Wall Street Journal: geeks are winners

March, 12, 2010
3/12/10
10:36
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The other day the Nuggets' director of quantitative analysis, Dean Oliver, told me that he'd found teams with "quants" integrated into their decision process had won about 60% of their games.

David Biderman of the Wall Street Journal has checked on all 30 teams. First he found out if they have a full-time analyst, then he measured their records. He researched a slightly different question, but his findings were essentially the same as Oliver's:
According to interviews with every team, The Wall Street Journal found that half the league's teams this season have at least one of these statisticians who helps make in-game, draft-day and trade-deadline decisions. Many of these teams are among the NBA's best. The list accounts for all six division leaders, including the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks, who have a data analyst traveling with the team. These 15 teams that have invested heavily in statistics have combined to win 59.3% of their games this season. The 15 teams without such analysts have won 40.7% of their games, and only three -- the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks -- are on pace to make the postseason.

Biderman then quotes Minnesota GM David Kahn pointing out that analysts, of course, couldn't do it alone, and if you took LeBron James off the Cavaliers they wouldn't win much.

Of course!

There are a ton of things NBA teams all have to have. Stadiums, money and tall athletic people top the list.

Just like when you're driving to work, you need a car, gas and roads.

However, that doesn't mean you don't value a new shortcut on your drive. If someone teaches you about some side road that avoids traffic, or a nice little back alley that saves a few minutes ... that makes a difference.

In the big picture, you're still driving to work, like everybody else. If you get a flat tire, you get a flat tire, and you're going to be late. But most days, some extra knowledge sure can help you get to work a little more efficiently.

The same picture is evolving in managing an NBA team. Some may say it's not worth worrying about all the particulars of analysis. But there's a strong case to made blowing off that kind of thing could leave you behind.

The discrepancy is big: A 59 -41 difference in winning percentages. In hoops, 59-41 is an old-fashioned blowout.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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