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Life on Paper

3/6/2010

The proliferation of advanced statistics in basketball has taught us that many of the assumptions we have about the game are verifiable. Which player combinations are most effective on the floor together? Does the presence of a prolific rebounder in a 5-man unit take away rebounds from his teammates? Does it always pay to trap the ball handler on a pick-and-roll?

All very good questions, which can be answered with various degrees of confidence. With the right data set, website and technology, you might be able to glean some insight without even leaving your desk!

Knowing this information exists has changed how I view basketball, in ways large and small. Things we used to guess about we now get to know. Which is surprising, and incredible.

But even more surprising, is that the urge to quantify things is starting to affect my daily life.

I’ve been playing a lot of tennis over the past year, almost exclusively against a good friend. The two of us play at the same level, though we have vastly different games. I like to hang out at the baseline and pepper my strokes with slice. My friend is a bigger, more athletic dude with DeJuan Blair-like reach at the net. I like an orderly point, while he thrives in chaos. The combination of my slice and his affinity for the volley game means that a good number of our competitive points come with him in attack mode at the net and me on the base line playing defense. In these situations, I can do one of two things:

  • Lob the ball over his head

  • Fire a low passing shot

All things being equal -- position, location, velocity of his approach shot -- I’m not entirely sure which of these two options gives me a better chance of winning the point.

That drives me crazy.

And the reason it drives me crazy is that I know a correct answer exists. Finding it would require a diligent collection of data, a close look at every point where I’m on the baseline and my friend is at the net. A more refined examination could probably tell me where I should place my passing shot and under what circumstances I should go for a lob. Or maybe the evidence would tell me that I don’t stick enough of those lobs on the baseline to warrant trying it at all. I suppose I could hire a kid to chart this stuff for a few bucks per hour, but that’s a sure-fire way to freak out your Saturday morning tennis partner.

There's a grocery store I’ve visited at least 200 times over the past five years. I've got my approach pretty much down. Like a hoops fan knows which NBA players have which skills, I know which clerks work quickly. I also know that checking out a cart with 25 items -- 15 of them produce -- is a much slower task than checking out a cart with 25 bar codes.

You know what I want to know?

What impact the presence of a bagger at the foot of the aisle has on the overall speed of the process.

I always felt it was negligible, but now I'm worried I was wrong all along. Maybe it's a huge factor. The bagger relieves the clerk of having to touch the items again after ringing them up. Instead, she can move onto the next customer while the groceries from the previous cart are being bagged, and her efficiency rating skyrockets! That bagger is the Steve Nash of Bristol Farms! He makes everyone more efficient!

Right?

The fact that these things are knowable -- passing shot vs. lob, longer grocery line with a bagger vs. a shorter one without -- doesn’t mean they warrant too much attention. Trying to quantify every detail of your waking life is paralyzing.

But the prospect that we might get to know all these things we used to guess at -- it's tantalizing.

And that's the point of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Saturday. That's why I'm on my way there right now, and why TrueHoop and the TrueHoop Network plan to cover it like it's the Super Bowl. More of that kind of knowledge is in all of our futures -- in sports, public policy, Wall Street and maybe even your weekly grocery run.