Friday, July 22, 2005

Part II: Some ideas about the use of capologists and stats experts in NBA front offices

By Dan T. Rosenbaum

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


Anonymous PaulPressey25 said...

Dan, maybe you should write a blog entry about what statistics you feel are most relevant.

The moneyball analysis doesn't necessarily work, because in baseball, if you are a bad hitter, it doesn't matter how many plate appearances you probably are a bad hitter. In basketball though, bad players on bad teams are still able to post "stats" and fool a good team into trading for them, thinking the player is better by virtue of the stats.

I'd like to know what ones you think are critical. One stat that I like, that goes overlooked by fans is the free throws attempted per game by a player. I'm a Milwaukee fan, and I remember a few years back our big three (Robinson, Allen and Cassell) weren't having much success on the court.....but if you looked at the FTA's per game of Robinson and Ray Allen, it was miserable. None of those guys were driving and drawing fouls....all settling for outside jump shots. And when those weren't falling, the team lost....yet there were times in each players career that for some reason, they put their bodies on the line and would drive and draw fouls....their play was much more valuable to the team in those years.

7/24/2005 10:02 AM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

This would be a good topic for a future blog entry, but I do find that even after accounting for the points a player scores, free throw attempts positively affect their adjusted plus/minus rating. In other words, players that go to the line are worth more than the points they generate at the line.

I think this is picking up the value of getting other teams in foul trouble, getting in the bonus earlier, and perhaps the better rebounding opportunities that players who go to the line might generate. It may also be that these players that go to the line tend to be more physical on defense and that is why they tend to help their teams win more than other players. But the point is that players who get to the line are more valuable than just the points they generate at the free throw line.

7/24/2005 4:51 PM  
Anonymous PaulPressey25 said...

I think it would be a great topic for you to pick up on and apply your stats skills.

I only note that Ray Allen has had an up and down career (from really good SG to outstanding SG) And those periods he is outstanding (like last season) he takes it to the hole and draws fouls. If your shot isn't falling, or the D is really tight, if you can get to the line, you always have something to fall back on.

Thats the thing that in my mind has allowed a guy like Iverson to get Philly to the playoffs and have a some decent runs the last 4-5 years. Iverson's shooting percentage is usually very low (38 to 41%) and you would think a "chucker" like that on generally weak teams would win only 25-28 games per year......but look at his FTA's per game......he gets to the line 9 or 10 times a game....and it really helps his team win.

To me the FTA's is as important a stat as OBP has now become in baseball....but people don't quote it or accept it yet like OPB.

7/24/2005 8:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the same situation happened with vince carter in toronto the last 3 seasons, forget about the injuries, he would never drive, even though he would still average 20ppg, i watched all his games and you would be so frustrated by it, at the end of the game you dont even realize he had 20-25 points,

7/24/2005 9:41 PM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

But Vince Carter does something else that has kept his adjusted plus/minus high even as his effort seemed to wane. He scores a lot without turning the ball over. Turnovers and steals probably are the two most underrated stats. So Carter does not deserve to get the most All-Star votes, but he is not the bum many make him out to be.

7/25/2005 12:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

he averaged 3 turnovers per game in 03/04, thats pretty high for a sg, he averaged 4.8 assists, thats a ppretty bad assist to turnover ratio, he only average about 1 steal as well, he was pretty bad,

7/25/2005 9:18 AM  
Blogger KnickerBlogger said...

Especially when that computer program starts spitting out absurd results that are obviously wrong.

Hedo Turkoglu 2004 MVP?

7/25/2005 1:29 PM  
Anonymous PaulPressey25 said...

I think he's right in comparing Vince Carter and Ray Allen....I hadn't really thought of them as similar players because Ray has that TV smooth persona and always says the right thing....Vince seems to always say the wrong thing lately....

Both guys are capable of taking over a game when they want to, but for some reason at various times the last 4-5 years have chosen to either not engage in contact for fear of injury (or aggravating an injury)....or they have just been bored or angry at the coach...

Its too bad, because both guys seem to have the ability to play at a superstar gear when they want to.....and getting to the line is a big part of that IMHO.

7/25/2005 11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ray allen and vince carter did have similar games in the past seasons but i would've taken ray over vince back then, both were shooting jumpers but ray is known for his jumpers, while vince isnt, as a raptor fan i wouldve loved to have ray play here instead of vince,

7/26/2005 9:52 AM  
Blogger Mateo said...

Question Dan,

Why do teams care so much about the luxury tax? I understand not wanting to pay money for nothing in return, but with the amount of money they throw at players who don't really deserve the money I can't understand how an extra 5million per year (or whatever it adds up to) is that big of a deal to them.

7/27/2005 5:58 PM  
Blogger Dan Rosenbaum said...

The Blazers in 2002-03 paid $52 million in luxury taxes and reportedly had losses approaching $100 million. Even one of the richest people in the world - Paul Allen - pays attention when that much money is being thrown around.

And the luxury tax often causes those large contract amounts that you read about to really be twice as much (or even more in some cases). So a guy who is worth $60 million over 5 years may not be worth $120 million. That is why it matters.

7/27/2005 7:59 PM  
Blogger John S said...

Amen to the Blazers luxury tax...

Speaking of the Blazers, I think the next couple seasons are going to be an interesting time to evaluate a coach's impact on their team's performance. Larry Brown's move to NY, Nate McMillan's move to Portland (especially in light of your comments about stats/cap experts), and Phil's return to a much different Lakers organization.

I'm very interested in how player performances are affected by the system they play in. Does a coach (and his offensive and defensive schemes) bring out more in players, or is it really a case of the players who win the game? I haven't seen this kind of analysis done.

What's your opinion on the feasability of such an analysis and the value it might have? Coaches salaries are getting pretty competitive, too!

8/04/2005 3:17 PM  
Anonymous Julio Rojas said...

Dear Dan, I working on my PhD thesis with Prof. Jaime Gil Lafuente of Universidad de Barcelona (Spain) on a new method of player evaluation that will merge both worlds: Traditional Scouting and Statistical Scouting.

We want to use concepts of fuzzy logic to create some form of personel evaluation that merges statistical performance with personal values, tactical performance, physical and psicological qualities, economic variables (budget and marketing).

Using this methodology, the experts of the team can give weights to each of the variables used and the geeral manager of basketball operations chief officer can give weights to each of the main branches and experts.

I believe this methodology will help on easing the introduction of statistical values (APBRmetrics) inside the organization of a basketball team.

If you're interested I want to get in touch with you for help on wich stats and APBRmetrics can be usefull for the statistical side of my work.

Dr. Gil Lafuente edited this book whic I believe can ilustrate some of the work his group has been doing with sports and fuzzy logic.

Hope to keep checking your work.

Julio Rojas

P.D.: my email is

9/29/2006 5:27 AM  

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