Advanced statistics and the democracy of talent | Magic Basketball

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Mar 15

Advanced statistics and the democracy of talent

Photo by Grazier Photography

One of my favorite movies of the past few years is Pixar’s The Incredibles. You’ve probably seen it. It’s an animated feature about a family of superheroes who are all either by nature or genetics or the grace of God gifted–and burdened–with superpowers. The movie centers around a problem that arises when a young man, jaded after being turned down as a sidekick to Mr. Incredible, decides to engineer contraptions which allow him to behave functionally as if he has superpowers. Armbands that shoot projectiles and have magnetic pulses, rocket boots–he builds the whole works, and decides that he is going to use his manufactured powers to save the world from a disaster that he creates to make himself look like a hero. Calling himself Syndrome, he lures the Incredible family to an island in an attempt to kill them while he accidentally wreaks havoc on the world. In the end, the demented, deluded Syndrome is defeated by the natural awesomeness of the Incredibles, and order is restored.

It sounds like a trite kid’s movie, but the more I think about it, the more brilliant I think it is. At its heart, The Incredibles is about talent, and who gets to have it. The family of superheroes the movie focuses on are, through no work of their own, unstoppable and brilliant forces of good. They are beloved by the rest of the world, but also envied. Their talent sets them apart, gives them access to a life that the rest of the world can only imagine, and for this they are made both heroes and pariahs. That envy reaches its extreme in Syndrome, who seeks to inorganically reproduce what makes the Incredibles so revered. It’s a parable about what happens when a society, like our own, believe that everybody can be as great as everybody else and seeks to cram people into roles they simply can’t fit. At the heart of the Incredibles’ power is the basic unfairness that not every body gets to be heroes, and when that realization crystallizes into resentment, we get a cultural Syndrome that prevents us from appreciating talent for what it is and allowing people to operate as they are naturally suited to.  Syndrome can never be Incredible, because the Incredibles are a natural confluence of something more than their constituent powers. Talent, in a sense, is a monarchy, not a democracy. Beautiful as it is, some people simply do not have it.

Where am I going with this? I’ve been thinking a lot about advanced statistics recently in the wake of the 2011 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which I was not fortunate enough to attend but which the TrueHoop Network covered extensively. The Sloan Conference is the zenith of the advanced statistical approach to sports today, and it draws some of the smartest people covering or fielding sports teams in the world. Over the past few days, I greedily gorged myself on every tidbit of info I could get from the conference. There were brilliant points about overshooting and undershooting, the physiology of free-throw shooters, even talk of advanced video catalog of every second of every NBA game to mechanically determine what makes each play work. And I loved reading every bit of it.

For several years now, I’ve been a devotee–if a lackadaisical one–of this sort of sports analytics. I didn’t do so hot in Calculus in high school, but I do care a lot more about efficiency than pure scoring, and I believe in things like Pythagorean record as mathematical ways to ascertain the quality of a team considered apart from the quirks of day-to-day game developments. I worship at the altar of Chuck Hayes, he of the transcendentally yeoman post defense and darling of the analytical community. But a few days ago, I ran across this critical recap of the Sloan Conference on Deadspin. The article is pretty negative about several things happening at Sloan, and most of that negativity I do not share at all. But what interested me is the way the writer refers to those participating in the conference as “White Guys in Suits” or “WGS”. I think the tenor of the whole article is wrong about what the attempt of Sloan is, but the writer, Jack Dickey, is onto something interesting when talking about the sorts of people who are moved by the analytical movement. Which is to say, exactly the sorts of people who are not playing basketball. Put very crudely, these are geeks talking about jocks. Math standouts looking out the window at the blacktop. And the cynicism that Mr. Dickey has about this relationship prompts me to some reflection.

Like I’ve said, I love the analytical and statistical approach to think about basketball. But I am made a little uneasy by the widening gap between the practice and the analysis of the game. Let me put this dangerously, in a way that could easily be taken out of context (I hope I never write those words on the internet ever again): I wonder if hedge fund managers and sabermetricians can even help but obscuring the spirit of basketball in their attempts to quantify the product. I am absolutely, positively not trotting out the tired reasoning that advanced stats don’t matter as much as the “eye” test. I am never going to watch Kobe go 3 for 45 and yell about how he has the eye of the tiger. I am in every way in favor of questioning assumptions to have more intelligent opinions about what I’m seeing. But I wonder if we’re so compartmentalizing and anatomizing on-court brilliance that we’re raising a different point entirely.

The assumption at the heart of advanced statistics is that it is best to look many times at a basketball game to ascertain how to best succeed at the goal of outscoring your opponent. To find who is most efficiently either scoring or denying points, to recognize skills that are harder to see before the gunsmoke clears, like Chuck Hayes’ incredible post defense. To me, this is a business approach to basketball, and it is not wrong. It is a way of thinking about games in a manner akin to thinking about ledger sheets at a business, to trimming the fat from contenders and improving the bottom line of cellar dwellers. But a large part of me hears the resentment of this approach in the tone of Jack Dickey and feels like maybe that’s not how I want to watch basketball. Like maybe I’m turning Incredibles into Syndromes.

There’s been a lot in the air lately about The Fab Five at Michigan, and over at HoopSpeak, they’re doing brilliant analyses of hoops history, discussing, among other things, the ABA and the amazing account Loose Balls by Terry Pluto. Players like this, and the ABA, strike me as the antithesis of thinking about basketball as a product. Rather, to appreciate Doctor J and his era of mismanaged funk brilliance is to appreciate basketball as a process of entertainment. Of celebrating individualism and its coalescence into team, of the spontaneous eruption of moments that will never happen again. Do you care what David Thompson’s eFG% was? His Win Shares per 48 minutes?

Here’s my fear: People like me are drawn to advanced analysis, in some small part, because it compartmentalizes the game into something I can have a hand in, can process. I will never wake up as enormous and gifted as an NBA star, but I can diligently apply the full scope of my MacBook to figure out how to “maximize” their gifts. I am worried that I’m not thinking of ball as an entertainment and an artform but as an ever-speeding corporatizing of what I love about the sport. Carmelo Anthony shoots too much; Jimi Hendrix played his guitar out of tune constantly. Ron Artest, in his prime perhaps the best two-way player in the league, thanked his therapist after Game 7; Thelonius Monk occasionally sat at his piano in silence, or slapped it during the middle of sets. I see some element of genius at work in all of these, and I worry that we are growing away from appreciating that holistically and toward trying to inorganically manufacture the moments that electrify us. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s because us White Guys in Suits will never achieve what Ron Artest was born having, and so we impose rules of business and efficiency onto the game.

Like I say, I am absolutely in favor of advanced statistics as a tool for thinking about basketball. But I am also absolutely in favor of setting those things aside in the name of watching ball as I would watch a ballet, of excusing a stupid LeBron heat check in the same way I excuse the Russian Candy Canes of falling at the end of their dance in the Nutcracker. Both of them are doing something that I will never be capable of, and I think we as analysts must be mindful not to try and, in a sense, democratize their accomplishment and impose ways of processing their talents that make them more relatable. Because in the end, the best basketball is about watching as much as it is about winning. It’s a celebration of rare genius just as much as it is about the bottom line of scores and efficiencies. By all means, then, let’s use the tools we have to think about it better, to question our appreciations and sharpen our tastes, but without letting it crowd our appreciation of even the flawed moments.

6 comments
MJ from A Substitute for War
MJ from A Substitute for War

Very interesting article.

I really don't get that same sense of resentment from most of the analytics I read. There are some who clearly state that if NBA management only built teams by Advanced Stat X, teams would be much better, who I could see labeling as resentful. I tend to just seem them as arrogant and foolish.

Something I love about basketball is that its nuances go beyond what either the human eye or equation can capture on their own, and this was clear from the earliest of days of the game. Both the casual naked eye fan and cocky statistician will assert that Wilt Chamberlain was far superior to Bill Russell. More nuanced viewing from either angle with the use of the other side though paints a very different picture. I find this not disconcerting, but liberating.

As far as losing the joy of the entertainment of the game, well it's possible I suppose. You mention Melo shooting too much though - I personally think the current style of play in the post-Melo Nuggets is beautiful to behold, and I'm sure I'm not alone. An NBA with less isolation play I think would improve both efficiency and aesthetics.

Last, I understand there being a self-consciousness to being someone who doesn't look at all like a basketball player spending so much time analyzing basketball players. However, you can always find something to be self-conscious about. I happen to be a guy big enough that the first question everyone asks when they see me is "Do you play basketball?", and every time they do it hurts because I do think about what might have been. Yes, you can make a good case that my involvement in analytics serves some psychological need, but does that make my words any less valid? I don't think it does, and I don't think people should let anything like this bother them. Yes, analytics allows people who like basketball that have a particular non-basketball playing strength to feel like they are more a part of the sport, but what's wrong with that?

Joiajsfsdfad
Joiajsfsdfad

actually syndrome might have been more powerful than the Incredibles. it took all of the Incredibles plus Samuel L Jackson to barely take him down, and even after that he was able to kidnap the baby (a fight he lost by pure luck; baby doesn't discover its powers and it would be dead). it was his morals and attitude that made him so successful and ultimately contributed to his downfall. talent-wise, he was comparable to Iron Man, and his devices were better than anything Batman has come up with.

the problem isn't so much advanced statistics, it's more about the attitude that comes with it. mostly the attitude that we can find numbers to prove something, so i'm right and you're wrong. there's also a belief that if it works most of the time, it should be done almost all the time, and that one single event can be duplicated many times over exactly. the main problem is that you're analyzing something that you haven't experienced and you don't know what that person is experiencing and thinking. it would be like if Alfred went over film of Batman and told him, "you know, when you throw the counter right hand, you have an 80% success rate, but when you throw the left hook, you only connect 20% of the time. never throw the left hook and always go for the counter right hand." and then every time he sees Batman throw that left hook, he harps on him and nags him, "it's a low percentage punch! counter with the right hand! always!"

soon Batman has him completely tuned out. because Alfred doesn't know that the left hook sets up his counter right hand and Batman isn't always looking to connect with it. Alfred doesn't know that Batman only uses it when he's cornered and as a last resort. Alfred doesn't know that the film he analyzed was from a period of time that Batman had a sprained left wrist and was forced to fight from a left handed stance. but he knows that it only works 20% of the time and he knows that 20% is lower than 80%.

after enough of Alfred's advice, Batman is only throwing counter right hands. and none of them are landing because no one's scared of that left hook anymore. and when he's cornered and the guy is wide open for that left hook, all he's thinking about is "20%! 20%! Batman, it's only 20%!" he is knocked out, his mask ripped off, his identity exposed, and no one ever hears from him again. some say he was taken by a team of his worst enemies and others say he retired out of shame. but the real story is that he was beat by his own people and the advice he was given; advice which came from advanced statistics.

ElGee
ElGee

Wow - really thought provoking stuff. I don't know how much I buy the "White Guys in Suits" argument though, since it seems like you are describing two separate things:

The first is analyzing the game. Analysis to make decisions. To make predictions. To understand what happened. For that, I welcome every possible tool (as I think, you do).

The second is being a fan. It's appreciating athleticism, creativity, and execution. It's wanting to watch Jason Williams but not necessarily wanting him to be your franchise PG. It's focusing on narrative and entertainment value.

I see room for both in the sport. And if anything, we need *more* analysis.

Cgsimone
Cgsimone

Great article. I think of advanced statistics as the DNA strand of a basketball game. The fact that we can look at the human genome at a cellular level doesn't make our existence any less a miracle. Rather, the miracle seems even greater to me when viewing the science of it. In basketball, I think you need to use these metrics to increase your efficiency as a team. But I also think that as advanced as these metrics are, they still can't explain some of the absolute complexities of the human psyche or the aforementioned "eye of the tiger". This is why they always have such a hard time explaining when a player gets "hot".

WikiwikiWagotcha
WikiwikiWagotcha

I like your metaphor, but I have to take issue with the last line. If we assume that a player has some kind of set FG% level for the number and type of shots he takes during an NBA game, it makes sense that, simply by random chance, a guy who has a career FG% of 45% could wind up shooting 75% over a game or two, just as he could end up shooting 30%.

I'm not claiming 'heat' doesn't exist, but the variation in fg% from game to game is quite possibly random chance. And if being 'on' is a real determinant of success, you'd think some players would be able to be 'on' more consistently.

guest
guest

First I am a math geek, second I was a moderately successful high school small forward who could not translate his talents to the college game. I am torn by the hot hand analysis. From my playing days, I could feel when I was having a good day and could knock down anything. I can't analytically explain it since the math says it was a random event and having a hot streak has nothing to do with the probability of making your next shot. That said I can absolutely remember days when I was sure my next shot was going in and other days when I felt my next shot would be subject to my long-term shooting percentage.