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November 2, 2012, 05:05 PM ET
Making the Point About Projections and Predictions

by Kevin Pelton

In the few weeks since Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 (and the results of the SCHOENE Projection System) were released to the world, I’ve hammered home the difference between projections and predictions quite a bit, but I’m going to do so again because I think it’s an important distinction.

The other day on TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz discussed the popularity of the Denver Nuggets in a back-and-forth with Beckley Mason.

Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?

I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.

Now, I don’t think Kevin was specifically referencing the optimistic statistical projections for the Nuggets (ours and John Hollinger’s), but having the two points so close together reinforces the danger in conflating “the numbers” and our opinions based on them. I’d hate to have anyone think that the reason SCHOENE puts Denver atop the West has anything to do with liking the idea of an elite starless team.

As Kevin has pointed out via Nate Silver’s new book The Signal and the Noise, the numbers never speak for themselves. And it would be disingenuous for me to argue that SCHOENE or any other projection system is completely objective. There are subjective assessments of how basketball works inherently built into the system. At the same time, the projection for the Nuggets–or any other team–has nothing to do with what I think of their players, the team or the narrative. The projections are individually compiled in an unbiased manner, and I do think it’s important for readers to trust that what they see from SCHOENE is strictly where the numbers lead, and if that occasionally leads to some LOLs it’s a small price to pay.

Naturally, this reflects the ongoing discussion about Silver’s more important projections for what’s going to happen next Tuesday. It’s perfectly fair to criticize his method, if you understand it. But simply demeaning Silver (who, it’s worth noting, hired the Basketball Prospectus staff in his old baseball life) because he’s an admitted liberal who happens to have the Democratic candidate more likely to win is silly and demeaning to his work. And I happen to think that’s easier to explain when the numbers and the opinions are explicitly kept separate.

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

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