be more in play than any objective evaluation of game play. The same performance in a mid-November game might not have garnered much notice. Players do have bad games from time-to-time.

        For me, this screams out for some kind of statistical analysis that evaluates the range of performances one observes from players in real games over many seasons, and factors in the hundreds of players and thousands of games that are played over many seasons. Statistically, I would think that a key player’s performance affecting the outcome of a key game is bound to happen every once in while. So, what’s the big deal when it does? It is a one-in-thirtysix chance that we roll “snake-eyes” with a pair of dice, but we do not check for weighted dice when it does occur. Star players do have off nights. How often? What is the ‘expectation value’ of having a bad night? I don’t know — we may want to do that evaluation first, though, before we start hinting at malfeasance, or even bother ‘investigating’ it. Due diligence requires doing the Math first, imo.

        If every sports game ended exactly as the predictions said it “should” end, then there would be little interest in watching sports. Variance is part of the game, and much of the interest in the game.

        • Any time a sporting event ends with a result that makes gamblers a lot of money and the performances of one or more players on the losing team are extremely out of their norm, an investigation should be automatic.

          • Is that what happened, though? Do we know that your premises are true? The existence of “shady characters” who made a lot of money off this game seems like speculation, unless you have some interesting inside knowledge. Is it ethical to fuel the hype based on supposition?

            Defining “extremely out of their norm” is also problematic. “Having a bad night” every once in while is the norm, and is inevitable, for any athlete, with the possible exception of Lance Armstrong, I suppose. 🙂

        • Could you provide us with such an analysis, Pete? Not being snarky, asking to see your take on what this would look like, in by Business Analyst hat. Seems to me like one would have to do some regression and best fit to get meaningful results, and those are hard to make work in the real world.

          • I appreciate the invitation. I cannot do it. I am too busy at work this week, I do not know where to get the data sets necessary, and I am not smart enough to do the analysis credibly.

            The statistics site often looks at similar topics. Here is their take on the Spurs’ performance (written before Thursday’s game):


            Here is a look they took at alleged game fixing in professional tennis about a year and half ago. It gives a sense of the type of work one can do. One group of statisticians concluded that a dozen or so players were fixing games. The story was big in the news for a while. Another group of statisticians came along later and said: “No, no, no, no, no. It was all in the assumptions you made. No fixing happened. False alarm.”


            Plus, because of the nature of statistics, there will never be a conclusive answer of whether “the fix was on” for any one given game. It is all probabilities. The best you could hope for from such an analysis is a vague result like “once every X years, on average, a player’s performance would under normal variance be expected to flip the outcome of play-off series game.” If the number X is a million, then I might listen to charges of tampering, but if the number X is less than the number of years the NBA has existed, then I am not too worried about Mr Harden’s integrity.”

            The analysis is worth doing, just to be able to say, “yes, it is rare (as rare as rolling “snake-eyes” Z times in a row, say), but it is inevitable that the outcome that we saw will happen once every Y years, on average.”

            I think it is a bad assumption to say that a player’s poor performance is a priori proof of ‘Fixing.” Bad games happen. Sometimes the timing of a bad game is very unfortunate for the fans. That’s sports. How often bad games happen is something that could be quantified with the right data set, and the right motivation.

            • Plus, because of the nature of statistics, there will never be a conclusive answer of whether “the fix was on” for any one given game.

              How bout the nature of evidence? If investigations show large check deposits pro or post game to the accounts of a player from someone who bet against the odds, that’s the beginning of proog. AS would be other things.

              No, you can never assume that a game has been thrown, manipulated or fixed, but there are certainly ways to show that it probably wasn’t.

              • Well, yes, what about the nature of evidence? It seems you are flying without any. It seems you have used the logic of McCarthyism. You assumed that foul play was afoot and then used that assumption as the reason to launch an investigation to prove your assumption.

                You appeal to Occam’s Razor, then state that the participation of shady characters is the most economical explanation. I simply disagree. I posit that a player having a bad day is the most economical explanation. I then show that not only is it reasonable for a “choke” like this to happen in a playoff game once or twice a decade (or so), by the nature of statistics it is, in fact, inevitable.

                So, I respect your answer, but my answer for slickwillie is “No, it is unethical to speculate criminal activity when you have no supporting evidence, when a simpler explanation is available, and when doing so causes harm to the reputations of those involved.”

          • Well, on reflection, it is easy to do a “back of the envelope” calculation. Say in my entire career as an NBA star, I have just one “stinker” game that is so bad that my team loses the game because of it. If I played 80 games a year during a ten year career, my “stinker rate” is 1 in 800.

            There are approximately 80 playoff games played each year in the NBA. If we assume that each team has exactly one superstar player for whom a career-worse “stinker game” would cost the game, and they also have a 1 in 800 stinker rate, then we can assume such a game WILL OCCUR once every 800 player-games, or once every 5 years ON THE AVERAGE. It is 5 years, not 10 because there are two teams playing, and either one might be the one having the stinker game.

            We do not know which player it will be. We do not know which team it will be. We just know that on the average, once every 800 player-games, there will be a “stinker game.” Since it takes about 5 years to get through that many match-ups, we can conclude that seeing an “inexplicable choking” in a playoff game once every 5 years, or so, on the average, is not only ‘expected’, it is inevitable. That is how statistics works.

            Now, I made these numbers up. Who knows what the real values might be? However, it is my belief that assuming a “choke” is rare, but inevitable, is more reasonable than assuming that one poor performance is proof of malfeasance.

            • One comment: whatever rate you would have would increase during the playoffs, when you’re playing stronger teams that have a better ability to capitalize on the other teams mistakes. For the same reason, the rate would increase as you advance through rounds of playoffs. You also have to factor in that the Spurs team of the last 20 years is definitely the most wily, opportunistic, overachieving team since the Celtics of the 1960s.

              I haven’t checked into this recently, but it used to be standard that the leagues had connections to find out what was going on with betting lines and detectives (probably “security consultants” today) who would keep tabs on who players were associating with.

  3. Having just watched the same Spurs blow a 20+ point lead to lose game 1 of the finals against the Warriors, I am pretty sure that a player having a bad day can make that much difference. Kwahi Leonard went out in the third quarter with a twisted ankle. Was he point shaving, as well? Apparently, the only sport without unethical, dishonest players is baseball. Right.

    • Baseball is the hardest team sport for one player to effect the outcome with any certainty. That’s why Arnold Roth had to bribe 8 in 1919, and the more you bribe, the more likely you are to get caught. It’s the sport as much as the players.

    • Spurs will break yer heart, dd. Remember, though, we did not make the accusations… just evaluating if they are ethical to make.

      Okay, I wanted ANYTHING to get the discussion off Comey, too!

      • Unfortunately, I am a Spurs fan, sort of. They did break my heart last year. I suspect they will not win this series, so my expectations are not high, but they have the second best record in the NBA and the #1 defense. It is quite possible that they just shut Harden off. Let’s keep in mind the Spurs are a significantly better team than the Rockets.

        • Since you are a Spurs fan, what do you think of the premise (that I made up) that Pop will retire at the end of this season?

          I think he has joined the KMA club (Kiss My Ass), a club for the retired, the short timer, the dying, the untouchable wealthy, and the elderly. My great grandmother would say whatever she wanted, having lost the filter and will to screen her comments for polite conversation. My mother, dying of cancer, went out and opened a new unsecured credit line at a clothing store, knowing she could not afford the payments, and ran it up to the limit on a new wardrobe. There was no money left in her estate to pay them, either. She was broke when she opened it (this was their fault for allowing her too as well: ever hear of a credit check? Incidentally, they tried to bill her kids for the debt, but we were not required to pay her debts)

          My ‘evidence’ (based on observation and conclusion jumping)

          -Pop rarely scorns the press when they ask dumb questions, relying on the usual platitudes for such occasions. This season he has lost patience with the foolish, and has said what he really must have been thinking all along. For instance, “Did you WATCH the game?”

          -Pop has rebuilt the Spurs around a new star (or group of stars) at least 3 times. Each effort involved a several season stint in the wilderness as the team jelled. He may not want to start over again.

          -Most importantly: Pop has made political statements where he has not before. He doesn’t care what folks think of him any longer, as unnecessary political commentary has sunk more than one entertainer (and a coach is in the entertainment business)

          • This kind of speculation I can go with. Hurts no-one and is not just a disgruntled sports expert. And, to answer your question, I think, for the reasons you outlined, it’s very possible. Plus he’s older than dirt.

  4. Thanks Jack. The Comey reference at the end was classic dry wit, too.

    My take is that any sport where the series always seem to drag out is suspicious. All involved make more money when there are more games, and more drama. Butts in seats is what owners are looking for.

    Baseball has blowouts more often than any other sport, it seems to me, and there are too many variables, IMHO, to rig a series. Basketball not so much. One player often decides the game, and it looks easy to extend the series.

    I hope finances are investigated in this case, even if it is just to clear the player of suspicion.

    • Many, many have mused that the tendency of NBA games to come down to just a few points is counter-intuitive, and some players have indicated that they slough off or only play hard for portions of some regular season games. Free throws are notoriously random but determinative factors, and anyone can miss a free throw that a 7th grader could sink five times in a row.

    • A female sportscaster on ESPN said, several years ago, “We keep trying to close the window on the Spurs and they just keep winning.” My suspicion is that an investigation into either of the people who are speculating about Harden’s performance themselves had money riding on the series, and not on the Spurs. Clearly, this does NOT apply to Jack, whose honesty I believe is beyond reproach. There are, I believe, some legitimate questions that can be asked about any athletes performance, particularly if it is sub-par. Of course, I have just as much evidence that Simmons and Smith bet on the series as they have that Harden shaved points.

  5. Basketball is a beautiful and noble sport. But yeah, the NBA, not so much. I do recall Kobe Bryant shooting 6-for-24 in an NBA Finals Game 7 with 2 assists and no defense, and he somehow WON THE FINALS MVP AWARD. The difference being, his team won. So yeah, bad games do happen at the worst times.

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