Old vs. New: The Great Ball Debate

When the announcement came that the NBA would be switching to a new microfiber basketball for this season, the players responded clearly and on the side of the status quo. Despite David Stern's repeated attempts at assuaging the situation, and despite his adamant defense of the new ball, the players' anger never subsided. In fact, it grew enough momentum to create a lawsuit against the league to try and get the old version of Spalding back.

What happened to David Stern the enforcer? He has handed out some of the stiffest suspensions in league history, created a dress code, and generally acted like a high and mighty ruler of his kingdom and not worried about anyone else's opinion.

And now, he decides to back down. Whether it was the lawsuit, the general discontent among players, or the fact that he really may have thought he was wrong in this case (although, probably not), David Stern gave in on the equipment issue and decided that the league would go back to the old leather basketball on January 1st, 2007.

Sure, he said that the NBA will continue to work with Spalding to develop a new basketball, but for the moment, the players got their way and the old leather ball back. Shouts of joy could surely be heard as the news came down. LeBron, Shaq, and other firm supporters of the old version basketball welcomed the news with cries of, "You're with me, leather!"

So, what now? The players got their way, but what difference is it going to make? The majority of their arguments settled around the lack of consistency of the microfiber ball. They said it would take unnatural bounces, glance at odd angles off the rim and backboard, would lose its grip when it got wet, and would lose its bounce after the first quarter.

There are few quantifiable ways to measure these things. Sure, the players are going to say everything is better with the old leather version back, but will the actual play of the game change at all? There are those who say that after almost half of a season, they should have stuck with the new ball until the end of this year, and then decided on its fate. Those would probably be the same people that would argue that it would be hard for the players to adjust to playing with the microfiber one week and the leather version the next.

Every team and player is in the same boat in this case. Boston didn't get the short end of the stick because they were the only team to play with the microfiber one night and the leather ball the immediate next night. According to the league, teams have been practicing with the old version since mid-December.

One way to look and see what kind of immediate difference there is with the leather version is to look at the field goal percentage for the games immediately before and after the change. This stat is perhaps one of the few ways to see if the change on January 1st actually had any effect on the performance of the teams. I realize that with injuries, win streaks, opponent strength of schedule, and any other number of factors that influence this stat in any given game, it is foolish to believe that it presents controlled area to measure the influence of the basketball. However, beyond player opinion we don't have much, so I'll take what I can get.

For the sake of brevity (on my and your parts), I will only take a look at the Southwest division in the Western Conference.

Before: 42, 44.3, 41.2, 48.7, 51.2; Average: 45.48
After: 46.3, 44.3, 45.5, 42.2, 52.9; Average: 46.24

Before: 41.8, 50.7, 44.6, 36; Average: 43.275
After: 50, 41.5, 41.9, 39.1; Average: 43.125

Before: 51.9, 48.1, 48.1, 46.5; Average: 48.65
After: 55.8, 56.3, 46.2, 49.4; Average; 51.925

Before: 40.6, 46.9, 40.3, 45.7; Average: 43.375
After: 47.4, 33, 45.8, 44; Average: 42.55

San Antonio
Before: 46.3, 50, 45.2, 62.9, 40.3; Average; 48.94
After: 38.4, 42.5, 44.1, 50, 48.5; Average: 44.7

Two teams shot marginally better, two teams shot marginally worse (especially if you throw out the highest and lowest averages and take a larger sample size like my statistics teacher from high school would have instructed) and one team shot almost the same.

Does this prove nothing? Well, the sample size is ridiculously small, and like I mentioned before, any number of other contributing factors influenced the shooting percentages on those specific nights, so it really isn't a great picture of whether or not the change back to the leather basketball affected anything or not.

However, it might lead us to conclude that besides the personal comfort of the players that may have whined about cutting their fingertips on the microfiber model there is really no practical difference between the balls in actual game play. We're talking about professionals here, professionals (best A.I. impersonation with the voice there), and they are going to make shots whether you put a microfiber ball in their hands or a leather ball in their hands. Heck, give them a little practice and they could probably make consistent shots with a soccer ball, a kickball, or whatever else you want to give them.

In this case, the groundswell against the change was so great that David Stern couldn't help but go back on his word and give the players back their leather ball. It might not lead to higher scoring games in the second half, and it might not lead to better field goal percentage, and all of the other stats might be the same; but if they players feel this vehemently about the basketball, then let them keep the one they want.

Even if the advantages and comfort of the good old leather Spalding are all in their heads.

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