Before, when newspaper columnists grappled with the mismatch between traditional statistics and on-field performance, they threw their hands in the air and credited intangibles: some guys were winners, some guys were not. Some players knew what it took to win, some players did not.
The field of sabermetrics, pioneered by Bill James in the late 70’s and whole-heartedly embraced by the Oakland A’s in the early 2000’s, took a different approach: when conventional statistics failed, “sabermetricians” looked for better ones.
They relentlessly questioned conventional wisdom -- much of “Moneyball” centers around Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s frustration with the usual thinking about the amateur draft: “Over and over the old scouts will say ‘the guy has a great body’ or ‘this guy has the best body in the draft’. And every time they do, Billy will say, ‘we’re not selling jeans here,’ and deposit yet another highly touted player, beloved by the scouts, onto his s*** list.”
Yet while looking athletic doesn’t correlate with the ability to hit a baseball, it does help you run down a fly ball. While “Moneyball” downplayed the importance of defense, a good portion of baseball’s statistical analysis since has revolved around understanding and quantifying it: as it turns out, preventing a run has the same affect as scoring one.
Now imagine how important defense would be if a team’s best hitters could take turns the entire game hitting line drives directly at a slow-moving outfielder. That’s the situation in basketball, which has slowly begun to embrace the same sort of advanced statistical analysis that has revolutionized baseball.
But while the individual components of a baseball game -- pitcher vs. batter, defender vs. ball in play -- can be broken down into discrete statistical outputs, it’s much more complicated in basketball. Almost nothing a 3B does affects a CF’s performance; nearly everything a center does affects a point guard’s performance.
That’s why it’s impossible to create one all-encompassing statistic, like baseball’s VORP or WAR, that can tell us how good a basketball player is. Not when the players around you can have such a dramatic effect on your individual performance. Because if you ignore the importance of defense and making your teammates better, you might come up with a statistic that says Kevin Love was more valuable than LeBron James last year.
However, despite the inherent flaws in using individual statistics to analyze a team game, it’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to advanced metrics, as Grantland’s Jonah Lehrer does in a much-discussed piece about the merits of JJ Barea:
Lehrer notes Barea’s underwhelming statistics throughout the regular season (a 14.8 PER, scoring 9.5 points a game on 44% shooting) and the first three NBA Finals games (shooting 5-23 with a net -14 rating) and then observes that the Mavs turned the series around by starting him in Game 4. To explain this disparity, he uses the type of pop-psychology so abhorred by many statistical analysts: Barea’s ability to score at the rim at (a generous) 6’0 175 dispirited his opponents. He is a winner, no matter what the stats say.
But in reality, much of Barea’s ability to impact a game starts with his teammates. A pint-sized score-first guard, he needs to play with a back-court partner who can defend shooting guards while still being able to run an offense like the 6’4 Jason Kidd. The Mavs, one of the oldest teams in the NBA, needed someone who can attack off the dribble -- Barea took a lot more shots in the paint this season (31% of his field-goal attempts) than Dirk (13%), Kidd (9%) or Jason Terry (12%). Conversely, their ability to knock down 3-pointers opened up driving lanes for Barea.
Starting Barea in Game 4 had a dramatic effect on the Finals, but not for the reasons Lehrer outlined. Having another shot-creator on the floor to start each half prevented Dallas from having as many early offensive droughts, while Miami’s starting point guard -- Mike Bibby -- couldn’t take advantage of Barea’s defense on the other end.
In the first three games, the Mavs started Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson (excellent defenders who can’t create their own shot) and brought Terry and Barea (poor defenders who can) off the bench. And with LeBron and Dwyane Wade on the perimeter, the Mavericks couldn’t afford to play Terry and Barea at the same time too often. By switching Barea and Stevenson’s spots in the rotation, they were able to keep one of their two perimeter shot-creators on the floor the whole game while putting only strong perimeter defenders -- Kidd, Stevenson and Shawn Marion -- on Miami’s superstars.
For all of Barea’s merits as a “winner”, he wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact in Miami. With LeBron and Wade on their team, the Heat don’t need their point guards attacking the rim. They need them knocking down 3’s, and Barea is only an average three-point shooter.
Advanced statistics will probably never have the explanatory power in basketball that they do in baseball, but that’s because of the inter-connected group dynamic of a basketball game, not because intangibles are more important on the hardwood than they are on the diamond.