<
>

Old school vs. new school?

10/29/2010

The other day, I noted the almost perfect split in preseason predictions regarding this year's NBA champion among a panel of 25 experts at ESPN.com. 12 picked the Lakers, 12 went with Miami, and one lone outlier cast his lot with Boston. What caught my eye was how each of the reporters assigned to a local team predicted a title for the team they cover (including the scribe who chose the Celtics). I wasn't part of the panel, but wouldn't have bucked the trend, since I'm on record with the Lakers this season. What some might call homerism I attribute to familiarity: It's easy to know how good a team is when you cover them day in, day out.

There may, though, be another factor at work. Writes C.A. Clark at Silver Screen and Roll:

"...There may not be any bloodshed, but there are plenty of battles being waged over the usefulness of advanced stats. One such battle has come to the fore, perhaps almost by accident: the question of whether the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat will win the NBA championship. Miami is the paper tiger (it is as yet unknown whether they are also a real tiger), a team made up of such overwhelming statistical parts that their power cannot be ignored by the statistically inclined. Statistical models aren't as fond of the Lakers.They view the Lakers as a good team, to be sure, but they focus on certain things about the Lakers (their age, their somewhat underwhelming point differential last year) as evidence that they might not be championship-quality this season. But, the Lakers have two straight championships backing up their case, and a team chock full of all the qualities that stats non-believers will point to as not showing up in a box score. Perhaps most important to the argument is the nuance of familiarity. The old guard think the Lakers have it and the Heat do not. Familiarity doesn't fit into a statistical model, so, while the new guard isn't ignorant of familiarity as a factor, they are far more dismissive of its importance. This is hardly the first battle of the statistical war. However, unlike most of the battles waged before, this one has the possibility of being a real difference maker, either speeding up or slowing down the progress of the revolution..."

The division, Clark notes, is pretty clear. Statistically oriented pundits, whether connected to ESPN.com's experts panel or numbers heavy sites like Basketball Prospectus, tend to favor Miami. "Old schoolers" go with L.A.

And maybe those in-between?

I don't consider myself numbers averse, but admittedly don't spend a lot of time reading computer forecasts of a season, and more importantly, don't begin to understand the models off of which those forecasts are created. Likely I'm missing something, but it seems there are too many variables, from injury to chemistry to the randomness of good or bad timing to put too much faith in predictive models. For me, advanced stats do a great job in bolstering analysis, getting far deeper into questions of effectiveness (whether regarding players or teams) not always revealed in traditional box score numbers, and cutting through narratives about teams often slow to die.

My reasons for picking the Lakers are pretty simple. They were the best team last year, and they're better now. I think they can edge out Boston again, and like the way they match up with Miami, at least on paper (basically the only place the Heat exist, this early in the season).

Clark's larger point, though, is interesting, and definitely something I didn't notice.