In an interview with Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Jim Buss defended the Lakers use of analytics, revealing at the same time (albeit unintentionally) that he probably flunked chemistry in high school.
The owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, often criticized for the franchise’s failure to adequately enter the modern age and even acknowledge the existence of analytics, much less employ them, had a few words for his critics.
“There are parameters that I need to see on a guy but that doesn’t mean he fits the team. That’s where Mitch comes in, he knows the numbers, but he also sees if he’s a fit,” said Buss. “Then you go to Byron Scott, is this a guy that you like? Is this a guy that fits the team, does he complement the other players?
“Analytics doesn’t really get to that human detail of, ‘Does he fit with this guy?’ Percentage-wise and stat-wise he does, but you have personalities, style of play, coaches that have a style of play and you have to put that all together.
“If I don’t like a guy statistically or analytically then I might come in and say I’m not in favor of this. If he passes my test, then I just let [Kupchak and Scott] figure out who is the better fit.”
It seems as though Buss is lecturing us on the proper balance between analytics and the eye test. I mean, basketball isn’t played on a spreadsheet, right? It’s played on a basketball court.
It’s about the human detail. I get that. Does this guy fit with that guy? Sounds perfectly logical. I accept that. Just because two guys look good on a stat sheet doesn’t mean they’re going to play great together. These are things that the number crunchers can’t tell you. These are things you need to know the game to understand. Things that only the eyes can reveal.
All that’s reasonable in the right context.
That would all make perfect sense if what he had done is to assemble a roster that looked good on paper and then they just couldn’t execute on the court because of personality issues. But what he did is willfully go out and put a team that’s a travesty on paper. And they have enough personality disorders between them to make Sigmund Freud himself roll over in his grave.
This is a team that went out and acquired Lou Williams to add to Kobe Bryant and Nick Young. Because, as anyone in analytics will tell you—you can never take too many mid-range jumpers. Lest you think I’m being too severe, Krishna Narsu did the math on it.
— Krishna Narsu (@knarsu3) August 31, 2015
And then they went out and got Roy Hibbert, who had the lowest expected effective field-goal percentage in the league, based on Seth Partnow’s metric at Nylon Calculus. (Though, full disclosure Partnow doesn’t put all the blame on Hibbert.) Bryant was second-to-last. Nick Young was 14th. And they all did worse than expected.
You have to admire the Lakers’ wholescale commitment to filling up the team with those pieces who can clank it off the rim from the least important area of the court because of “fit.”
But hey they work together with their personalities?
I mean they really do.
They really, really do.
And it’s not like Hibbert has always played well with others.
But chemistry asks, nay demands that Metta World Peace get added to his dysfunctional mess.
Yahoo Sources: Lakers considering possibility of signing free agent Metta World Peace. http://t.co/edRL1EUSVh
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) August 25, 2015
What could possibly go wrong from there?
And Buss blames the problems the Lakers have had on injuries.
“The reason that we’ve hit an extra bottom was because of injuries,” said Buss. “We lost Steve Nash, which is going to go down as a bad trade, but we would have done it again. He was a two-time MVP and we felt he still had some time.”
Gee! Ya think? When you start using half your salary cap on players closer to 40 than 30, that sort of thing tends to happen. Granted, the Julius Randle issue was sad, and no one could see that coming, but Nash and Bryant are easily foreseeable risks which any analytics department worth its salt is going to tell you.
And while Buss explains that his numbers people pointed out that Hibbert is a great rim protector (and he is), that might be just enough to ensure that they lose their first-round pick that is top-three protected next year. If they were planning to use him in a right way—you know thinking about how he fits with the players around him—it would be different.
The problem with Buss’s argument is that it’s the polar opposite of true. This failure isn’t about the pieces or the chemistry. This is a team that fails both analytically and in execution.
Is it any wonder that when ESPN did their rankings of teams committed to analytics, the Lakers were 113 out of 122 among all American pro sports teams?
The Lakers infamously had the only NBA front office without a rep at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and their old-school approach hasn’t progressed much. Exhibit A: signing a 35-year-old coming off an Achilles tear to a two-year, $48.5 million extension. Analytics will always tell you that’s a bad idea — even if he’s Kobe Bryant. So far, Bryant has been worth minus-0.2 win shares since last season and is modeling suits courtside with a torn right rotator cuff.
To be fair, the Lakers are waking up, if late, to the movement. GM Mitch Kupchak hired four staffers to comb through data from SportVU cameras, which track player locations at a rate of 25 times per second, data that he says has “changed this whole business.” Still, coach Byron Scott’s open hostility toward the 3 — the team ranks 25th in 3-point attempt rate — demonstrates the Lakers’ disbelief in implementing metrics on the court.
There are teams who do analytics, like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers. Then there are those who give an intern a laptop with Windows Vista and a broom closet and call that their analytics department.
Let’s not confuse having an analytics department with using an analytics department to actually do crazy things—like be involved in basketball decisions. When Buss starts doing things that make a lick of sense analytically or in the broader sense of the “eye test” he can start lecturing about such things