New age statistics difficult for old school coaches to believe

2012-11-14T19:00:00Z New age statistics difficult for old school coaches to believeMcClatchy Tribune News Service Herald-Review.com
November 14, 2012 7:00 pm  • 

Nate Silver became a political rock star this week when he correctly projected the outcome of the presidential election in all 50 states. It injected statistics and data analysis into discussions rarely seen before.

That applies to basketball, too, which has been behind Major League baseball in accepting advanced statistics. Stats like John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (or PER for short) have been around for about a decade now, but baseball has been years ahead of the NBA in terms of advanced metrics and applying math to sport.

That is changing, however, in front offices across the country including places like Houston, Boston and Cleveland. Perhaps no general manager in the NBA relies on advanced statistics more than the Houston Rockets' Daryl Morey, who is now turning to Wall Street to fill openings in his basketball operations department.

Already the chair of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which was created to promote analytics in sports, Morey told Bloomberg News recently he has received more than 1,100 resumes for openings as an analyst and an intern. About 20 percent of those are from people in finance.

"Wall Street folks are great at forecasting, at using objective evidence in decision making," Morey told Bloomberg. "And they're often overworked and miserable. The smart ones figure out it might not be worth it."

Morey is offering a salary of between $25,000 and $70,000, dependant on the candidate's experience, so certainly it will be a substantial pay cut compared to the most successful Wall Street salaries.

Cavs General Manager Chris Grant is also driven by statistics, just not to the length Morey goes. The Cavs' front office has statistics for seemingly everything, from players drafted in the top five becoming All-Stars to statistics behind teams that draft and develop their own stars as opposed to teams who try to win through free agency.

They have reams and reams of statistics on the draft, which is how they discovered their selection of Kyrie Irving made history - no other player had ever been drafted No. 1 overall in any sport after playing so little (303 minutes) the previous season.

As for metrics such as Hollinger's PER, which deduces a player's overall contribution into one quantifiable number, or the trending interest in Bayes' Theory, those combine to create just one aspect the organization uses in evaluating players.

Another part of the formula is the eyes and guts test. That's what older coaches and scouts around the league tend to gravitate toward - the information they know and can see with their own eyes.

"I'm still so old school, I don't put a whole lot of stock into it," Cavs coach Byron Scott said. "I really like what I see on the basketball court."

When he coached in New Orleans, Scott was infuriated when General Manager Jeff Bower traded away his starting shooting guard, Rasual Butler, for a second-round pick and replaced him with Morris Peterson. When Scott asked for an explanation, he was told the two players had similar numbers.

"Well Peterson can't play," Scott told Bower, "and Butler can."

"Sometimes you look at those numbers with a grain of salt," Scott said recently. "I understand there are stat people, but I try to go by what I see."

He's not alone. Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins, who has spent four decades in the NBA as a player and coach, despises new age statistics.

"If I did that, I'd blow my brains out," Collins told reporters before the season started, when asked if he reads advanced stats. "There's 20-page printouts after every game - I would kill myself."

Collins said his analytics are his head and his gut.

To his credit, there are some statistics Scott reviews beyond turnovers and shooting percentages. He studies how some players are better shooters from the corner than they are the wing, how some guys prefer the right side of the basket to the left side. The idea is to obviously force opponents to the spots where they're least comfortable, while helping his own players in areas where they struggle.

"It could be something as simple as his footwork," Scott said." Maybe he feels more comfortable planting on his left foot than his right, so you want to get him comfortable on both sides."

Scott likes to break down shots into three categories: those around the paint area, shots from around 15 to 18 feet and finally 3-pointers. Those numbers are more beneficial to him than strictly field-goal percentage and shot attempts.

As for numbers like PER, true shooting percentage or even plus/minus differentials? Forget it.

There is another theory with which some teams are now tinkering. Bayes' Theory was created by Thomas Bayes, an 18th century English mathematician and Presbyterian minister. It has been tweaked over the years and projects the probability of certain events happening given only a limited amount of known data, making its usefulness to pro teams fairly obvious.

Teams are wondering if Bayes' Theory can help predict how certain players will perform in the NBA, which certainly could help the draft process and take some of the guessing out of player projections.

All of it remains a work in progress. Before he was correctly predicting presidential elections, Silver developed PECOTA - Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. It is a statistical system that projects the future performance of hitters and pitchers in baseball and was a breakthrough in the field of advanced statistics and sports. He hasn't taken a crack at anything in the NBA, however if he's looking to get back into sports, Morey would likely hire him.

The Rockets are advertising only two positions, but Morey told Bloomberg he'd hire more if there were more than two candidates that seemed worthy. Morey is looking for people who have already demonstrated a passion for sports analytics.

"It could be a blog, or maybe they're using their free time to make themselves smarter in sports," Morey said. "Combine that with success on Wall Street and you've got a great candidate."

Copyright 2015 Herald-Review.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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