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The Truth About Analytics

Why both Chuck and Morey are mistaken


I am a firm believer that the best path is usually the most difficult path, I believe the most difficult path is usually in the center, and I believe the center path is the one that pisses most people. In politics, I don’t consider myself—neither do I vote—a totally Republican ticket or a totally Democratic ticket. Although one might describe me as a sort of snob when it comes to art—counting among recent favorites Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or casually opening some Greek aphorisms 2,500 years old—I’ve also been spinning Taylor Swift’s 1989 lately. I enjoy crime novels and BBC detective shows on Netflix. Given two competing camps surrounding some aspect of something—sorry for being vague, but it helps for argument’s sake—I believe that both camps will be rife with error, and that the best answer will be found somewhere in the middle.


And so it is with analytics.


Last night, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey fired shots when he Tweeted this:


As you might imagine, Barkley took slight offense to this and let loose after the Rockets-Suns game:


“First of all I’ve always believed analytics was crap. You know I never mention the Rockets as legitimate contenders ’cause they’re not.”


Then, against better judgment, Barkley got personal, saying “I wouldn’t know Daryl Morey if he walked into this room right now,” calling Morey “one of those idiots who believes in analytics” and a guy “who never got the girls in high school”—as if that were the benchmark for what makes a good general manager.


Charles Barkley is wrong—about Morey, about analytics. First of all, whether or not Houston is a top three or four contender, we know that Morey has made a couple brilliant moves—procuring James Harden, for instance—and that he has transformed a team that regularly missed the playoffs into one that, at the very least, is making the playoffs. We also know that James Harden has turned into a monster. Even though I love to hate him on here, he does things other players don’t do. He gets fouled a lot; it’s not all luck. Houston has learned to mold themselves offensively around Harden. No other player in the league has more of his misses retrieved by his team than Harden—I know, it seems on the surface like a stupid statistic, but it’s actually really, really helpful to know.


But here’s the thing about Houston—I don’t think they’re a contender either. Last year as the season wore on we saw James Harden’s devotion to defense wane slowly but surely. As good as Harden is individually and as good as Dwight Howard is individually, you might question their personalities together, and whether that can make a contender. Because personalities, human interactions, locker room chemistry, whether or not a coach can command the room, whether or not players listen to their coach, etc. and etc.—analytics don’t have statistics for these realities. Analytics do not win championships; people do.


The question is not, “Do we use analytics or do we not?” as both Barkley and Morey seem to suggest. The question is, “How much do we use analytics?”


I think there’s probably a good analogy to be drawn from poker. Decades ago, before the game is what it is today, people thought poker was all about secret signs and stuff. They thought that every player had a “tell,” and that if you discovered that tell you could win. They thought it was a game of guts and moxie. They thought you played your opponent. And then poker discovered something about probability and odds. So, today, in poker, it’s not Daniel Craig in Casino Royale who’s winning poker, it’s the people who understand the difference between your hand’s odds and pot odds, the people who understand that it’s not about winning every hand but winning the right hands.


Nerds always win. Barkley’s comment about Morey being the guy in high school who never got the girls is hilarious because those are the guys who end up ruling the world.


But there is one critical difference between basketball and poker: In basketball, the nerds aren’t on the hardwood. The players are. And that’s why it’s not one thing or the other, it’s not a choice between two poles—whether we found our entire organization on analytics or trash analytics entirely. It’s about how to do everything humanly possible to win.

NBA: JUN 08 NBA Finals - Heat at Spurs - Game 2

Popovich has analytics and personalities down pat


As always, Gregg Popovich is the paragon for this melding of people and statistics. Years before it was sexy, Popovich knew that the corner three was the best shot in basketball. Years before it became trendy, Popovich knew that minutes restrictions paid incredible dividends in a number of ways—it keeps your team rested for the long season, it develops your bench players, and it keeps your players healthy on a day to day basis. Reading about Popovich is interesting but one thing always irks me. A lot of writers and sports anchors laud Pop because, they say, he “adapted” with the league—he’s had success over a long time, so, therefore, they think he’s changed with the times. Indeed, basketball has changed a lot in the last decade. Not to mention the last two decades. But what makes Popovich the best coach in basketball is not that he has adapted with the game, but that he has time and time again been the agency of change in the league.


Popovich has not changed with the times; he has changed the times.


How has he done this? Well, I think it’s because he has found that balance between analytics and people management. Coaches tend to be better at one than the other—Scott Brooks is a great people person but a questionable X’s and O’s guy—or to be decent at both but great at neither. Popovich is great at both. For Barkley to cite the Spurs as a team who has won rings without analytics is silly. Popovich and the Spurs were using analytics before analytics were called analytics.

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