Lockout analytics?

Did the NBA make a mistake by allowing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to forgo college in favor of a basketball career?

The panelists in the “Beyond Reason: Sports Labor Negotiations” session got into an in-depth discussion on the NBA’s age restriction rule at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Legal expert Michael McCann argued that 18-year-olds should be permitted to enter the draft, pointing to the incredibly successful careers of James and Bryant. ESPN analyst Tom Penn said that high school graduates could damage the league’s overall product because of their inexperience and immaturity. Such players could waste roster spots and see their development stunted without first passing through a college program.

That’s when renowned economist Kevin Murphy jumped in.

“Have we really done a serious analysis about what an age restriction does?”

The sports labor negotiations panel focused as much on the causes of the labor disputes -- like the age restriction rule -- as the labor disputes themselves. Inefficient, profit-stunting policies, the panelists noted, lead to tension between owners and players, draw out negotiations, and unnecessarily jettison games from the schedule.

The most obvious lesson from recent labor disputes is that such negotiations are difficult, messy, and more than a little ugly. But measures can be taken to avoid the deadline embarrassment. The solution, in its most basic form, is to fix the poorly constructed policies before negotiations even start. Doing so will improve the product and generate increased revenue. With a bigger pie to share, compromise is easier to reach.

Finding optimal policies is easier said than done, but some of the issues involved can be addressed through analytics. Would high school graduates like Kwame Brown and Darius Miles have benefited from a year in the classroom? Maybe. Would Derrick Rose have been better off without spending a year at Memphis? Perhaps. Without the proper data set, these conclusions are based on anecdotes. The information is not yet quantified, and the current discussions surrounding the one-and-done rule are drawn from limited observations and arbitrary measurements.

“Sports analytics needs to turn some attention to questions of modeling competitive balance, modeling player mobility, best practices for league management -- not just best practices for game management,” said Murphy, who worked with the Players Association during the 2011 lockout.

It was only last year that a five-month labor dispute forced the NBA into a jam-packed 66-game season. People may remember the name-calling, legal tantrums and a small exodus of NBA players to foreign leagues caused by the lockout. But the lockout didn’t start when Dwyane Wade told commissioner David Stern “I’m not your child.” It started because 22 owners claimed they were losing money.

The age restriction rule was not the only matter to remain unresolved after the recent CBA. As McCann noted in a 2011 Sports Illustrated article, other “B-List” issues include a third round in the draft, a tougher drug-testing policy, player discipline, and adjustments to the development league. Collecting and analyzing data related to these issues prior to the labor negotiations could transform the conversation from anecdotal theorizing to objective reflection.

In 2017, the owners and players can back out of the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement that was reached less than two years ago. We already know that the faces of the lead negotiators will have changed (Adam Silver, Billy Hunter’s replacement). But the more important question: Will the involved parties take a more scientific approach to the disputed issues?