Italians beat the hell out of each other to win a white cow and call it “Historical Football.”
Discussions of statistics in sports have a tendency to take on the qualities of a religious debate. They are couched in a language of true believers and the faithless, with little ground left for the practical few who are successfully integrating quantitative methods into their organizations. A recent Jonah Lehrer article in Grantland does an excellent job of illustrating the purposefully controversial and exaggerated writing that surrounds the topic (and everything associated with Bill Simmons). The article has a clear preference for argument over information, which would be forgivable — it is entertainment after all — if it wasn’t for the core lack of understanding Lehrer shows about the use of quantitative analysis and its place in the NBA.
The article uses the purchase of a new car as an analogy for basketball decision making, saying that you can’t just snap up a car based on its stats, specifically horsepower and miles per gallon. I agree (as anyone would), but it is a terrible analogy for the argument Lehrer is trying to make. The reason you should not rely on horsepower or MPG when choosing a car is that these numbers are not the best, or even very good, evaluative measures. They are decoy numbers pushed on those with a shallow understanding of cars. Flashy numbers that falsely claim to have significant descriptive power. To imply that using quantitative analysis is in anyway similar to purchasing a car based on these numbers ignores not only current NBA practices, but the very purpose of statistics.
The increase of quantitative analysis in the NBA is teaching coaches, GMs, and owners not to rely on the flashy stats. The goal of quantitative analysts in the NBA is to move away from inefficient descriptors and find the measurements that can actually help to accurately understand player quality and predict game outcomes. The quants are leveraging their available information methodically and trying to make improvements to team evaluations.
There is nothing radical about the formalization of player evaluation or sports teams leveraging information using formal methods — it is only the introduction of advanced math that has sportswriters up in arms. Teams have long had formal systems in place that help scouts identify important player characteristics and standardized methods for evaluating these characteristics in different players. But throw in something that looks like this:
and suddenly you’re obscuring the heart of the game. Sportswriters’ reactions to quantitative analysis has generally been a combination of fear of the unknown, macho posturing (“those nerds are missing the point!”), and premeditated controversy creation.
Not to say there aren’t terrible statistics and statisticians in the league, there are many. Quantitative analysis is a tool, and like other tools it’s all in how you use it. There is no “guaranteed success equation,” and bad GMs and coaches will make bad decisions with quantitative analysis. Thing is, they would make bad decisions without it. Several good GMs use quantitative analysis as a portion of their research process. They acknowledge the flaws in the methods, they consider the context, they test their results against their judgment and a multitude of qualitative evidence. Stats are not a shortcut, you still have to do the rest of your homework, but they are one more source of information to aid decision-making.
Getting back to the article’s substance, Lehrer rests his case on Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle starting J.J. Barea despite his low scoring, negative plus-minus, and poor shooting. “Although Barea’s statistics still look pretty ordinary — his scoring average fell in the Finals despite the fact that he started — the Mavs have declared that re-signing him is a priority. Because it doesn’t matter what the numbers say. Barea won games.”
In an article about the downsides of advanced quantitative analysis, Lehrer cites some of the shallowest and most inconsequential of statistics. The fact is that the Mavericks are one of the most quantitatively-aware teams in the league. They are able to look beyond Barea’s points per game or his raw plus-minus because of their use of stats — not in spite of it. Carlisle received constant analyses from the only bench quant in the league that showed the effectiveness of different player combinations. He verified these reports by watching tape, thinking about his lineups in the context of his long coaching and playing experience, and talking with his assistant coaches. And then he made some great decisions. Mark Cuban recently confirmed as much to Deadspin. To call this a triumph of quantitative analysis would require heavy assumptions, but to call it a case where quantitative methods were unable to explain the “inherent mystery of athletic talent” is ridiculous.
The author hits a couple more points that drive home his lack of real familiarity with advanced statistics. For reasons I cannot understand, Lehrer implies that the quant community is of the opinion that Nenad Krstic is an acceptable replacement for Kendrick Perkins. Krstic looks horrible on advanced stat sheets while Perkins is a effective scorer who boxes out, sets great screens, and is a force on defense (all things that have been quantified to some level). The fact that Perkins is a better player and a better fit for the Celtics is very easily shown through the stats if you look past points per game.
Lehrer then writes, “For reasons that remain mysterious, some teammates make each other much better and some backup point guards really piss off Ron Artest. These are the qualities that often determine wins and losses, and yet they can’t be found on the back of a trading card or translated into a short list of clever equations.”
Of course the most useful statistics are not on the back of trading cards. The fact is that quantitative analysis can and does measure the phenomena Lehrer cites. Quantitative analysis of lineup and player combination efficiencies are hugely useful and the effectiveness of particular defensive matchups is likewise readily quantifiable and being used to help smart teams win games.
In the end, the post’s subtitle says it all. “Sabermetrics can help teams identify hidden talent and turn regular sports fans into math nerds. But can the numbers lie?” No, numbers cannot lie. They can be misread, they can be taken out of context, they can be overvalued, but they will not lie. That’s not how math works. It isn’t a silver bullet or an algorithm that gives a single well-defined answer. It is not playing fantasy basketball. It is not comparing the backs of trading cards. It is thinking about basketball in the most formalized way possible in an effort to remove traditional biases and provide an alternative perspective on players and the game. It is nothing to hate on, it is never going to dominate sports, but it might force some journalists to take a math class.
ESPN Headline: Sheen admits steroid use during ‘Major League’
While this is clearly the most inconsequential news item ever, it’s our best excuse to prove to you we’re human by dedicating our bandwidth to Charlie Sheen. It’s also good journalistic practice to point out any instance when a real news headline could easily be an Onion headline.
If you’ve just tuned in, our debate is currently centered around the following question: Why are there not more female referees, coaches or general managers in the NBA?
And relatedly: Is it legit to criticize a higher-ed diversity institution’s decision to award the league an “A” rating?
Paolo, the “missing truths” that you point out are largely irrelevant, or only serve to illustrate the depth of the problem. I’ll start with your mention of men’s superior athletic capabilities. This may indeed be a reality, but by no means does it follow that men thus make better cops and soldiers. Brute strength may contribute to success in such positions, but there are other, equally important attributes: intelligence, strategic thinking, quick wits, a critical eye are a few that come to mind. It should go without saying that this is true of referees, coaches and general managers as well (these positions actually require little-to-no athleticism, but a lot of analytic and communicative skills).
There’s a lot of literature on how men and women think differently, by way of both genetics and sociology (see, for instance, the debate over women’s jurisprudence). Sports teams spend enormous amounts of energy exploring tiny potential competitive advantages. To the extent that we can agree that women bring different skills to the table, it seems obvious that involving them in a team’s strategic thinking stands to be an advantage. It seems equally obvious that a woman is bound to be the most qualified person for positions that require such diverse skill sets at least some of the time.
A quick digression: It’s worth exploring more carefully how we, as a society, create narratives about what makes for a competitive advantage, and how gender plays into that. This mainstream notion of female competitive inferiority isn’t limited to athleticism — it also figures prominently in how we think about female politicians (Hillary comes to mind: will she make the tough decisions when it counts? Can she stand up to the mockery of sexist foreign officials?), stock brokers, lawyers…Of course, these narratives also influence women’s career decisions. I’ll keep this can of worms closed for now.
Returning to the substance of your response: I’m equally put off by the experience argument, and I think a single example is suffice to counter it: Nancy Lieberman is a proven champion at every level of hoops, and she’s played at high levels with men. Stan Van Gundy, on the other hand, played a little ball in college. Yet it’s still seen as roof-shattering progress when Lieberman manages to earn the respect of a couple D-Leagers. I’m not at all sold that the NBA hires, as you posit, “based on quality alone.”
To return to your first point: Yes, Christian white males generally dominate positions of power. Of course this isn’t just an NBA issue. My problem here is that a higher-ed institution tasked with advocating diversity is handing out an “A” to a league that is still a boys’ club. In theory, this grade should have some weight, signifying that this organization is an exemplar in a fucked-up world; that we’ve achieved our goals of equality. This is not the case. Not even close. It’s bullshit, and I insist on holding both academia and professional sports to a higher standard.
In response to Kerem’s last post, NBA Receives “A” for Diversity. Bullshit., I pose the necessary counterpoint: NBA Receives “A” for Diversity. Not Bullshit: A Counterpoint.
“Better than the other major leagues does not mean the job is done.
Asked why there have been no other female referees hired since 1997, Palmer once joked, “I guess I set the bar pretty high.”
We really could set it a lot higher.”
I get it. You think there should be more women (and people of color) within the NBA.
While I acknowledge that this issue is clearly twofold - one of gender and one of race - let me focus on the former, especially since your lens is the harshest when it comes to the lack of females in the NBA.
But why should there be more females in the NBA? Why is it so wrong that they are relatively absent? Your thesis hinges on gender equality being a moral ideal, that women simply should be in the NBA. But several other huge truths are missing from this perspective.
PART I: Hardly Any Field Has a Proportionate Number of Females
[caption id=”attachment_851” align=”alignright” width=”326” caption=”One female ref. Zero sexy refs.”][/caption]
One female referee. Zero female coaches.
In theory, doesn’t that just seem so wrong? Shouldn’t our country have a professional league that matches the demographics of its population? Shouldn’t our country have an anything that resembles its population?
But really, what does?
You will find gross statistic anomalies in the demographics of nearly any career field. 89 out of 541 members (16%) of Congress are women. 41 members are black (8%). 8 members are Asian or Pacific Islander (.01%). And just for fun, just one (out of 541!) member identifies as an Atheist (.002%). (God bless you, Pete Stark.) Sorry to depress you, but these numbers trend similarly across an expanse of career fields. Christian white males disproportionately dominate positions of power.
This lack of ladies thing isn’t an NBA issue. This isn’t a sports issue. This is a nationwide issue that is so much bigger than there being one female ref in a male-dominated sport.
Your displeasure with the gender gap in the NBA takes place within the larger cultural vacuum of the gender gap in the United States, and if I could posit one thing: it seems like you are just disappointed with the whole thing. And you’re projecting that disappointment onto the lowly sports organization that you dearly love.
But if there’s any career field whose gender inequity you should be criticizing, please don’t let it be professional basketball…
PART II: Why Aren’t There Any Female Coaches in a Male Sport?
Zero female NBA players.
Perhaps necessarily so, I introduce this painfully obvious statistic. The genetic differences between men and women have been chronicled for years. Simply put, males are athletically superior to females. There are reasons why men’s and women’s sports leagues exist distinctly from one another. Those reasons have nothing to do with politics, sexism, bias, or discrimination - it’s all and only about competition.
Sports (if I can ever really define it) is no more than a set of rules created to define the winner and loser of an athletic competition. It’s not a culture. It’s not an art. It’s not a philosophy. As much as I want it to be all of these things, it’s, at heart, an athletic competition - a gateway for people to achieve a sense of victory using their physical capabilities.
Once physical capabilities are added as a variable into any field of work, the number of females significantly decreases. Construction workers, cops, firefighters, auto mechanics, lumberjacks, soldiers. I don’t need statistics to tell you that males comprise at least 75% of these professions, and probably a lot more. With words like policemen, firemen, foreman, garbageman, and handyman lacking non-awkward female equivalents, it’s not wrong to attribute this linguistic phenomenon to the dearth of lady electricians and garbage collectors.
We’re lucky that words like baseballmen and hockeymen haven’t caught on, but it’s not hard to imagine a world where those designations would be commonplace. The difference in physical strength between the male and the female body has impacted the greater part of our humanity - from our days as hunter-gatherers, to the present day legislation of Title IX and the WNBA. Women and men are separated at birth, by our bodies alone, and we make every effort to meet again. Sex jokes aside, the reality is that - despite our best efforts - it is impossible to regain that equity on the football field and basketball court, where such cruel determiners like height and 40 times seal our fates.
[caption id=”” align=”alignright” width=”339” caption=”Practice?”][/caption]
As far as the scarcity of female referees, coaches, and general managers - I would explain this by simply referring to the lack of female NBA players. When you haven’t played the game, it’s increasingly more challenging to call the game, coach the game, and know the game. I tend to think of “NBA Basketball Player” as an entry-level position, one that breeds familiarity and understanding to excel at the top-level jobs.
It’s easy to look at the number of males coaches in the WNBA - 6 out of 12 teams are coached by a male - and think that kind of equality should translate to the NBA. However, even former WNBA President Val Ackerman concedes that coaches are hired based on merit, much of which comes from pro experience:
“It has always been to get the best people for the job. I think more people with NBA backgrounds are being considered than in the early years. Before, teams were looking for coaches with women’s basketball backgrounds. That led you to college. Now teams are looking for pro backgrounds and it has been a positive to have the infusion of experience from the NBA.”
NBA coaching experience, of course, stems directly from NBA playing experience…
If you’re going to pick any career field to criticize for gender discrimination (and there are a ton), professional basketball should be at the bottom of your list. If anything, this sport is doing something others rarely do - hire based on quality alone.
The NBA Draft starts now.
There are more than enough mock drafts, draft news, and rumors to go around elsewhere online. Our writers tonight will be busy watching, not writing. Our blog being short on hype, we are fortunate that ESPN has done most of the work for us, with this classy little montage:
Okay, let’s just start with what we’ve all been thinking: Venus’ romper (duh). Is it worth talking about?
Wimbledon 2011: Venus Williams’ Romper Outfit Making Headlines, Again
SB Nation // Holly Anderson
We need to talk about this romper thing. Forgive me, but nobody looks good in a romper. Nobody. There is a reason they are the sartorial stuff of toddlers, and this is not something grown people should seek to emulate.
Or is it misguided to want to? (dated, yes, but it’s relevant… again)
Are Venus Williams’ “Risque and Revealing” Outfits Fair Game?
Feministing // Lori
Attention: sportscasters John McEnroe and Dick Enberg, mainstream media outlets like the Huffington Post, non-mainstream media outlets, internet commentors, sports aficionados, coercive nazi-stylistas, Nsenga Burton, and all you other haters out there!!!!
Stop STOP Stop commenting excessively on the outfit choices of Venus Williams, one of the most talented professional athletes of all time.
And speaking of Wimbledon…
Wimbledon Likes Their Female Tennis Players Hot and Grunt-Free
Feministing // Lori
Really, Wimbledon, really? You couldn’t think of a better way to honor the top female tennis athletes in the world than to subject them to a glorified “hot or not” contest?
Sugar Ray Leonard just published his autobiography, with some really great stories, and some really ground-breaking confessions, but he’s been facing criticism for making them as a publicity stunt, and a hook for his book.
In Book, Sugar Ray Leonard Says Coach Sexually Abused Him
New York Times // Harvey Araton
…when he first decided to discuss the incident in the book, which is written with Michael Arkush, he offered a version in which the abuser stopped before there was actual contact.
“That was painful enough,” Leonard writes. “But last year, after watching the actor Todd Bridges bare his soul on Oprah’s show about how he was sexually abused as a kid, I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt.”
Understanding Vancouver’s ‘Hockey Riot’
Edge of Sports // Dave Zirin
The fans on the whole were actually in fine form after the game. They gave Conn Smythe winner, Bruin goalie Tim Thomas, a standing ovation and also rose and cheered for every Bruin from Vancouver British Columbia. Of the millions of Canuck supporters, this was a miniscule mob.
In the spirit of the NBA Draft…
What’s Your Deal? with Bismack Biyombo
Grantland // Davy Rothbart
Suddenly a lot of people want to know something about me. I go back home and sit down with my parents, and Igor calls me and gives to me some news. He says people are talking about me and NBA teams are interested in me for the draft. I was like, “WOW! That’s really tight!” Yeah, I was really surprised. And it’s been fun. All of these guys I’ve been looking up to, I’ll be playing against them now.
And because LeBron is still news…
NBA Finals Recap, as Told by LeBron James’ Facial Expressions
The Atlantic // Eleanor Barkhorn
The clearest way to see the arc of the series is to watch how Heat superstar LeBron James’s facial expressions evolved from start to finish. He went into the Finals full of confidence and swagger, and ended the series looking chastened and distressed.
The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport recently awarded the NBA with an “A” rating in racial and gender diversity.
The Boston Globe reports, “Thirty-six percent of the professional positions in the league office are held by people of color, while women held 42 percent of the professional positions. Thirty-three percent of the coaches and 26 percent of the GMs are people of color. All these categories are higher than in any other men’s professional league.”
Sorry to state what should be obvious, but that’s not nearly good enough.
There are eight general managers of color. One black owner (Michael Jordan). And zero female coaches.
In fact, the league’s visible female figures consist of (1) Jeannie Buss: daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, famous for posing for Playboy and being more qualified than her brother, Jimmy, who will likely assume control of the team; and (2) Violet Palmer, a.k.a. “Queenie”: the NBA’s sole female referee.
I find it offensive that we’re talking about 30-40 percent numbers in this day and age, much less applauding them. Not to mention that women are still paid lackluster wages to dance in swimsuits during timeouts (Laker girls made $85 a game as of 2000).
Better than the other major leagues does not mean the job is done.
Asked why there have been no other female referees hired since 1997, Palmer once joked, “I guess I set the bar pretty high.”
We really could set it a lot higher.
(UPDATE: Rants turning into dialog = always a good thing. H.I.D.I.A. co-founder Paolo responds here, and I continue the conversation her)
Lockout II: In NBA, the Effects are Instant
Howard Beck // New York Times
They are holding meetings, swapping proposals, rhetoric and suspicious glances, and pursuing a labor deal that could stabilize the N.B.A. and avert a costly lockout. But the lockout, in so many ways, is already in effect.
There will be no N.B.A. summer league in July. There will be no overseas games in October.
The coming draft will be missing at least 10 top prospects. Scouts and trainers are being laid off. Merchandising orders are on hold.
Contingency plans are being made. Uncertainty reigns.