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October 28, 2011

College Hoops Returns with an Upset

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:17 am

The 2011-12 college basketball season hasn’t even started yet, and already we have an entry for the year’s biggest upset. In an early exhibition game Thursday night, Division II Seattle Pacific University traveled to Tucson and stunned the Arizona Wildcats by a 69-68 final.

When I settled in to watch the game, it was strictly to scout Arizona’s new-look lineup. Quickly, SPU served notice that this wouldn’t be your usual exhibition blowout. Using a series of three-pointers from Jobi Wall and potent backdoor cuts, the Falcons took an early lead. The expected Wildcat run before halftime never came, and SPU carried an improbable 37-29 advantage to the break.

Arizona finally turned up the pressure after falling behind by double digits. A 12-2 run gave the Wildcats their first lead since the early minutes and got the McKale Center on its feet. Yet SPU refused to fold, calmly beating pressure and working the ball in to 7-footer Andy Poling (a Gonzaga transfer) for scores in the paint. Down three in the closing seconds, Arizona used a layup by freshman Nick Johnson to get within one, then forced a steal when the Falcons tried to run out the clock rather than taking their chances at the line. As time ran out, Johnson took a hurried, contested three-pointer from the top of the key that came up well short and SPU had the upset.

It would be difficult to overstate how unlikely this result was. Seattle Pacific actually beat a pair of Division I teams on the road in exhibitions last year, including Nevada, but those weren’t exactly ranked opponents. Meanwhile, the last time the Wildcats lost an exhibition game at home, Ronald Reagan was in office. In his first term. (It was 1983, against Athletes in Action.)

What does this loss mean for Arizona’s season? Not much. You’ll recall the panic when Syracuse lost to Le Moyne in an exhibition two years ago. The Orange responded by winning their first 13 games that counted, going 28-3 in the regular season, and advancing to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats played a lot like a team with four freshman in their rotation, while veterans like senior guard Kyle Fogg appeared to be going through the motions.

Still, Arizona should be concerned about replacing Derrick Williams in the middle. None of Sean Miller‘s three options–slow-footed junior Kyryl Natyazhko and raw freshmen Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson–looked like the answer against SPU. Johnson fouled out in 14 minutes and the three players combined for just two rebounds. The Falcons rebounded 43 percent of their own misses and made 61.8 percent of their two-point attempts. And while Poling has D-I size, what happens when the Wildcats face UCLA’s frontcourt? Unless Arizona can figure out how to control the paint, preseason picks that have them atop the Pac-12 are overly optimistic.

October 25, 2011

Moneyball’s NBA Legacy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 9:20 pm

One side benefit to being unexpectedly free in late October was the ability to finally get out to see Moneyball in the theater, about a month after its release. The movie was an entertaining way to spend two hours, if not as faithful to the historical record as I’d prefer, more in terms of thoughts and opinions than actual facts. (Something that was noticeable was how many of author Michael Lewis‘ turns of phrase, like his comparison of the Oakland A’s front office to card counters in a casino, ended up in the mouths of characters who never actually said them.)

What struck me most about Moneyball, though, was how dated it felt. As our former editor Joe Sheehan wrote on SI.com, Moneyball is very much a period piece, and that period seems a lot more than nine years in the rear-view mirror: “The battles that Michael Lewis’ book reported upon, such as selling the value of on-base percentage, raising up performance analysis to the same level as skills analysis in player evaluation and applying business principles and practices to the administration of a baseball team, are long over.”

The same process took a bit longer in the NBA, but Moneyball‘s impact was certainly felt. New Cubs president Theo Epstein did a nice job of explaining why in a recent Sports Illustrated piece: “The book hit The New York Times best-seller list. People who own baseball teams read The New York Times best-seller list. So they started asking questions about the processes their front offices were using, and it changed things really quickly.”

Replace “baseball teams” with “NBA teams” and Epstein’s quote works just as well. Fortunately, Moneyball the book came out just as APBRmetrics was getting ready for its close-up. John Hollinger had already begun writing the first Pro Basketball Prospectus series and Dean Oliver published his opus, Basketball on Paper, months later. By the fall of 2004, Oliver had joined the Seattle SuperSonics as the first full-time consultant and the comparison held enough value that I was able to write a series called “The Sonics Play Moneyball for the team website.

By now, Moneyball‘s critics have found themselves on the wrong side of history. Virtually every baseball team touts the value of statistical analysis, at least publicly. While I don’t know that we’ll ever reach that point in basketball because the game is so much more difficult to quantify, as noted in my last Unfiltered piece, the ranks of statistically inclined teams continue to swell. Franchise sales have had a tendency to accelerate this process. That was the case in Detroit and Golden State, and possibly again with the Philadelphia 76ers. Former player agent and Kings staffer Jason Levien, part of the Sixers’ new ownership group, has shown an interest in analytics in the past.

Of course, the legacy of Moneyball is not uniformly positive. The book’s narrative ignited a false debate forcing a choice between scouting and statistical analysis, two techniques that are not mutually exclusive. The relationship between scouts and analysts in the NBA has never been quite so frosty, but old-guard scouts who read the book (or even heard about it second-hand) can be forgiven for being wary of the newcomers at first. No wonder Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his right-hand man, Sam Hinkie, worried in a column for Grantland about the impact of Moneyball the movie’s depiction of crusty old scouts and manager Art Howe, which were more stereotypical and negative than the book.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if Lewis never devoted his talent to writing about statistical analysis in baseball. Certainly Brad Pitt never would have played Beane on the silver screen, but the processes were already in motion to move analytics toward the mainstream in both baseball and basketball. Would we still be waiting for that to happen? Would basketball owners never have thought to learn from baseball’s progress? Would integration have been less contentious?

Thankfully, we’ll never know.

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

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