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June 29, 2011

Why Jonah Lehrer is Right, but Also Wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:49 pm

At first, I wasn’t going to say anything about Jonah Lehrer‘s piece on Grantland about the problems with statistical analysis because I’m not sure anyone cares to hear anyone involved in statistical analysis argue in favor of it. It’s hopelessly meta navel-gazing. Eventually, though, a thought occurred to me that I hope might be somewhat interesting: Lehrer is totally right. But he’s also wrong.

Lehrer focuses his argument on an analogy between statistical analysis in sports and the rating of cars, noting that countable attributes (horsepower and fuel economy) tend to be overvalued when they ultimately have little to do with the satisfaction drivers get out of their vehicles. And he’s right. There is plenty of evidence that people put more emphasis on what is counted, even–and possibly especially–in sports. I’ve written as much in the past.

Here’s where I disagree with Lehrer: Counting stuff in sports is not new. Best I can tell, it’s been done in baseball about since the first time anyone picked up a bat. The analytics movement isn’t about counting stuff; it’s about counting the right stuff. In Lehrer’s analogy, APBRmetrics (and its cousins in other sports) isn’t the horsepower and fuel economy ratings. Those are RBIs and points per game and other stats that are easy to track but harder to correlate to success. The better analogy, in my view, is that advanced statistics are analogous to the measures of consumer happiness–which are, after all, statistics themselves.

Certainly, there are elements of the horsepower problem in the analytics community. There’s a tendency in many quarters to dismiss what cannot be measured as irrelevant, or at least not as important as it really is. Witness the changing perception of the importance of defense in the sabermetrics community within the last decade as the ability to quantify the value of fielding has improved, for one. That’s a great example of the fact that statistical analysis isn’t static–it’s constantly evolving to do a better job of measuring what matters.

Lehrer’s analogy also points to the importance of making sure that the statistics we use correlate to winning. That’s the ultimate goal, not being efficient or putting up the best numbers or anything else. When done correctly, analytics should do just that as one tool of many used by good decision-makers.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

June 23, 2011

Draft Chat

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:15 pm

Join Basketball Prospectus’ NBA analysts tonight to chat about the NBA Draft in progress. What our discussion lacks in rumor-mongering, we hope to make up for with legitimate analysis and jokes about Karl Malone‘s draft-day tie. While our college friend John Gasaway has to miss one of his favorite events of the summer because he’s busy going through the de-Canadianization process, I’ll be around starting at 7:15 p.m. Eastern or so and through the duration of the draft with Bradford Doolittle (at Bulls HQ) and Dan Feldman (in and out from the draft) providing updates from remote locations and Sebastian Pruiti ready to go to YouTube highlights for any obscure international player who is unexpectedly drafted in the second round.

It should be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll drop in and join us.

June 16, 2011

Turning Our Attention to the Draft

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:38 am

The NBA Draft is now a little more than a week away, and it will be the focus of our attention during that period. Already, Sebastian Pruiti kicked off our coverage by using Prospectus’ college similarity scores to highlight what makes this year’s top prospects like established NBA players. The first installment of Pruiti’s series, which is free, compares Kyrie Irving to Derrick Rose.

Dan Feldman and I will be complementing Sebastian’s analysis by focusing in on the weaknesses teams will be looking to address this offseason, starting with the draft. Dan also plans our own version of a mock draft–not a prediction of what we expect teams to do, but rather what they should do based on our assessments of their needs and the available talent.

Bradford Doolittle will chip in analysis based on his ATH score for collegians, and there will be more analysis on top of that. Stay tuned … .

June 11, 2011

The Mavericks in the Clutch

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:51 pm

My mother, who’s something of a casual basketball fan–and, like seemingly everyone else in that group, rooting passionately for the Dallas Mavericks in this series–asked me the other night why Dallas has played so much better in the playoffs than in years past. Her answer, and probably the best single response, was “the guy from the country,” which turned out to be Tyson Chandler. (Having not seen the halftime feature during Game Five, I always thought of Chandler as from inner-city Compton, but in fact he spent his formative years on a farm in Northern California.)

Really, I’m not sure you can isolate one factor that has come together for the Mavericks. Dallas wasn’t much better during the regular season than past campaigns that ended in heartbreak early in the playoffs, and other than Chandler the mix of players isn’t substantially different. My best answer is that the Mavericks are just a little bit better in a lot of places, and have gotten just enough breaks, to end up a win away from the championship.

One of the interesting factors that’s translating this year in a way it hasn’t in the past is Dallas’ success in close games. This has been a regular feature of the Mavericks’ regular-season runs since they added Jason Terry to Dirk Nowitzki, with Jason Kidd providing another heralded clutch contributor. Friend of the site M. Haubs from The Painted Area highlighted Kidd’s role in a post on Dallas winning close games in these playoffs that drew upon some of my research on close games in general and the Mavericks in particular.

My skepticism has never been about whether the final minutes of NBA games legitimately differ from the first 43 or so; it’s clear that teams adjust the way they run their offenses, meaning that the arguments used against the notion of clutch hitting in baseball aren’t relevant. Instead, the problem is that sample sizes are so small that it’s difficult to tell what is truly clutch performance apart from random chance. While his issues run larger than this, LeBron James sure looked a lot more clutch when his outside shots were falling against the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls than in the NBA Finals.

That’s what makes building around the ability to win close games, to the extent Dallas has actually done so, a dangerous proposition. The Mavericks’ regular-season success failed to translate to the playoffs the previous three years, during which Dallas won just once in a game decided by five points or fewer. (Tom Haberstroh has a better definition of clutch than the final score, but for our purposes this is surely illustrative.) When the Mavericks did advance, beating the hobbled San Antonio Spurs in 2009, their closest win was by nine points. The teams’ rematch last spring was even worse in this regard, as three of the games were decided by five points or fewer, but the Spurs won all three and the series.

Nowitzki’s ability to get his shot off, Terry’s irrational confidence, Kidd’s calm demeanor and Carlisle’s excellent Xs & Os are all reasons why Dallas winning close games is not luck. It’s just that these traits can’t be counted on to always show through amidst the randomness of late-game situations the way they have this year.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

June 8, 2011

Disagreeing with the First Lady

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 2:50 am

When Barack Obama was running for president in the fall of 2008, much was made of his fondness for pickup basketball. We were told that First Lady Michelle Obama even used the court to learn a little more about her then-boyfriend, enlisting brother Craig Robinson (who also, yes, happens to be the Oregon State head coach) to play against Obama and report back.

“When I got him out on the court in a pickup basketball game, I saw his character traits,” Robinson later told Inc. magazine. “He was honest, hard-working and team-oriented. He had high integrity.”

The implication here is clear: Basketball reveals aspects of our fundamental nature that are not as quickly apparent when we are more guarded in our normal day-to-day interaction. I suspect many of you have had similar experiences with coworkers or classmates. In addition to my experience playing staff hoops with the Seattle Storm front office, I remember how much we all learned when what were supposed to be casual games of dodgeball turned into fierce debates over the finer points of the rules.

There’s a limit to this process, however. Basketball and other sports are a shortcut for learning more about someone’s character, not the sum total of it. Just because someone happens to be a ballhog on the court does not automatically make them a bad person, or vice versa. I think there is a danger of forgetting this when we watch athletes we do not know in real life. When players like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook fall short, this is often interpreted as a failure of character rather than a basketball issue.

In part, this is a matter of neglecting sample size; we tend to overestimate the extent to which a single play or game reflects innate ability rather than chance, which is why players get labeled chokers on the basis of a handful of misses or losses. It also demonstrates that too much blame or credit is given to coaches and star players rather than allowing teams to win or lose as a whole. Mostly, though, it’s a case of confusing the symbol of basketball performance with the underlying characteristics it symbolizes.

This is nothing new, of course. Bill James was railing against similar things in his writing decades ago. What has changed is the fervor of the assessments. In the opinion age–and I firmly believe that’s what we live in, not the “information age”–there are so many takes offered that it has become necessary to shout loudly to be heard from the pack. The ability to count page views has also increased the value of a polarizing take as compared to a more thoughtful, nuanced analysis that doesn’t drive clickthroughs. Lastly, the rapid news cycle has sped up the process by which players are glorified and cast aside, often multiple times within the same playoff series.

James–LeBron, that is–had a bad game by his standards Wednesday. No doubt about that. But it was a failure in basketball terms, of missed shots, turnovers, getting beaten on defense and not making the right play to help his team rather than a lack of desire to win or compete. Let’s discuss it as such.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton. He suspects Mrs. Obama doesn’t actually disagree, but it made for a snappier title than “On Basketball and Character.”

June 7, 2011

Mark Jackson and Coaching Neophytes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:57 pm

ESPN’s Mark Jackson will switch sidelines next season after the Golden State Warriors hired him as their new head coach. Jackson takes over the Warriors with no coaching experience at any level, having gone directly into broadcasting after retiring in 2004. Naturally, this is not a typical career path. Friend of BP Nate Parham, writing on Golden State of Mind, found two direct comparisons: Doc Rivers, who worked for TNT before being hired by the Orlando Magic, and short-lived Dallas Mavericks coach Quinn Buckner.

In addition, Larry Bird had no coaching experience before taking over the Indiana Pacers. The examples of Rivers and Bird show that a stint on the bench is not a requirement for being effective as a head coach. Rivers won Coach of the Year in his first year on the sidelines, while Bird led the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals as a rookie coach and ultimately reached the NBA Finals in the last of his three seasons at the helm.

Bird’s success points to the importance of a veteran coaching staff for a new head coach to lean on as they are learning. Bird, a pioneer in terms of coaching coordinators, had current Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle in charge of Indiana’s offense and respected veteran assistant Dick Harter running the defense. That’s why the news later Monday evening that Michael Malone will join Jackson’s staff as lead assistant after interviewing for the top job was encouraging. Malone was a key assistant to Mike Brown in Cleveland before helping rookie head coach Monty Williams in New Orleans this season.

Jackson’s lengthy playing career and rapport with players around the league suggests he should be able to succeed in terms of managing players in the locker room. It will take more than that for him to win consistently, however. Rivers, long known as a players’ coach in something of a backhanded compliment, has become one of the NBA’s most skilled tacticians. He’s also demonstrated an openness to statistical analysis. By contrast, the philosophy Jackson has espoused on the airwaves for the last half-decade runs counter to much of what the APBRmetrics community holds to be true.

Perhaps Jackson was just being argumentative with Jeff Van Gundy all this time and really believes in a style of basketball with a stronger proven connection to winning. And maybe he will be able to lean on his coaching staff to make up for his own lack of experience on the bench. We can only evaluate this, or any hire, in likelihoods and not certainties. From that perspective, hiring Jackson appears to be an unnecessarily large risk with other, more proven candidates like Dwane Casey and Brian Shaw available.

June 6, 2011

A carousel that tilts

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 7:21 am

Here are some major-conference head coaches.

Tony Bennett
Jim Boeheim
Tom Crean
Johnny Dawkins
Jamie Dixon
Frank Haith
Leonard Hamilton
Tom Izzo
Frank Martin
Kevin O’Neill
Rick Stansbury
Buzz Williams
Roy Williams

A couple of them are already in the Hall of Fame, one will be very soon, and the rest, like any group of coaches, run the gamut.

Still, they all have one thing in common. They were all assistant coaches when they secured their first non-interim gigs as major-conference head coaches.

As you can tell from the brevity of the list, that’s an unusual career path. This group comprises just 18 percent of major-conference head coaches. Conversely 76 percent of today’s head coaches in the six “power” conferences were hired into their first such job when they were the head coach at a mid-major.

In other words athletic directors overwhelmingly prefer hiring a head coach over hiring an assistant coach. That’s to be expected, of course. It’s good to hire someone who’s currently doing the job you want them to do for you. But a preference this one-sided (76 percent to 18 percent), along with the fact that the pool of D-I assistant coaches will always be much larger than that of head coaches, suggests that assistants are being undervalued — maybe even severely so — as potential candidates in head-coaching searches.

To say that assistants are being undervalued as candidates doesn’t mean the best candidate will often be an assistant. After all, if you can hire a current head coach like Brad Stevens, then by all means hire Brad Stevens. The point, however, is that very often you can’t hire Brad Stevens. And by the time we see candidates who were removed from their previous head coaching positions being recycled into new positions, I think it’s fair to raise the hey wait a minute point. Head-coaching experience is a good thing to have, surely, but athletic directors may be making a fetish of it.

True, hiring an assistant will always require a certain amount courage on the part of the athletic director. Neither Frank Martin nor Buzz Williams triggered widespread euphoria when their hirings were announced at Kansas State and Marquette, respectively. (More like: “Who’s Frank Martin?” and “Who’s Buzz Williams?”) But particularly in situations where the departing head coach has left voluntarily, recent history suggests that excellent candidates may be available just down the hall. During the carousel’s latest spin this spring both Martin and Williams were prominently mentioned in connection with major-conference openings. Of course they were. They now have head-coaching experience.

BONUS fine print! The absence of Matt Painter from the list up at the top is intentional. It’s true that prior to becoming head coach at Purdue Painter served as Super Executive Senior Poobah Associate Head Coach under Gene Keady in 2004-05. But since Painter left his job as head coach at Southern Illinois only on the stated understanding that he’d become the Boilermakers’ head coach in one year’s time, he doesn’t really fit with guys who took jobs as assistants with no guarantees that a head-coaching gig would ensue.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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