Blood from the Shoulder of Pallas
Richard Hamilton hits a midrange shot off of a Billups pass. So many things have gone right for him to get that open look, but we quantify what we easily observe; we value Hamilton’s shot with two points and Billups’s pass with an assist. However, statistics don’t credit Ben Wallace’s pick, or the attention the rest of the defense pays to Rasheed, or Hamilton’s ability to induce fatigue in his defenders, or an opportune play call by Flip Saunders, or a host of other things. Unlike baseball, a basketball game is basically one fluid and exceptionally complex event.
Statheads like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein have demonstrated over the course of several years that quantifying and statistically analyzing baseball works. But baseball is simple enough to be reduced to a large collection of single, easily evaluated, events. I can comprehend the possibility of something like Strat-O-Matic basketball no better than penguins can comprehend piloting the space shuttle. Basketball is simply too complicated to be reduced to a handful of variables.
As John Hollinger has risen to the top of ESPN’s NBA writing staff, and 82games.com has become one of basketball’s most respected websites, it has become clear that the Moneyball revolution has clumsily smashed its way into basketball like Godzilla falling over Japanese countryside. Over the past year, Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, Roland ratings and other complicated calculations have emerged as extremely effective ways to evaluate basketball players. I want no part of drinking this cool-aid.
Anyone will agree that traditional basketball statistics are flawed. Baron Davis currently averages more assists per game than any player in the league not named Steve Nash, yet more of us would be willing to argue that Baron Davis is the worst point guard in the league than the best. When Dallas acquired Raef LaFrenz and his 3 blocks per game in 2002, many said that he would be the intimidating presence in the paint that Dallas sorely needed; however, anyone who had watched him play knew that if one could dunk, one could dunk on Raef.
Yet as the Moneyball mentality forces its way into basketball, traditional stats have gradually receded in favor of newer statistics. The goal of these statistics is the same as that of the old ones; they seek to objectively quantify basketball. These stats are particularly difficult to dispute on the strength of the following characteristic: they’re really fucking hard to understand because their formulas are indistinguishable from a Greek bus schedule. However, these stats all do appear to operate on the same underlying principle; they seek to determine the efficiency of a specific player or player combination.
But is it even possible to say what constitutes efficiency in basketball? More points in fewer minutes seems the most transparent analogy, but it’s not a terribly useful thing to know. Obviously, efficiency relates to a player’s production, but a player can “produce” hundred of different things in five minutes of basketball and we only keep track of that which is easy to count. And if we combine all of those measurements into one index, we have to make ridiculous assumptions like: four rebounds are worth three assists. What would it mean to compile a team of extremely efficient players? From what I can tell, it describes a team full of players who are particularly precious at accumulating more “numbers” in fewer possessions above all else. Less obvious strengths, like defensive presence, passing ability, and energy are deemed less important, making for what could be a homogenous and uninteresting team.
But this post is not meant to be an attack on Hollinger or 82games (who claim not to have discovered the definitive way to evaluate players). The idea that everything can and should be quantified has led to using efficiency (of the sell and produce more at less cost variety) as the measuring stick for effectiveness. This idea began in the business world and has bled into other areas, including sports and education. Among entirely too many important people, efficiency is equated with value and utility. An efficient company or organization creates a cheaper and better product, benefiting company and society simultaneously. Everyone wins, at least from that perspective.
The waste laid to Flint and other former industrial cities by efficiency-minded businesses is well documented and need not be revisited it here. It’s also certainly in vogue for dreadlocked wannabe junior Trotskyites across America to assail Wal-Mart for perpetuating any number of conceivable and inconceivable crimes against humanity. But as cliché at is it to criticize the pinnacle of business efficiency, in rural Mississippi I witnessed Wal-Mart further decimate in numerous small and unexpected ways a town languishing from poverty. For example, in Indianola, and many other small rural towns, the largest provider of jobs hires almost exclusively part-time to avoid being forced to provide health care for its employees. While it was nice to get a box of Special K for 40 cents off, I’d rather have had some of my students able to own a pair of glasses or get antibiotics when they’re sick so they don’t infect their classmates.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with “efficient” companies (or basketball players for that matter), but saying that an efficient company or player is “better” isn’t necessarily true. In business, there are so many hidden costs to maximizing efficiency that businessmen ignore that, in some ways, becoming more efficient leads to a society less able to consume their products. Yet this viewpoint requires taking multiple and sometimes clashing perspectives into account, something so many analysts seem unwilling to do. Efficiency may effectively evaluate baseball, but not something as complicated as basketball, or life.
As efficiency is continually deified in society, it’s easy to take it as being at the heart of what constitutes a good player or business model. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea, by quantifying basketball and business, you pretend to remove subjectivity, when in reality, subjective biases become imbedded in the analysis.
Since we need to make subjective judgments about what constitutes efficiency in basketball, we make the assumption that there is a correct and incorrect way for a player to play the game. The idea that there is no one “correct” way echoes constantly through this site. I appreciate the efforts of Hollinger et al., but their machinations arrive at a dangerous time when we are most inclined to blindly accept the idea that superiority and maximum efficiency is the same thing. I’ve seen progress in the name of efficiency cripple a community I loved. I’d hate to see it homogenize the game I love.