Is today's NBA like "Moneyball"?
September, 27, 2011
By Henry Abbott
When George Postolos saw the movie "Moneyball," which opened last Friday, he had some qualms.
The former president of the Rockets noted that in portraying Brad Pitt's character, A's GM Billy Beane, as a man unilaterally changing baseball, the film relegated the A's owner Stephen Schott to an oddly minor role. (Perhaps Schott's most powerful scene comes off-camera, on the other end of this phone call.)
"That's not the way most organizations work," says Postolos, who advises sports investors and has flirted with buying NBA teams. "The man or woman who writes the checks is a major character and usually has the leading role in determining the direction of the team."
Meanwhile, some other people who know that world first-hand, for instance Rockets front office honchos Daryl Morey and Sam Hinkie (who were not sources for this article), didn't even get through the trailer without getting antsy. They wrote on Grantland: "Admittedly, neither of us has seen the movie yet. But the trailer alone pushes a typically divisive storyline of us versus them. New versus old. Or worse, some insinuation of smart versus not."
Morey and Hinkie are not far from being the Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta of the NBA, and they're worried this movie will perpetuate a fiction. They do not want to be seen as revolutionaries in a world of good and evil. They want to be seen as part of a natural, gentle evolution. The scouts have long done a great job, and now the organization can use data to get even smarter.
The movies, meanwhile, need villains, and it has them in the crusty old scouts who, in their calcified thinking focus more on how a player looks than how he does his job. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen scouts saying, for instance, that a player's girlfriend's looks help determine whether he'll succeed in the majors.
As a basis for a multimillion-dollar investment decision, there's no way to sugarcoat it: That's stupid.
NBA fans who see "Moneyball" will likely exit the theater wondering one thing: This is the Hollywood version of a book written about a different sport a decade ago. Is any of this anything like the NBA?
Striking a chord
When I got home after seeing the movie, I e-mailed several stats-minded people who work "in the room" where NBA decisions are made. Was "Moneyball," with its portrayal of cartoonish backwardness, similar to their own personal experiences? Was it that bad?
In a word, "yes."
"Chilling," said one who didn't want to be named. "It's almost like there was a hidden camera in some of the meetings I was in."
I got a phone call from another with this story:
I was asked to get involved in a negotiation with a certain player. I did a little homework on the guy, and then went back into the GM's office, and asked how we should handle the guy's injury history, specifically a torn ACL that had kept him out of the league for a year-and-a-half.
"He tore his ACL?" asked the GM, sounding surprised. "Where'd you learn that?"
I told him I had just googled the guy.
This was in the last couple of years.
He said "ok, you're going to have to show me how to use this google thing."
Another current NBA general manager is not comfortable using any device with a keyboard.
There's another, in some ways worse, story about a savvy NBA coach who pretends to hate new-fangled devices like the internet specifically to curry favor with NBA powerbrokers.
There is a moment when Jonah Hill's character "Peter," the movie's one real sports geek, takes a seat in the team's war room. He's young as hell -- the ink is barely dry on his Ivy League economics diploma -- and no sooner has his butt hit the chair than people start asking the GM if Pete has to be there.
Two stats-oriented NBA front office employees told me they endured identical hassles.
Production vs. tools
"'Moneyball' did remind me of one of my first meetings with then-Blazers GM John Nash," says Jeffrey Ma, author of "The House Advantage" and a sports consultant. "We started talking about Sebastian Telfair and he was so proud of how fast Telfair was at dribbling end to end in a controlled environment. He kept saying that Telfair was the fastest he'd ever seen do that drill.
"And I kept thinking, 'Is that really a useful measure of anything?'"
(It's worth noting that Nash could have drafted Chris Paul or Deron Williams, but traded down to get Martell Webster because he had aced one of Nash's controlled-environment shooting drills.)
One source worked for a team that needed shotblocking. Scouts were throwing out names, and started talking themselves into a certain player. He was long and athletic, they said. He looked like a guy who could block some shots. Meanwhile, the new executive worked his laptop.
One of the central debates of this whole field is tools vs. production. Scouts traditionally predict success for players with the tools -- the strength, the size, the measurements, the workouts -- to succeed.
The stat geek position is that those measurements are fine, but much more important is a players' production on the court; How well a player actually plays ... which we are starting to be able to do in basketball.
The new guy found what he had been looking for, and read from the screen to the room. The player they were talking about was in the bottom half of the league in terms of blocked shots per minute.
Half the league was better! Who cares about his standing reach, his big muscles, or how high he jumps. It's just incredibly unlikely that guy could solve the team's shotblocking problem.
The room wanted to hear none of it. Blocked shots per minute? Just repeating those words back was mocking enough. What's this dumb stat, and who cares?
And then, almost quoting the "Moneyball" script: "We've been doing this for forty years."
Key audience: owners and GMs
"The West Wing" proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that "Moneyball" co-writer Aaron Sorkin does a great job imagining life near the center of power. These are the conversations of people who will not be trifled with! That straight-talking mojo was on full display in a scene where Beane is lured to Boston for a one-on-one with Red Sox owner John Henry, portrayed nicely by Arliss Howard.
The two have been served tiny coffees by a Red Sox staffer, and are enjoying a towering view over empty, gleaming Fenway. Beane feels down that his team hasn't won a title, but Henry controls the scene and will hear none of that.
Beane's team's wins cost a mere fraction of the Yankees', he points out. Clearly Beane has proven he knows what he's doing.
"In their minds," says the Red Sox owner, before sliding a piece of paper to Beane, with a huge offer to run the Red Sox, "it's threatening the game. It's threatening the way that they do things. ... You're the first guy through the wall. They always get bloody."
Now imagine you're an NBA owner watching that scene. This is where this cool movie -- as opposed to the dorkier book -- might really matter. One of the reasons to buy an NBA team is to look cool. (Without the Mavericks, what's Mark Cuban's Q-rating?) And now here's a popular Brad Pitt movie suggesting that doing things the way they have generally been done, trusting the old-school thinkers, is in and of itself to make you look villainous or stupid.
The stats movement's problem has always been one of perception, namely that it hails from the geekier fringe of society. (Kobe Bryant's reaction to the collected data showing he's so-so in crunch time was essentially: you're going to trust numbers?)
If America loves this movie, how long can that argument still work?
In a way this is entertainment. In another it's an exposť of idiocy.
"Forever GMs have been convincing owners that they're artists," says one Eastern Conference executive who loved "Moneyball." "The idea is that no one could understand or judge how they do what they do. Measuring and counting things ... that makes it less art and more science. It is also, indirectly, creating ways to measure front offices. This is threatening."
It's no longer a league where 30 teams are playing hunches, and if they keep making movies like "Moneyball," it's no longer fair to expect fans to want it that way.