Moneyball NBA style hit Memphis as new Grizzlies management started moving and shaking in modern fashion, shopping Rudy Gay before pulling him back when no one offered anyone like Anthony Davis while several teams offered someone like Tyreke Evans.
The new owner, internet billionaire-or-not Robert Pera, is shifting power from GM Chris Wallace, who built a contender in the NBA equivalent of a trailer park, to former player agent Jason Levien, who brought in former ESPN stat maven John Hollinger.
Talk about exciting!
Now the NBA has some of that “Moneyball” cachet, as predicted by the book’s author, Michael Lewis, who in a 2009 New York Times piece said basketball will fall under the spell of analytics as baseball did.
Showing how cool everyone thought it was, the Times Magazine – which is so tony, you’d think it didn’t know there was an NBA – subsequently ran a piece analyzing the worth of Shane Battier, dubbed by Lewis as “the no-stats All-Star.”
For NBA fans, this raises a new issue: Is there anything to the new “analytics” or is it massive hype?
I have long been skeptical about Hollinger’s PER (Player Effeciency Rankings), even as NBA GMs began quoting them.
I am more struck by all his anomalies – as on Dec. 20, when he was gracious enough to come on a Sheridan Hoops podcast and I looked up his rankings to find Javale McGee at No. 9, Joakim Noah at 65, Paul George at 93 and Klay Thompson at 218.
Personally, I don’t think any model can measure big men against perimeter players, who are different species as far as I’m concerned. Which species is most valuable to you depends on which players you already have.
If you have Noah, would you want Marc Gasol, currently ranked No. 43 in PER, or No. 41 Stephen Curry? Of course, you want Curry, or should. If their PERs are virtually even, it’s not a close call.
The NBA is now awash in the statistical version of pseudo-science, claiming this, that and the other thing — Kobe bryant is a bad clutch player, Andre Drummond is the Pistons’ best player even if coach Lawrence Frank doesn’t realize it – which fits neatly with ESPN’s determination to stay current by throwing out headline after headline brimming with attitude.
It’s getting confusing out there. I once had a five-minute discussion with ESPN’S Tom Haberstroh, who insisted LeBron James had developed a good post game, which had been the missing move in his repertoire. As far as I could see, James barely had a post game at all, since he rarely went into the post.
I finally realized Haberstroh was talking about efficiency, so if James went down there four times all season and made all four shots, that somehow compared to Zach Randolph, who may only make 60 percent of his shots in the lane but lives there.
The central question in any sport, or any other field, is what can be determined by available metrics.
Showing what’s possible, Nate Silver, a noted baseball stat maven, created a model that ingested polls up and down the political spectrum and spit out correct predictions of 97 of 100 state contests in the last two presidential elections. Obviously, that’s some model.
Showing what self-delusion is possible, the GOP charged that Silver – whose model continued to predict President Barack Obama’s re-election – was biased, while lavishing millions on pollsters who were still showing Mitt Romney would win when they counted the votes that said he had lost.
Showing mathematical models can’t answer all questions and Silver can’t either, Nate took a flyer on the NBA last season, analyzing a Knicks guard who scored 25-28-23-38 in his first four starts and announcing his conclusion in the headline, “Jeremy Lin is no fluke.”
In mathematical models as in computer programming, it’s garbage in, garbage out.
If the Grizzlies are now the proxy banner carrier for the math guys – I’m not going to call them “geeks,” which fits everyone I know in sportswriting and, presumably, the blogging world, too — that poses a challenge.
The Grizzlies have done a lot of things right, which is the only way you could come from where they were. They lost 60, 60 and 58 games from 2006-2009 as owner Michael Heisley, who had extracted everything the little market had to give, was stuck with the team after Christian Laettner’s group, which agreed to buy it for $252 million, turned out not to have $252 million.
Nevertheless, with all the fast competition in the West, you could bring in Red Auerbach’s ghost to run the Grizzlies and they would still be likelier to drop than rise from here.
Employing other useful disciplines – such as history – to go with the math, I’d say this is a bad time to break up the nucleus in what is still the best start in franchise history.
Of course, there’s the old bugaboo of money, with stock in Pera’s company, Ubiquiti Networks, closing at $11.86 on Tuesday, down from its May 1 high of $35.
By now, Pera should be realizing he paid $350 million for a good team in a small, less-than frenzied market. A crowd of 15,837 showed up Monday to see the Clippers, leaving more than a few empty seats in the 18,118-seat Fedex Forum – which was good, since the Clippers routed the Grizzlies, 99-73, with Chris Paul out.
Pera’s also getting the bill for the ascent of the last two seasons, with the Grizzlies potentially committed to paying luxury tax for the next three seasons, which would trigger the punitive repeater penalty by the third year.
Without his business losses, you’d think Mr. Dynamic Internet Billionaire could figure something out before 2015 rather than break up a good team that took a miracle to assemble in such humble surroundings three years ahead of the fact.
If stat guys have a high opinion of what they do and hold annual meetings like the one at MIT to tell each other, that doesn’t make them dopes, necessarily.
In 2010, Houston GM Daryl Morey told Lewis that the Rockets actually had an advantage against the Lakers with Bryant on the floor if Battier was guarding him.
“The Lakers’ offense should obviously be better with Kobe in,” Morey said. “But if Shane is on him, it isn’t.”
If that’s true, I thought, we’re missing a big story.
I asked Morey about it before the teams met in the second round that spring. Seeing me coming, he soft-pedaled his remarks so Bryant wouldn’t put a picture of Battier in his locker. The Lakers scraped by, winning in seven games, but not because Battier shut down Bryant, who averaged 27-7-4 and shot 45 percent.
Nevertheless, I always thought I could see a mind at work in Morey’s deals, before he outdid himself this season, landing James Harden and Jeremy Lin and staking out a future for his seemingly lost Rockets.
I don’t know if mathematics got Morey to this point, or if it was Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, another math-savvy guy, who moved Harden in a wholly unnecessary money decision.
If someone in Memphis is capable of coming up with a stat showing the Grizzlies are better off without Gay, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re not a fool’s errand.
On to the rankings.