Barking Atlantis

I generally avoid addressing anything about numbers or Dave Berri, at least not without consulting Silverbird for hours ahead of time. However, the "Future NBA Stars" post on the WoW site rang too fallic for me not to ditch caution. As is well known, this worldview involves a very specific model of quality basketball; for teams to win in today's NBA, they would do well to conserve positions, not take risks, etc. Yet when Berri sees bright futures for players who are out of the league (or by no means secure in it), an important line hath been crossed. The list of "distant future stars" includes James Singleton, currently in Europe (and injured, which is neither here nor there) and Hassan Adams, who very well might not make the Cavs roster. In the comments section, DB offers the following lament on behalf of Singleton:

Too bad about Singleton. He really was a good NBA player. Unfortunately, what he does that is good is not valued as high as it might be in the NBA.

The NBA is, above all else, a context. To win a game, teams must compete again other extant teams, according to the rules of the game and within the limits of the law. By extension, it's tenuous to label someone "a good NBA player" when the entire league has rejected him. Players out of the league are not NBA players; with very few exceptions, those capable of making a lasting contribution to a team end up on someone's roster.

Maybe certain skills are unfairly ignored, but if a person is capable of impacting a professional basketball game, someone will sign him. Case in point: Look how infrequently we see guys jump from the minor leagues or a forced Euro vacation to some semblance of NBA stability. There are a host of teams, with a host of philosophies, able to look at would-be pros. If all of them pass, that has to count for something. There are players in the league adept at "what he does," or else there would be no "what he does" relevant to the question of NBA competition. Thus, one cannot say it's undervalued—i.e. a part of the league—while insisting that Singleton's exclusion indicates a systemic blind spot. Neglect is one thing, negation another.

What seems to be happening here is the shift toward "what basketball should be like." Not "what teams can do to win in today's league," but "the perfect version of the game." The league has no use for Singleton; saying it should is akin to telling it to change. I would love it if everyone played like Phoenix or Golden State, but when I seriously break down a game I acknowledge that this isn't the case. Similarly, advocating for players rejected by the league is, in effect, not a real statement about the National Basketball Association. To explain why bad teams falter and good teams soar is a valid project. I don't, however, see the use in going against the entire NBA, as if the world would be a better place if Singleton had a place in the league.


At 10/13/2007 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darkofan: Singleton is the guy with fancy web site.

At 10/14/2007 3:29 AM, Anonymous trouc said...

I don't have much use for Berri, but your take here strikes me as straight up wrong. The NBA's more like an institution than a market, and in institutions there's always blind spots and currents that miss something either for the sake of ideology or just traditionalism. The NFL seems a better example of this, what with Doug Flutie or Charlie Ward and all the other black quarterbacks passed up on in the 90's, but I don't think the NBA's really that different. A lot of the Euros having trouble now might shine if given the right oppurtunity, people like JR Smith who easily could've been buried, Turiaf who didn't start all last year despite his numbers, or Marquis, who looked great until getting benched by Johnson. This isn't to say that Berri's notion of what gets valued and what gets ignored is correct, but it seems quite a stretch to insist that he's wrong because the league is a paragon of efficiency.

At 10/14/2007 3:36 AM, Anonymous Kaifa said...

RIP Singleton's knee.

I think that "distant future stars" is a misleading label. Even in the category above Singleton et. al., Berri comes to the conclusion that with the likes of Balkman, Calderon and Barnes, "all of these players should help their respective teams win games." With this more conservative conclusion in mind, the expectations for his "distant future stars" should be even more remote.

That being said, I really liked Singleton the few times I saw him play. Not as a future star, but as a really useful 2nd or 3rd guy off the bench (or 4th, depending on the match-ups). I don't share Berri's view of basketball and have no data to back this up. Him being 6-8, he was probably more suited to play SF since the Clippers already had Brand, a PF rather on the short side. If I remember correctly, even Maggette came off the bench in Singleton's two years with the Clippers, so the team was quite stacked at his position.

Quinton Ross got the special assignments guarding the best swingman of the other team, so that role was taken as well. The Clips traded for Tim Thomas and his contract and drafted Korolev, who looks like he could be a rotation player down the road. So they had these two guys getting minutes as well. Plus Dunleavy Sr. also got old pal (from their Milwaukee days) Aaron Williams from the Nets, who essentially played the same role of solid defender and good rebounder.

So I'd say it was just a bad situation with the Clippers. Of course the counterargument is that if Singleton is a legit NBA player, he should have either beaten out his competition or found another team. As for his place on the Clippers' roster, I think the Clips committed to Thomas (to justify taking on his contract), had rookie Korolev on the cheap and gave the scrap-up minutes to Dunleavy trustee Aaron Williams.

As far as other teams go, a lot of free agents have found it difficult because their relatively small salary would have luxury tax ramifications for new teams. Also, I'm pretty confident that Singleton signed a good contract with TAU Ceramica because he had had very productive years in Italy before and is well-regarded in Europe.

Weird to write a quasi-defense for a fringe player I don't even have strong sympathy for, but ultimately I think you draw too far-reaching conclusions from Berri's article. Practically every guy on the "distant future stars" list except for maybe May has role player written all over him in my opinion (jury still out on Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry). Also, I guess over-interpreting numbers is the stats guy's way of writing a provocative post, which Berri probably tried to do here using all these labels and painting in broad strokes.

What might be interesting to discuss here is why some skills for role players (e.g. Singleton's rebounding) might be less impressive in FD terms than other skills (J.R. Smith's 3-point shooting). Or does personality play the greater part here?

At 10/14/2007 4:27 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

trouc--i don't think the league is "a paragon of efficiency." there's no absolute best way to play basketball, only the sum total of the way teams are playing it at any given moment. the optimal way of approaching the game depends on the (totality of) opponents, as the spurs so masterfully show us all the time. how can it be anything but relative?

At 10/14/2007 6:36 AM, Blogger Brock said...

I'm pretty naive on this shit, but I think we need to acknowledge that there are a host of reasons beyond (or beside) basketball ability or "skill sets" that determine if a player makes the NBA.

To say that "the league has no use for Singleton" seems too much of a judgment on his skills alone. There may very well be other, more prescient reasons for his exile, in which case the statement would be more like "the league has no reason/cannot accomodate Singleton right now" (although that sounds pretty weak).

The "sum total" of the NBA goes beyond ways of playing. I think Kaifa's question is more to the point: why/how/when do some skills become _valuable_ to the _league_, and what makes them so?

At 10/14/2007 9:25 AM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

Let me offer a defense of Shoals' criticism of Berri and his overall point that "context matters".

Imagine you have two players: a more-efficient tortoise who shoots .500 but only at a slow pace, and a less-efficient hare who shoots .400 but at a fast pace. Everything else about the two players is the same. Now, if the only effect of playing fast was that teams scored faster, then the tortoise would always be the preferable pick: since each team gets the same number of possessions per game, slow and steady would always win the race. But in reality, there are other team-level benefits to an up-tempo style- a transition offense that's harder to guard, a transition defense that's harder to score against, etc. Contrary to Berri’s model, in which team-level benefits don’t exist and tortoises always trump hares, the question of "who's better" depends entirely on context. In 1950, the tortoise is an all-star but in 2007, he may be a liability. Similarly, whether or not the hare adds value depends on the style of the team he plays for (Barbosa is more valuable to the Suns than the Pistons) as well as the average style of the opponents he plays against (4 of the 5 fastest teams all play in the Pacific division).

It’s been said that whereas Newton invented calculus to do physics, economists invented economics to do calculus. Similarly, Berri, in his desire to treat basketball as economics, has invented a league that doesn't exist.

At 10/14/2007 11:42 AM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

I have a question: what is "fallic"? I couldn't find it in the dictionary. Is it, like, close to fallacious or something?

Thx I like your blog.

At 10/14/2007 11:48 AM, Anonymous Sweat of Ewing said...

Silverbird: beautifully put. Berri's system is a model, and has some value because I do think that rebounding and efficient shooting is undervalued. But he treats basketball like it only barely exists, if at all, outside of his model. His refusal to acknowledge any flaw in his own system pretty much dooms him to failure - I can't think of a single other stat-head who would preach blind reliance in the same way.

But Shoals, your point is only valid if Singleton tried out for every team in the league. Granted, you can make the point that in his limited minutes on the court, he was trying out for the other 29 and failed to impress, but that's just a naive view. He made the Clippers roster, it wasn't the right situation. What if he ended up on the Nets instead, who really could have used a good perimeter defender and great rebounder to take the load off of Kidd? So much of who sticks in the NBA is a matter of circumstance. Teams get locked into contracts, GM's owe allegiances, etc.

At 10/14/2007 12:14 PM, Blogger Hot Shit College Student said...

It's a shame I don't have the opportunity to call anyone names.

Berri is typically goofy with this one. I'll never understand why he tries to apply and debate the highly arbitrary 'star' label. His dubious metrics aside, it doesn't help to throw a cliche in the mix to prove what is undervalued.

Renaldo Balkman has played well, and according to +/- helped his team more than most of last season's rookies. I don't know why that makes Isiah a draft guru when Balkman would have been available much, much later. It worked out in the Zekester's favor, but Berri's praise of an inefficient pick seems against the WoW grain.

At 10/14/2007 12:48 PM, Anonymous trouc said...

shoals, correct me if I'm wrong, but by saying "advocating for players rejected by the league is, in effect, not a real statement about the National Basketball Association," I hear you saying that, in the end, good players'll succeed. If they don't that's on them, meaning that the league's an efficient judge of talent. I think my examples pointed out that this just isn't always the case. If someone like Barbosa had come along circa the late 90's he never would've had a chance, not because he wasn't skilled, but because he didn't fit into what people wanted to do, or into what they thought was possible. Even somebody like Dirk might not've found a place in the league if he'd been born about 10 years earlier. There may not be a perfect way to play the game, but at any given moment there's always the possibility that there's a better way to play it than what's currently in fashion.

At 10/14/2007 12:53 PM, Anonymous trouc said...

To follow up, this post strikes me as a little bit weird, because I see you doing the same thing as Berri, just from the other side of the aisle. You've got a quixotic vision of the game that you're promoting, maybe a little more realistically than him, but still. If JR Smith'd dropped out of the league after NO, I think you'd be (rightly) making an almost identical argument.

At 10/14/2007 1:07 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

actually, i wouldn't. i'd be disappointed, but i wouldn't be trying to empirically prove that he belonged. see, freedarko may be idealistic, but we make clear that this is subjective. and we don't pretend that this affects wins and losses, except for when it irrefutably does (i.e. the warriors/mavs series).

what i see with material like this from berri is an attempt to justify, or prop up, his hypothetical version of the league. fair enough to people saying that contracts and caps might not've allowed for singleton's being signed. but if everyone has "wastefully" invested their money, then how can berri continue to act as if this fact is mutable and readily dispensed with? it's not only the culture of the league, it's the landscape of it.

there is not an army of james singleton's languishing overseas. that would be a systemic blind spot, and would be at once more and less convincing. yes, he'd have strength in numbers, but it would even more clearly be not a part of the league. as is, we've got a guy who, as an individual, just doesn't seem to fit into today's league.

i'm all for changing the culture of the league, but that has to be a reaction to events on the ground. for instance, players who stretch positional convention or teams that try new offenses are real revolutionaries only when they yield fruit. in a way that wouldn't lead to highly contentious fisticuffs over whether or not it really happened that way.

"fallic" was an ill-advised attempt to combine "phallic" and "fallacious."

At 10/14/2007 1:41 PM, Anonymous trouc said...

Well, you guys have never really been about empirics in the way he has. It's just a tactic, and you have yours. The second post wasn't really my point anyway. I'm definitely not here to defend Berri.

The NBA's not big enough to have an army of anyone overseas, but I think singular individuals are just as important. I know it's the NFL, but Flutie continually riding the bench is a perfect example of this, and even if somebody like Anthony Parker's not Doug Flutie, I just don't see what forces would make other leagues so inefficient while the NBA figures things out right everytime. The Raptors are almost totally made up of players who wouldn't have gotten any time (prior to last year) on teams around the league yet they make the playoffs. The league's a physical and cultural artifact, which is why I find myself reading you guys.

At 10/14/2007 2:00 PM, Blogger T. said...

In my previous life with the Rockets, I often got lucky enough/stuck with the 9-12 guys at the end of the bench appearing at team events, sitting at my table during corporate or charity galas or in other ways interacting with the Ryan Bowens and Mike Wilks of the world.

One of the things I consistently heard from those guys (not specifically, but in a general sense from the end of the bench guys) was that they knew there were hundreds if not thousands of guys who were equally - if not more - talented playing overseas, in the CBA, NBDL or parks around the world. (T. adds - see Harold Minor). They collective knew the reason they were in the league was due to professionalism (i.e. signing autographs and corporate appearances for the team) and practice habits - rather than strict basketball talent.

In light of these conversations, I think its perfectly reasonable to assume that there ARE thousands of Singletons laguishing overseas or locally. But due to attitude or practice issues or whatever, they're beaten out by a slightly less talented, but more professional player.

At 10/14/2007 2:46 PM, Anonymous Kaifa said...

Shoals, I see the point you're making. I am of the opinion that stats alone (especially a small sample size like Singleton's projected into starter's minutes) won't ever be a good measuring stick for success in the league. So I'm with Silverbird when he says that in this case Berri talks about a league that doesn't exist. Especially if calculations for a player's chances for success in the NBA ignore the "landscape" of the league as you put it.

I guess I just wanted to say that from what I've seen from Singleton, he could have very well been Ime Udoka if given the chance.

Interestingly, Singleton also could have been the kind of minor player on an NBA roster that the "right way" proponents could have buried under praise for his rebounding and work ethic during his garbage time minutes. I haven't really worked out whether the stats movement lends itself well to support the "right way" or not, can the experts like Silverbird shed a little light on that?

At 10/14/2007 3:43 PM, Anonymous Sweat of Ewing said...

Kaifa: if we're talking about Berri's stats, he's maybe the biggest proponent of "right way" basketball this side of Larry Brown. The torch that his Wages of Wins carries is that shooting efficiency, turnovers, and rebounds are the most important metric to determining good players. The basic idea is that giving up the ball (shooting, turnover) is bad, whereas getting the ball (rebounds, steals) is good. Everything else (blocks, points, fouls, assists) is fairly secondary. So by extension, his is a system in which a team of hustling garbagemen will outperform a team of gunners. David Lee is his baby daddy, Jannero Pargo a rapist.

At 10/14/2007 4:18 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

kaifa, that's what i meant about neglect vs. negation. the right way meme is out there, and those skills are considered important enough to make a part of a roster. so it's hard to say that gm's are all totally wrong about singleton; he's the type of player that is valued, even if it's less than he should be. you can't really call it a blind spot, or say he's the victim of prejudice.

At 10/14/2007 6:51 PM, Blogger richmindseed said...

...alright, if no one else wants to defend Berri, I guess I will.

First, read the post again. Berri says, "It’s important to note that the players listed as 'distant stars' have generally not played enough for us to be sure about their future productivity. When you have played less than 200 minutes, one or two good games can dramatically increase your average level of productivity." So yes, Singleton might not be as good as the model suggests. Berri doesn't disagree. Your point, then, is...what, exactly?

Second, it's completely ludicrous to act as though the WoW model is just Berri pulling stuff out of nowhere. The model is pretty damn robust and pretty statistically strong, able to consistently predict actual records with ease. It's not as though Berri fell in love with rebounds or efficient shooting, so chose to value them highly - simple statistical regression gives us strong reason to believe that these factors correlate strongly to winning, so he includes them in a model that attempts to project wins. Until you can show (through demonstrating a theoretical flaw with the model or presenting counterexamples - a team or series of teams WoW said would do well and didn't, or vice versa) that the system is flawed, don't just assume it's flawed cause you don't like the results it gives you.

Silverbird - where's the proof that those tortoises or hares even exist? What prevents that tortoise from shooting efficiently at a faster pace? Can you show in any way, also, that team pace has any relationship to winning? Until you can show that your assertions have anything remotely resembling the empirical backing that Berri's do, you're pretty behind here.

Don't get me wrong, there's definitely improvements possible to the WoW model. That said, random disparagement of it just kills your credibility.

At 10/14/2007 9:34 PM, Blogger Pacifist Viking said...

Whenever I see economists apply economics to the world in an absolutist way, I rant and rave and tell everybody to read Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground." There, in that book, is the antidote to the tyranny of economics in our world. I'm completely serious. Economists try to explain human reality in terms of economics, and Dostoevsky has the refutation. It's all in that book.

I like Berri's work, a lot actually. But with all economics that attempts to narrowly and comprehensively define reality, my soul balks.

At 10/14/2007 10:45 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

where's the proof that those tortoises or hares even exist

some players are faster than others. some players are less efficient than others. I'm guessing there are players out there who are both faster and less efficient than others.

What prevents that tortoise from shooting efficiently at a faster pace?

nothing. it's a hypothetical.

Can you show in any way, also, that team pace has any relationship to winning?

yes. see: http://www.82games.com/levbot.htm
shows that faster teams have a higher offensive efficiency than slower teams. across the board.

simple statistical regression gives us strong reason to believe that these factors correlate strongly to winning

what Berri's regressions show is that certain factors correlate strongly with teams winning. only on the basis of certain wildly unrealistic assumptions does it make sense to say that these team-level relationships will automatically hold for individual players.

At 10/14/2007 10:54 PM, Anonymous Sweat of Ewing said...

Berri's model doesn't predict, it ascribes value to the statistics that the players already generated (yes, based on regression). "If team X won 52 games, then player A was responsible for 12 of those games based upon his statistical contribution." Nowhere does his model say "based upon past production, adding player B, last season worth 10 wins, to team X will improve them by 10 wins." The problem is that Berri acts as if his model DOES say this. He ignores the effect of team style and interaction upon the effect of individual players, except in the case of diminishing returns. All of his "prediction" is post-hoc, and therefore cannot be disproven.

At 10/14/2007 11:05 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...


I think your intuition about the affinity between the stats movement and 'right way' ideology is probably correct. Berri is, of course, the most extreme example, due to the high bar his model sets for "efficiency" and his devaluation of scoring in general. Only in the WoW formula do we reach the kind of conclusions where a player scoring 60pts on 30-50 shooting (and nothing else) is no more valuable than the player who gets 10 defensive rebounds (and nothing else); or where a player scoring 48pts on 24-50 shooting is actually worse than one who does nothing at all. But even if the other models are less severe, they all tend to "correct" for an alleged overemphasis on points and underemphasis on efficiency. So in that sense they do advance a right-way agenda, just not with the sort of Calvinist zeal that Berri brings to the task.

At 10/14/2007 11:50 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

can i also say how annoying it is the way defenders of WoW - including Berri himself - always talk with such reverence and can't-even-fuck-with-us swagger about their use of linear regression analysis. as if it's some kind of inaccessible abacus known only to European ex-pat mathematicians and theoretical physicists at los alamos, when in fact its the kind of calculation you can do in an Excel spreadsheet, included next to functions like "Average" and "Count".

At 10/15/2007 1:25 AM, Blogger Carter Blanchard said...

I'm not sure I agree entirely that Singleton's lack of roster spot justifies that reality, but the "NBA is context" is dead on. Points scored in the final minute might technically have the same value as the first minute, but that doesn't mean they have the same meaning (or why else would NBA Jam have a clutch rating). I understand the importance in considering the pace a team plays at, but that doesn't mean you should obscure over pace completely with adjustments. Being able to speed up a game or slow it down is not completely arbitrary.

As far as WoW's explanatory power swagger, someone with more time and expertise than I would need to delve into this, but doesn't the team adjustment totally fuck up its use as a predictor of wins? Haven't read Rosenbaum's paper yet, but the key seems to be:
"If you add in a team adjustment, pretty much any metric, including really problematic ones like points per game and NBA efficiency better predict future wins (and future adjusted plus/minus) than does Wins Produced. And remember ANY metric with the right team adjustment can explain current team wins just as well."

Finally, on a totally unrelated note, thought the FD community would enjoy this post on Nash and his treatment by the media:

At 10/15/2007 2:15 AM, Anonymous Tom said...

SB5000, hilarious and true. Not just Berri but a ton of sports statisticians out there swear the truth will be told through a level of analysis regularly performed by stoned 10th graders in economics class. Sure okay, there's merit to your analysis but don't swing your Excel Analysis Toolpak around like it's the fucking cock of the academic walk, just don't.

At 10/15/2007 1:05 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...


Also, the last time I combined phallus and fallacy was the conception of my daughter.

At 10/15/2007 1:08 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

What I meant to say was that Utah was 15th in pace, yet 3rd in offensive efficiency.

At 10/15/2007 6:11 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

Fuck all this shit. Bottom line is, sample size renders all this meaningless except to evaluate the barest essence of what a thing is. And your sample size problem is even worse with 'rising stars' who don't get minutes. Berri's article is a piece of sensationalist drivel, Shoals's response is only better because Shoals isn't beholden to mathematical models, and I am fucking sick of the whole debate.

At 10/15/2007 6:57 PM, Anonymous Uncle Ted said...

I should say for starters that i'm a SABRhead. To follow up on silverbirds post, there are it seems to me a couple of related assumptions that go into Barri's models. 1) players function atomistically. This is something which can bet tested and i'd love to know what the results are. the way to test is to take every player who changes teams over a give time span and see if they have the same efficiency once you add in a standard modification for age related decline (also easy to forumlate). If the players efficiency varies on average substantially then this is evidence that a holistic system of player development needs to be forumlated. In baseball it turns out that payers function in an almost completely atomistic fashion. Many people are skeptical about this assumption in basketball.
2) Barri's models are all results based. Model's are uninteresting unless they project, and they are uninteresting unless they project between teams. To use an analogy ERA is a results based statistic. It doesn't project year to year (at least not very well). What SABR people tried to find were the projectable components which determined runs given up over which the pitcher had causal control (turns out its predominantly K's BB's and ground ball rate)


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