Video: the simple game of basketball

March, 23, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference could hardly have gotten more coverage on TrueHoop. But all the same, we have just scratched the surface of identifying all the good stuff.

Which is why I'm posting this video -- of the key "What the Geeks Don't Get" panel -- for a second time.

I'd urge you to watch the whole thing, but particularly starting at about the 39:25 mark. This is when the panel really gets deep into dissecting the Patriots' decision to go for it on fourth down against the Colts. The panel was uniquely suited to address this issue. Jonathan Kraft owns the Patriots, and Bill Polian runs the Colts. Polian and then Kraft take turns sharing refined insight into why the decision to go for it was the right one. Polian talks about how sending this group of players out onto the field sent certain signals to the other team, which would be expecting a quarterback sneak, which statistics showed was the Patriots' best play. He talked about which players were tired, and which were injured.

Kraft chimes in with some further specifics. They are unanimous and convincing that it was a great decision -- even as Polian pokes fun at stat geek Wayne Winston for saying teams should go for it way more than they do. (Moderator Michael Lewis then wonders how it could be that the media so vilified that call, which leads to a funny exchange where Bill Simmons pipes up, with a grin, saying "I, actually, wrote a column against it.")

In general, throughout this part of the talk, the application of knowledge is refined and dynamic. It's what you want from your sports leaders.

Then, Mark Cuban marvels at the sophistication of the the football strategy. "In basketball," he says, "the coach stands up and yells out the play. You know exactly what the play is. And then the defense still doesn't know how to respond." Everybody laughs.

Daryl Morey seconds that emotion, talking about how time and again, he'll see a team in need of a 3 late in the game. But, of course, to get someone open to shoot a 3, you have to fake some other kind of play. Which just about always means a 2. So, if you're playing defense, you don't have to go for that fake. You can just stay at the 3-point line, and give up the 2.

But players, time and again, defend against the fake drive "like it's some kind of shiny object," says Morey, even though logic would dictate there's no need for the defense to abandon the 3-point line.

It's undoubtedly true. Basketball is, in many ways, a simpler game. On some level, I suspect that's part of why we like it. But on the other hand, the whole reason I even care about statistical analysis is because I care about winning -- if there's something my team can do better, don't you want them to do it?

If I were a young player hoping to stand out in the eyes of NBA front offices, I'd consider mastering this kind of stuff. In every sport, the players know many things the stats do not. But in basketball, certainly the reverse is also true. If you could be a player who could help a team put analytical insight into action (hello, Shane Battier) -- even on something as simple as knowing the other team's plays, or defending the 3-point line in crunch time -- teams are going to find you very useful.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA



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