NEW ORLEANS – Here at Hang Time, we spoke with a cross-sampling of All-Stars about their views and understanding of the sports world’s accelerating use of statistical tools. There is no turning back, of course, from the inexorable march of player-tracking cameras, EPVs, lineup breakdowns, PERs, points-per-possession rates and other “big data” components.
But it was interesting to hear from some of the very best guinea pigs on whom that all is being foisted.
“Everybody’s kind of moved towards a ‘Moneyball’ statistical and analytical breakdown of … everything,” Minnesota forward Kevin Love said. “I mean, it’s unbelievable what some obscure, crazy stat will pop up and tell you. People will tell me I’m the first player since So-And-So [to do something]. Or KD [Kevin Durant] ‘catches 67 percent of his shots from the left wing and drives right 12 percent of the time.’
“It’s crazy to me that so many statistics can be broken down like that now. Some of them hold weight. But a lot of them, it’s just the way a certain player plays. It sometimes can be lucky or unlucky depending on the stat.
Said Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge: “I have a love-hate with it. I like it, but I think there’s a limit you can use it to. Like, a guy told me I shoot a higher percentage from the other side of the court. But I do because I don’t go over there often, because I’m better on this side.”
Aldridge also thrives in the mid-range, an area of the court that doesn’t get as much love these days as the restricted area beneath the rim or corner-3 attempts. “But I think our team is made for mid-range because we play pick-and-roll a lot and we have a lot of elbow isolations in that area. So my offense is just there a lot,” he said. “It’s kind of funny because our defense is kind of predicated to give that shot up … and then we shoot that shot so much.”
Opinions can vary considerably within organizations. The Houston Rockets, for example, are driven by general manager Daryl Morey, a known advocate of advanced stats. But he has an old-school coach in Kevin McHale and a pair of stars, James Harden and Dwight Howard, who depart significantly in their views of percentages and decimal points.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m in Houston now,” said Harden, who clearly has proven his capacity to go from sixth-man contributor in Oklahoma City to full-blown starter and star with the Rockets. “Because of the statistics and the way the NBA is using numbers, you look at the style you want to play and that’s how you build your team. GMs do a great job of focusing on that.”
Howard said: “I can’t control how Daryl thinks about any given type of situation. I just go out there and play, despite all the analytics and whatever you want to call it. It’s still basketball. There’s a human factor to everything.
“No matter what the stats say, I think guys play better when the chemistry is right. In the right situation, everything flows better. A guy might have a terrible season with one team and go to another team and be great. It’s all about the team, it’s all about good health – the human factor. Analytics may work with some guys, but I always believe that it starts with the person.”
Balancing traditional methods with new data is a pressing issue these days, as laid out by Kirk Goldsberry, billed as “a professor and a Grantland staff writer,” in his recent article “DataBall”:
On the quest for the perfect analytical device, the first discovery should always be the inescapable fact that there is no perfect analytical device. There is no singular metric that explains basketball any more than there is a singular metric that explains life. It’s hard not to improperly elevate the role of “big data” in contemporary sports analyses, but romanticizing them is dangerous. Data are necessarily simplified intermediaries that unite performances and analyses, and the world of sports analytics is built upon one gigantic codec that itself is built upon the defective assumption that digits can represent athletics.
What some have wondered in the rush of more and more numbers and measurements is whether the new tools reduce players to robots.
Said Howard: “I’d rather not know ‘If I catch the ball at the elbow or the 3-point line …’ or if I’m better on one block than the other. I’d rather just go out there and play, and learn things on my own. When you look at stats and all that stuff, that’s when you start to overthink the game. That’s when you miss shots and make bad decisions.”
But here is Howard’s teammate Harden on the potential pitfalls of a statistical approach: “That’s how it’s shaping up. You have to take it for what it is. You have to make sure your pieces are right for your team. Numbers don’t lie.”
Dirk Nowitzki, the oldest All-Star last weekend (he’s the only one who had a last-century rookie season), shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head a lot over the statistical breakdowns put before him. But he became a believer three years ago and has a ring to remind him of that.
“It helped us in 2011 to win it all,” Nowitzki said. “We always had advanced stuff going; [owner Mark] Cuban, coming from that field, he always looks at stuff to make us better. We had all these crazy stats that I had no idea about in 2011, all these lineups that worked. When we put put J.J. [Barea] in the starting lineup, that was because of points-per-possession. Don’t even ask me about all that stuff, but that’s how they figured it out. We won three straight against the Heat that year. So I think we’ve been ahead of the curve with Mark coming from the Internet and computer field. He’s always looked at making this franchise better.
“I don’t only totally believe in that stuff. You’ve got to work on your game to get better and you’ve got to have guys that can play, and the chemistry’s got to be good. You can’t measure chemistry with points-per-possession, but now you’ve got to find a nice, little, solid middle way.”
One of the raps against NBA analytics is that, while baseball offense largely is the summing of a series of individual pitcher-batter confrontations, basketball is more interrelated, five players moving the ball in countless combinations, areas and sequences. Any of them can pass, dribble or shoot and each man’s game can be affected by one or more of the other four.
Some, like Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, see additional data as supportive at times and counter-productive at others. The 7-foot-2 center welcomes anything that tracks his signature “verticality” maneuvers to protect the rim and boosts his case as Defensive Player of the Year. But he’s suspicious when it tells him he shouldn’t be posting up certain opponents on certain low blocks.
“So,” Hibbert said, “in one aspect it helps, but in the other it doesn’t.”
Miami’s Chris Bosh suggested that those tracking and converting new stats into strategy might be as important as the numbers themselves. “It’s a blank canvas where people take it and paint what they want to,” the Heat power forward said. “It’s definitely a tool to try to track so many different aspects of the game. Individual performance, energy output and all that stuff. But it depends on the person who’s using it. What they’re going to do with it, what they’re getting out of it and what they’re looking for.”
Bosh called this the “age of information” and predicted that everyone’s job eventually would be subjected to further analytical studies. Even (gasp!) sportswriters?
Bosh smiled and said: “It’ll happen.” The click-counters on some Web pages would tend to back him up.
Then again, the appeal of basketball for many is that it isn’t some job to be honed to absolute, efficient perfection. Chicago center Joakim Noah was a fish out of water for most of the All-Star Game on Sunday, a player defined by intensity and defense in a game that was about showmanship and scoring. But in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, LeBron James looked hard to Noah on repeated pick-and-rolls leading to dives to the basket.
“I don’t need much [practice] time with guys like that, high-energy guys and high-IQ basketball players,” James said afterward.
Ask Noah about analytics and he sounds almost insulted that folks in lab coats might think they can take his measure with their computers.
“You can learn from it. But it’s also overrated,” he said, “because there’s more to it than analytics and I think people sometimes forget that.
“It’s how you practice. It’s how you talk to your teammates. It’s how you deal with things when things get hot, how you deal with adversity – you can’t measure that. It’s how the 14th or 15th man on the team practices. It’s the guy who’s going to lift you up when you’re down, when things are going on at home. They really can’t measure that.”
Even as they continue to try.