It has been fun this lockout discussing the issues that got us into this mess. Like those general managers blindly spending money on such star-studded players as Eddy Curry, Joe Johnson or Raef LaFrentz. These runaway guaranteed deals are one of the reasons that has us stuck where we are now — on the verge of losing regular season games.
When you hear stories like the one Henry Abbott of TrueHoop told in his analysis of the new “Moneyball” world of basketball, it just downright scares you. And makes you even angrier with the owners for asking for the concessions they are asking for and hanging the NBA season out to dry.
Abbott reported that after he saw “Moneyball” he phoned up some of his friends in the advanced basketball statistics world that sit in with general managers as they make decisions and discovered that many of them have seen old-time scouts scoff at the idea of numbers and stick to the traditional way of, you know, watching players and finding subtle clues in things as random as the player’s girlfriend or the look in his eye.
Obviously people are resistant to change and many people, even those who find value in these statistics, do not quite completely understand them. Still, stories like this make you pause and wonder how many of these personnel secured their jobs and have been able to keep them:
“[The unnamed statistician] was asked to get involved in a negotiation with a certain player. I did a little homework on the guy, and then went back into the GM’s office, and asked how we should handle the guy’s injury history, specifically a torn ACL that had kept him out of the league for a year-and-a-half.
“‘He tore his ACL?’ asked the GM, sounding surprised. ‘Where’d you learn that?’
“I told him I had just Googled the guy.
“This was in the last couple of years.
“He said ‘OK, you’re going to have to show me how to use this Google thing.'”
Teams are supposed to have just about every resource available to them. They have databases full of regression models and numbers. Synergy can tell you how well a player shoots taking two dribbles to his left for crying out loud. This is all information teams can crunch, analyze and use. There is more information available to teams than ever before.
Yet, it still seems like some of the old ways creep in. I mean, the next anecdote Abbott relates involves a coach making a habit of telling his general manager he does not know how to use a keyboard. All so he could curry some favor with his boss.
Statistics certainly are not the be-all, end-all when it comes to basketball — or any sport. Advanced statistics like offensive rating or PER or effective field goal percentage give us a better idea of how players are performing, but they are far from perfect. Basketball is a nuanced game and numbers don’t tell the whole story. Nowhere close. That goes double for defense.
But some of the reasons players get moved down on draft boards and looked over just plain go against their statistics and make no sense.
Sleepy Floyd sure seemed not to be trying when he dropped 50 points in that Playoff game in 1987. And Tracy McGrady was hardly trying when he scored 13 points in under two minutes and dropped 30 points per game. He just was not trying on defense — or when his team was in the middle of a losing season. But you could tell their level of effort simply by looking at their eyes.
Look at Brandon Roy. He makes things look so effortless with such a blank expression on his face there is no way he could be good, right? Knee injuries (which no one could see coming) have sapped this All Star of a lot of his explosiveness.
The Houston Rockets under Daryl Morey are the great test case in the statistics revolution in the NBA. He has favored scrappy players who fight hard on each possession and do not waste possessions. Injuries to Yao Ming have been about the only thing keeping the Rockets from realizing their full potential. But the jury is definitely still out on Morey’s experiment.
If the owners want real protection from themselves though, they need to embrace every bit of knowledge that they have available to them. They need to leave the dark ages of relying solely on what they think they see and trust some of the hard data that is available to them. Knowledge is power, right?
Maybe that one general manager still learning what AltaVista is so he can get on the InterWeb with his dial-up connection to do some research.
Photos via DayLife.com.