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Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Sports Guy

By Bill Simmons
ESPN The Magazine

A few weeks ago, I spent a Saturday at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, or as I dubbed it, Dorkapalooza 2009! A slew of statistical rock stars showed up: Dean Oliver, Aaron Schatz, John Hollinger. Panels argued topics like "Where are basketball analytics headed?" and "What's more important, coming up with a cool formula or kissing a girl?" The hottest celeb? My friend Daryl Morey, the Rockets GM, who was hounded by MIT students as if he were Britney among the paparazzi. I dubbed him Dork Elvis. Even he admitted that was funny. Begrudgingly.

That's the thing about stat geeks: They have a sense of humor about themselves. And yes, I count myself among them. I played entire Microleague baseball seasons on my 1984 Apple and kept handwritten stats. I've played fantasy baseball since 1982. I frequent the Prospectus sites and devour their books. I try to hide my inner geek, but believe me, it lurks. Remember, I'm the guy who figured out Hickory High's title-game box score. And because I love the NBA, too, basketball's recent statistical "revolution" has left me more frustrated than satisfied.

In my mind, basketball lends itself to the perfect blend of objectivity and subjectivity. Statistics help only so much; we still have to interpret what we see. Take Jason Kidd. Why has he suddenly become a deadly three-point shooter at his advanced age? Because he isn't carrying an offense or taking contested shots with the shot clock winding down like he had to in Jersey, that's why. In Dallas, all he has to do is distribute the ball and shoot … when he's open. Now look at poor Dwyane Wade. He misses 70% of his threes -- the only blemish on his MVP résumé -- because his teammates stink, which means he has to hoist one or two contested, beat-the-clock bombs each game. I'm the one who figured out Hickory High's title-game box score.

I hear that some NBA teams factor "clock-saving attempts" into adjusted shooting percentages. But do they share that info? Of course not. And that's what's wrong with this revolution: We have access to only some of the data. Sure, there have been major strides in plus-minus, open field goal percentage and clutch FG%/FT%, but they just don't fill out the picture. It doesn't help that many lay statisticians seem more interested in pushing marketable formulas, like win shares, or evaluating players against each other, like in baseball.

There's one problem with that: Baseball isn't basketball. It's an individual sport; teammates don't matter unless they can help get PEDs. (Sorry, I had to.) Every conceivable diamond talent can be measured objectively. I thought Derek Jeter was a great shortstop until the defensive stats told me otherwise. I thought Wade Boggs was wrong for a leadoff hitter; turns out, an OBP machine who drags pitch counts along is just what the top spot calls for. But when some metric decides that Marreese Speights is the 30th most efficient offensive player in basketball while Shane Battier is 284th, obviously I'm dubious.

The statistical intelligence in NBA front offices is superior for one simple reason: They spend millions of dollars to figure this stuff out. Daryl has many minions crunching numbers. At the conference, Hollinger joked that Daryl was lucky the league hasn't imposed a salary cap on stat guys. Daryl laughed nervously. Because it's true.

Like every other forward-thinking GM, he considers numbers not a sacred evaluation tool but rather part of a bigger process: How can we calculate the best way to win? And there's no easy answer. Ongoing success in basketball hinges on talent, leadership and role play.

The Spurs won their past two titles by surrounding a Tim Duncan-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker nucleus with role players who didn't care about numbers, rarely made mistakes and wouldn't dare challenge the pecking order. Yes, Carmelo Anthony was a significantly better basketball player than Bruce Bowen between 2005 and 2007; Bowen was a better fit for the Spurs. That team didn't need another scorer. It needed a top-notch defender and agitator who knew his place. Our current batch of public numbers can't measure Bowen's impact in that role. Maybe those numbers exist somewhere, but who knows?

After watching Anderson Varejao throttle the Clips with his low-post D recently, I e-mailed Daryl, wondering why there wasn't a stat called stops, for when a defender prevents his opponent from scoring on an isolation play, or a low-post or perimeter play. Come up with an unforced turnover in the process, and it's a "superstop." Daryl's response: "Why do you think we have Chuck Hayes?"

In other words, "We are years ahead of you on this one, Simmons."

See? That's the stuff I want to know!

I want to know Wade's percentages on contested, wide-open and clock-saving threes. I want to know how many uncontested jumpers LeBron creates for teammates. I want "mega-assists" (passes that create a layup or a dunk) and "half-assists" (for each made foul shot). I want "unforced turnovers," like in tennis (Tony Allen would be Wilt Chamberlain in this category), and "nitty-gritties" (some combination of charges taken, deflections, balls saved from going out of bounds and rebounds tipped to teammates). I want "Unselds" (a long outlet pass that leads to an assist for a layup or a dunk) and "Russells" (a blocked shot directed to a teammate).

You know who'd fall way short in Russells? Dwight Howard. He slaps everything out of bounds. Congrats, Dwight, you just gave the other team the ball back. Why are you smiling? That's right, geeks on the APBR board: I'm talking to you.

Does it not bother anyone else that certain teams meticulously keep track of and hoard those moments? It's valuable data that would give us all a better understanding of what we're watching. Meanwhile, the rest of the statistical community is more obsessed with comparing players and chasing impossible-to-prove-objectively stats like "adjusted plus-minus." Hey, geeks on the APBR board, I'm talking to you. You could be feeding us gourmet cheeseburgers, except you're more interested in cloning cows. Let's clear up the small picture before we get to the big one.

Some may disagree. In fact, that's what made Dorkapalooza so much fun. But one thing we all agreed on was that the basketball revolution will be much rockier than baseball's. It's not as simple as embracing WHIP and OPS or creating watershed, easy-to-prove stats like VORP and PECOTA. We need to properly evaluate what we're seeing before we can process those evaluations to build a new infrastructure. NBA teams won't help. They release data only when it suits them -- like when Mark Cuban's blog unveiled Dallas' kooky player performance formula, which just so happened to justify the Mavs' roundly criticized Kidd trade.

I demand the minutiae I know the team is hiding. Mega-assists. Russells. Stops and superstops. Desperation threes. Shooting percentages from every zone of the court. Basically, I want anything that can be tracked only with money and minions. NBA teams need to stop acting like they're protecting nuclear info during the Cold War. Aren't we in this together?

When I asked Daryl that before begging for a few secret stats, he laughed the way Frank might if you asked for his RedHot sauce recipe. In other words, not a chance. Next year I'm returning to Dorkapalooza, strapping a recorder to my chest and getting him drunk on tequila -- or laser-printer fumes.

The secrets of Dork Elvis will be mine.

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