Part II: Some ideas about the use of capologists and stats experts in NBA front offices
A key issue not addressed in Part I of this series is why teams don't invest more in capologists and stats experts.
For the most part, I think teams have come to peace with the importance of capologists and over the years understanding of the salary cap and luxury tax has increased significantly league-wide. I think teams would be better off with more intergration of the salary cap and basketball expertise, but teams are not doing too badly in this area. That bodes well for stats experts eventually finding a place in NBA front offices.
But for now it is another story. There are teams that have integrated statistical expertise in a serious, meaningful way, but for the majority of teams serious statistical analysis is treated like an ugly stepchild. It is hidden deep in the bowels of the organization and let out occasionally to do some chores.
I think the biggest roadblock to stats experts is the idea that stats experts are a substitute for basketball people rather than a complement. That mindset is probably an artifact of the Moneyball revolution in baseball where arrogance, condescension, and mistrust have often characterized the relationship between baseball and stats people. On the basketball side, we certainly have had some of the same problems, but I think many of the key ambassadors from the stats side have a lot of respect for what basketball people know about the game and how critical that is in understanding the stats. Likewise, there are a great number of basketball people who respect what stats experts do.
However, because of the interactions between players and importance of roles, statistical evidence is unlikely to be as clear-cut in basketball as it is baseball. With arguments that are more subtle and evidence that is more tenuous, it is difficult for stats experts to be convincing to a skeptical audience of basketball people with a limited understanding of the nature of statistical evidence.
Complicating this delicate interplay, some stats experts have made grandiose claims about their methodologies. These may be good marketing strategies, but when these grandiose claims (often made without any acknowledgment of the uncertainty in all statistical evidence) turn out to be false, it damages the credibility of the entire stats community. It is not the mistakes that rub basketball people the wrong way (everyone makes mistakes), it the air of superiority with which these claims are made. Basketball people have paid their dues and learned the game through countless hours playing and watching basketball, and so it has to be grating to hear someone tell them that their computer program makes them obsolete. Especially when that computer program starts spitting out absurd results that are obviously wrong.
This makes it hard for basketball people to see the value of serious stats work, especially when they repeatedly get free offers from academics or retired millionaires from Microsoft to do work for them for free. In such an environment all stats people look the same, so it seems ludicrous to invest time and money into any one expert. But as I argued in Part I, it is that kind of investment that will result in stats experts helping teams.
But this should not all be put on the teams. We in the basketball stats community need to do a better job communicating. We need to come up with convincing arguments for why we are relevant, why we are not a threat to basketball people, and how we can help basketball people be better at what they do. It will take time, but eventually I think we can do this.
Last updated: 9:00 PM, July 22, 2005