Ingredients of success
March, 1, 2013
By Henry Abbott
Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe more stat geeks dig into hoops, the more wary teams are of volume shooters like Allen Iverson.It's time for the seventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in Boston, which means close to 3,000 people will crowd into a convention center to discuss and learn about the latest and greatest in stat geekery.
We will be covering it all in a big way here on ESPN.com starting today and throughout the weekend. But before we get into the nitty-gritty of whether teams should go for two or three late in games, or what matters most about Dwight Howard's defense, let's pause and ask: Why does all this matter?
What is the point of big data, behavioral economics, advanced analytics and all that in sports?
It's a question that has been addressed many times, but hangs around nonetheless.
While buying a sandwich the other day, I was struck by something.
The menu, like many these days, had way more than a list of sandwiches. It also had a buffet of information, expressed in little logos, about dairy, gluten, soy, nuts, whole grains or meat in the items. And what was local.
This is the world we live in now.
I'm guessing most customers don't much notice or care about those icons. But to the lactose intolerant, vegetarian and gluten-free -- growing groups, it seems -- this ingredient-level knowledge is more than nice; it's a massive relief. It's not too tough for the restaurant to pull off, and it makes it much simpler to avoid painful mistakes. Now, when a sandwich arrives on a plate in front of you, you don't just know it looks delicious -- you can also be assured, ingredient-by-ingredient, that it won't screw up your day.
The way it works in hoops is similar. Let's say you're a GM and your team wins a game. How'd that happen? What were the ingredients of that win?
This is stuff you need to know (which is why so darned many NBA front office people are at this conference), because over time you want to spend your precious dollars, cap space, roster spots and draft picks on guys who do stuff like that. Stuff that works.
Just like the lactose intolerant want to spend their precious dollars on sandwiches without cheese.
And if you look at NBA history, those resources have drifted rather haphazardly toward players with very high points-per-game scoring averages and players who would appear to have special physical advantages (for instance, being super-tall, strong or fast ... and, for many years, American).
But that has never been a perfect system. There have been oodles of costly misses, superstars surrounded by incompetent teammates and wonderful players who didn't fit the profile and slipped through the cracks. Looking for scorers and giants is too simple if you want a roster full of guys who help you win NBA games. For instance, those players who score all those points ... some of them do it in a most wasteful fashion, earning the big numbers at the cost of big numbers of misses, which hurt a team. (Has any player's career been more harmed by stat geekery than volume shooter Allen Iverson's? As soon as talk turned to efficiency, he became much tougher to employ.)
Stat geekery serves many purposes, but one of them is to take the full meal of NBA success and get a look at the ingredient list. Bad shot selection, for instance, is something more and more teams are discovering they're allergic to and want to avoid. Similar things are emerging about players who can't get to the line, rebounders who don't move to the ball, ball handlers who can't find the open man ... and on and on.
Yes, all that worry about details feels like work. Yes, it's a departure from what most of us want sports to feel like. Isn't the point to have a blast watching a beautiful game? To high-five strangers in the stands after a huge bucket? To hoot and holler?
Similarly, isn't the point of a sandwich to be delighted taking a bite, and to feel sustained for a few hours? Isn't delving into the nitty-gritty of the source ingredients just not nearly as fun?
True on all counts.
But if you want to avoid mistakes (and in a competitive environment, ultimately you have to) ... well, sometimes you need to know what's in that sandwich.