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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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