At one end of the gym the other night in St. Louis you had Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, basketball lifer, a fellow who reveres the old-school mentors he has had and spews the sort of coach-ese (“Don’t skip steps,” “next man up,” “more than enough to win”) that existed even before Doc Naismith hung the peach baskets.
At the other end, an hour or so before an NBA preseason game, you had Memphis Grizzlies VP of basketball operations John Hollinger, one of the league’s “new wave” of advanced-analytics gurus. A former columnist at ESPN.com, Hollinger helped to turn the statistical analysis of basketball not just into a new job but a new way of thinking about, appreciating and ultimately playing the game.
And yet, when it comes to crunching numbers, valuing some and discarding others, the two aren’t as diametrically opposed in philosophies as their backgrounds or personalities might suggest.
“I’ve been big on statistics for a long time,” Thibodeau said. “I like to use Elias [Sports Bureau]. There are a number of things I look at. … I get a stat pack both on our opponent and on us for every game.”
With postseason baseball picking up steam toward the World Series and the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s alive until Thursday night in the American League, the use of advanced stats vs. traditional eye- and gut-evaluations in shaping NBA rosters and devising 2013-14 strategy seemed a timely topic.
What got introduced into baseball over a period of 30 years due in part to “sabermetrician” outsider-turned-insider Bill James has traveled along more recent learning and acceptance curves in basketball. Where the former has gained devotees of OPS and defensive range factors over, say, RBIs or pitchers’ victory totals, the latter is making its case for team pace, player usage rates and individual rebound percentages.
Hollinger – quick to admit he is “biased” – said he’s heartened by how swiftly the NBA, its media and its fans have embraced many of the new tools.
“If basketball had as much initial resistance as baseball, there’s no way in hell I’d be working for a team right now,” Hollinger said, laughing. “I thought it would take a lot longer for a lot of these things to be accepted than it has. Even the simpler stuff, like ‘per 40 minutes’ or ‘offensive and defensive efficiency.’
“It took way longer in baseball,” he said. “I think part of the reason is that Bill James kind of plowed a trail through the snow for the other sports.”
Nowhere near as tradition-bound as baseball, basketball, Hollinger said, “has always been more open to trying new things, changing the rules, changing approaches.”
But before the new breed pats itself on the back too much, Thibodeau noted some early influences on him, coaches such as Pat Riley and Bill Musselman who were regularly seeking and utilizing numbers by the 1980s at least. When Rick Pitino went from a Knicks assistant to Providence College in 1985, the Bulls coach said, he upped the ante in his use of 3-point weaponry long before the competition.
“From a math standpoint, you could figure out how you could offset a talent disadvantage,” Thibodeau said.
The Bulls rely on Steve Weinman to mine a lot of statistical info, Thibodeau said. Many other teams – Boston, Houston, Memphis, Miami among them – go further in what most admit is a copy-cat league. As far as a pendulum effect, Hollinger thinks it hasn’t swung nearly far enough while Thibodeau seems comfortable with where the mix sits right now. He notes that few analytical breakdowns account for every variation, such as home/road or 4-in-5-night schedule quirks, and he’s wary of small sample sizes.
Besides, what was it Mark Twain said? “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”
“Churchill has a great quote, something along the lines of, he didn’t believe in any statistics that he didn’t doctor himself,” Thibodeau said. “There is a place in our league and I think it’s good. It may be getting overplayed some right now. I think the trained eye is very important. But numbers are certainly a big part of the equation.”
Hollinger, meanwhile, concedes that basketball is different from baseball or even football, which allow for easier isolation of measurable events. Think of each sport’s flow: Baseball is a series of individual acts strung together. Football is a sequential activity of participants, from snap to block to drop-back and pass to reception and run.
Then there’s basketball, where the ball can reverse directions, teams have 24 seconds to act, react and counter, defenders switch and switch back, and games can turn on so-called 50/50 balls where best-laid plans vanish.
“You’re trying to break it down into almost baseball-like segments,” Hollinger said courtside, sipping from his ubiquitous cup of coffee. “It gets tricky when, much like football, you’re counting on the interaction of multiple players in any one play. Where in baseball, the left fielder could be doing almost anything and he won’t impact the batter-pitcher confrontation unless the ball’s hit to him.”
So while it is said to be basketball’s wave of the future, the use of advanced statistics also has one foot firmly planted in the game’s essence and past. The best thing is that, in 2013-14, there’s room for both.
Those raised on Xs & Os and squishy stuff like “effort” and “sacrifice” don’t have to butt heads with the slide-rule set, any more than mainstream news media in their scrambles to survive butt heads these days with the blogosphere. Woe to the old-school coach or GM who scoffs at spreadsheets.
Then again, “Moneyball” hasn’t made it to the World Series yet.