Sports Still not a Morality Play

The St. Louis Cardinals’ inept illegal access of the Houston Astros’ database is a hilarious sports scandal for many reasons. As an IT professional, I am giddy with inappropriate excitement over the Astros’ terrible password policies, but as a hater of cheap sentiment and unctuous mythmaking, I’m super-delighted that this happened to the Cards.

I don’t follow baseball at all, but if you read any sort of sports media, it’s impossible to escape the cult that the Cardinals have wrapped themselves in. Not content to be merely one of the most successful teams of all times, the Cardinals PR-machine puts out endless reams of propaganda about how everything the organization “wins the right way” and is just such a moral paragon. That this has now backfired on them in the worst way possible (federal indictments might be coming!) is just the most delicious of ironies.

Here’s the thing: we routinely conflate external characteristics with internal virtue, or lack thereof. Not just in sports, but in society generally. Rich and attractive people are perceived to be more virtuous than poor and ugly ones, despite the fact that there’s no connection whatsoever between these things. Still, sports is particularly bad at this; there’s no more tired sports cliche than the assertion that on-field performance reflects personal worth, even though it’s manifestly untrue. What this story should teach us, but won’t, is that winning and being a good person are totally unconnected. Winning is a function of team or individual performance in a contest of skill, and being a good person is, well, a song from an entirely different opera, as my people like to say. Teams should, but will not, stop wrapping themselves in moralistic language and pretending that their sports triumphs are indicative of anything other than their performance in those contests. Sports teams aren’t moral undertakings; they’re businesses designed for entertainment, and if they succeed at entertaining us, that ought to be enough.

It turns out that good people often lose and bad people often triumph, and there’s no real rhyme or reason to it. It’s nice when “good guys” win, but being a good guy guarantees nothing. You know, kinda like life.

Slavery is Freedom

No, this isn’t about politics. You can stop reading now if that’s where you thought it was going. If, on the other hand, you thought this was going to be about basketball, I congratulate you on your perspicacity and invite you to accompany me on a magical journey.

One of the things that I’m struck by as I look at advanced basketball analytics is how relatively model-free the whole enterprise seems. There are a couple of good methods that you see show up over and over again: regression analysis, adjusting plus/minus stats to remove bias, and estimating overall player contribution, usually in terms of either points or wins produced or some similar derived statistic. Nothing wrong with any of this of course, and it yields a certain amount of valuable insight. But coming from the science world as I do, and particularly coming from a recent background in working in cognitive science, what I find interesting about these analytics is that they seem mostly unconstrained by the game itself.

What do I mean by that? I don’t want this to sound like I’m saying “this is a terrible thing” or “everyone is an idiot” which is not the case. All I’m saying is that the way these models are constructed relies very heavily on box scores and backing out weights of various elements of player performance via regression. What they don’t do in any explicit way (modulo a few exceptions, like 3-point shooting and per-minute analysis) that I’ve seen is incorporate top-down constraints from the actual game itself into the analysis.

What would such constraints look like? One very obvious thing that comes to mind is the shot clock: you have 24 seconds to put the ball in the hoop, and if you fail to do so your opponents get the ball. Another constraint is the ball itself: there’s only one, and only one player (and one team) can possess it at any given time. The court boundaries are obviously also constraints, as is the fact that you can’t camp in the lane (on either offense or defense). And so on.

At first glance these seem like trivial statements, as anyone who pays the slightest amount of attention to basketball will understand them to be obviously true. We can debate the value of LeBron James (really high or really, really high?) all day if we want, but no one is arguing that the shot clock is anything other than 24 seconds. But I think that because the information is so obvious, it may have escaped incorporation into interesting analyses. I’m really just throwing thoughts out there, but if the end goal of each possession is to get the ball in the hoop, and you’re looking for a method which accomplishes this with maximum efficiency, you are really optimizing within the bounds set by the constraint of the shot clock. In a completely unsurprising turn of events, each possession becomes a constrained optimization, although not one that is expressed in terms of any simple objective-function (indeed the landscape here is certain to be very complex).

The reason such constraints are valuable in other fields is because they set hard limits on what you can and can’t do. In physics, for example, you know that whatever happens, you can’t extract work by moving heat from a cold body to a warm body; that’s the second law, and if you find that your theory has violated it, you know you’ve done something wrong. In cognitive modeling, life is a bit more complex because the constraints are often empirical; for example, ACT-R, a cognitive architecture I work with, commits to a certain (experimentally validated) model of working memory decay. That’s an architectural constraint on the kinds of dynamics that an ACT-R model can exhibit. Other architectures make other assumptions, etc. The point of the constraints is that, although you may sacrifice the freedom of your model to generate any output by embracing them, you gain the security of reducing your outcome space and the freedom to focus on things that you think are relevant. The nice thing about basketball is that the constraints are baked-in via rules, so we don’t have to guess at what they are; we “just” have to take them into account.

The reason I think this is important for basketball is because I think the box score analytics game is largely played out. By this I don’t mean that the analytics are useless, but my strong suspicion is that virtually everything that can be extracted from such information, has been. Obviously people are doing more complicated stuff now with line-ups and stuff, but since “keep your best line-up on the floor for 48 minutes” is not a viable strategy (another constraint!), a coach is faced with a complicated process of decision-making when it comes to rotations. The question for analysts is this: is there any way that a systematic breakdown of basketball dynamics which takes seriously the various constraints presented by the game rules can aid coaches (and players) in making decisions on the floor? I think, optimist that I am, that the answer is “yes” but the work of getting there will require a lot more than just box score information.

First Impressions

So the NBA season began for reals last night. Allegedly both Kyrie Irving and Sideshow Bob played pretty well for the Cavs, but on the other hand it was against the Wizards, so who really knows about that. Which, incidentally, is a weird way to start the season; it’s like the NBA telling you, “Yeah, we’ve got these two marquee matchups for you, but we’re going to whet your appetite for them with a game that hardly anyone outside the two fanbases could possibly care about.”

Before we move on, let me pause and thank all the gods, basketball and otherwise, for the existence of www.basketball-reference.com. This year they’ve added a feature which I hadn’t seen before: a shot chart that shows you where every team took shots from on the floor. In general, it’s a fucking brilliant resource. All hail it.

Anyways, I sort of half-watched the Celtics-Heat game and my basic impression was ARRR WHAT ARE YOU DOING JASON TERRY. Obviously, the Celtics still have a way to go before their team coheres around a single game plan, so it’s pointless to read too much into the results of the game. What I liked was: Rondo getting his own shot, to the tune of a 20-7-13 statline on 64% shooting. This is what he has to be like for the Celtics the whole year if they’re going to have a successful season. Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa were both outstanding; I’m especially happy for Barbosa, whom I’ve liked since his days as a Sun. Boston out-rebounded Miami on both ends, and in general had a very efficient offensive game, shooting 52% from the field and 46% from 3.

What I didn’t like: Miami shot a pretty unreal 50% from 3, 54% from the field, and forced a shitton of turnovers. Ray Allen torched his former teammates for 19 points, two of which came via a glacially slow drive past his defender (don’t remember who) to finish at the rim. I know Jesus can still play and all, but when a 37-year-old Ray Allen is beating you off the dribble, something is wrong. The overall picture makes it look like the Celtics fell down on the defensive end, but that is somewhat misleading; while Miami did get a number of easy buckets via good ball movement, LeBron also had a very good shooting night on long 2’s and 3’s. In general, if you can get your opponent to take a long 2 (especially a contested one) early in the clock, that’s a good thing, and this time Miami made their shots.

Also, Jeff fucking Green. I know, I know, dude had a heart condition and all, but still: 0-4, 3 of those attempts coming from close range. Boooo! And Paul Pierce shot like ass.

Then there was the Mavs-Lakers game, which I only watched half of, but have no reason to think that my impressions from that half are not generalizable to the whole game. Namely, why would you waste Nash’s talents like that, Los Angeles? Will Mike Brown ever come up with a competent offensive scheme? What’s the point of having one of the best pick-and-roll point guards ever walking the ball up the court and handing it off to Gasol at the top of the key? Pau led the Lakers in assists with six(!) and while I realize that he’s a pretty good passer for a big man, that should not be happening when one of the best passers in the game is on your team. All this talk about the Princeton hybrid motion offense is, as far as I can tell, a bunch of technical-sounding bullshit that essentially means a bunch of very static offensive sets and generally poor off-the-ball movement. As Sir Charles astutely noted during the half-time report, Dwight should be running up and down the court; many times in the first half, Nash would try to start a fast break only to find that he had no support for a lob and no trailers for a quick 3.

And what to make of these Mavericks? There’s a sense in which this incarnation of the team is sort of like the title-winning squad of, fuck, was it really a year and a half ago? Shit. Obviously not as good as that team was, but resembling them in the sense that they seem to be assembled around Dirk and a bunch of castoffs from other teams. I really thought that Houston was going to be the Island of Misfit Basketball Toys this year, but now that they’ve got Harden, it’s a bit more difficult to put them in that category. Dallas, on the other hand… the ’11 team was forged from Jason Kidd (acquired from the Nets for Devin Harris and a bunch of junk, but clearly on the decline), Tyson Chandler (now looking fabulous, then a dubious reclamation project after years of injuries), Shawn Marion (once a plausible DPOY candidate, before being traded for two O’Neals in a row), J.J. Barea (famous for being short), Brendan Haywood (another failure in a long line of Cuban’s attempts to acquire a moderately competent center), Peja (when did that happen?), and the likes of Corey Brewer, Ian Mahinmi, and DeShawn Stevenson. I’m not even counting Caron Butler, who was out for the second half of the season with a broken hand. Seriously, those people all played non-negligible roles on a championship team; some of them actually played starring roles. If anything can be a testament to Rick Carlisle’s coaching ability, it must be the fact that he won a title with a team seemingly assembled out of spare parts that no one thought to use. It’s like MacGuyvering a functional television out of circuitry harvested from a scrap heap: a technically possible but unlikely achievement by anyone but a real master.

Now the Mavs are at it again; of course, they won’t win a title this year, and many commentators don’t even have them making the playoffs, which I would argue is a bit premature. Seriously though, can anyone look at this team and honestly predict good things? Sure, if Dirk and Kaman (free-agent castoff) come back and stay healthy, if Rodrigue Beaubois can consistently play well, if Darren Collison (surplus to requirements at Indiana after backing up George Hill) can do point-guardy things and run the two-man game with Dirk, if O.J. Mayo (dumped by the Grizzlies) doesn’t continue regressing, if Vince Carter (oh god…) can resist taking 15 ill-advised long jumpers per game, if Brandan Wright continues to be a serviceable center, if Eddy Curry (Eddy Curry! Eddy Curry! AAAAAHHHH) doesn’t eat himself out of shape yet again, if Elton Brand (amenstied by the Sixers) can average 10 PPG, if Shawn Marion can muster up another year of all-NBA defense… that’s enough ifs for a Kipling poem. This team isn’t just a reclamation project, it’s like someone is trying to build a space shuttle out of old car parts. So many things have to go right for this team to even contend on any given night that if Carlisle gets them to the playoffs with a 6-seed or higher, he has to be the coach of the year; I can’t think of anyone other than maybe Doc Rivers (maybe Stan Van Gundy?) who could achieve that.

Oh god, it’s really on, isn’t it.

We Forge Our Spirits In the Tradition of Our NBA Ancestors

I’m under some measure of psychic stress right now that prevents me from writing coherently about anything that’s difficult to think about, which is most things. But I’m still capable of writing about basketball, so I’ll probably just do that for a while.

As regular readers of this space might know, the tens digit just rolled over on my personal odometer. In tribute to my ever-closer demise, I’d like to dedicate an indeterminate number of words to the deeds of the NBA’s current senior citizens. Every once in a while, I’ll select a baller of advanced years and write a sort of appraisal of their life and work. So if you care to know what I think about Ray Allen, Kurt Thomas (that’s right, he’s still in the league), Steve Nash, and other decrepit oldsters, and I know you do, keep your eyes on this blog. I’ll also tell you what I think about Jeremy Lin (spoiler: the whole thing irritates me to no end), the Washington Wizards (spoiler: they’re terrible… but how terrible?) and Bill Simmons (spoiler: he’s a raging sexist). It might not be nearly as fascinating as a discussion of why Saul Kripke’s puzzle about belief is actually no puzzle at all, but it should definitely fill any quota you might have for prolix posts about inconsequential shit. And who knows, you might even come back for the Kripke post.

Ball

Probably few people who are not professionally invested in the sport of basketball are as excited for the present post-lockout season as I am. I’m going to try and do a writeup of the so-called “offseason” and its ramifications soon, but for now, I just want to say how giddy I am about what’s going on in the league in terms of pure basketball content. Did anyone even know who Norris Cole was until two weeks ago (and also can anyone deny that no mere mortal could possibly be named “Norris Cole”; that a name like “Norris Cole” is only possessed by steely-eyed assassins in spy movies?)? Are you not excited about the possibility of almost literally watching Ricky Rubio *every single night*? Haven’t you missed that remarkable Ray Allen jumper, metronomic in its practiced repeatability?

Paradoxically, the expectation of the season is made all the better for me because I’ve already given up on any notion of success from the teams I follow. I was of course overjoyed with the Mavericks’ title last year and Dirk getting his long-awaited due; now that the team has decided that to substitute the quick-shifting sands of Lamar Odom for the concrete foundation that was Tyson Chandler (and willingly hung the Vince Carter millstone around its neck) it’s pretty clear that there won’t be a repeat, Brian Cardinal non-withstanding. I’ll still watch Steve Nash rack up assists by passing to Markieff Morris, Grant Hill, and Marcin Gortat, but the Suns aren’t a playoff threat to anyone. The Celtics roster is down to something like 3.5 players, and while they’ll probably still drub some bad teams, there’s little doubt in my mind that the Eastern Conference Finals this year will look a lot like they did last year.

So yeah, not caring about how my teams will do makes life a lot more enjoyable; I’ll still pull for them, but I’m much more free to enjoy the weird randomness that the compressed schedule and genuine league-wide chaos are going to offer up. I’m genuinely excited for the Timberwolves this year, and not because of any particular love (hehehe) for the team as such, but just because they’re new and fresh and exciting and they’re coached by Rick Adelman who always strikes me as looking a little bit constipated. I want to see if Mark Jackson knows anything at all about coaching a basketball team and whether the Curry/Ellis tandem can succeed. I’m curious about whether the Heat will finally turn into the unstoppable offensive juggernaut we all know they can actually be. I want to know if the Knicks can win a playoff series (I’m gonna go with a hesitant “yes” on that one). In short, liberated fandom galore.

Of all the sports Americans watch, basketball is by far the most conscious of itself as not just sport but entertainment. Baseball bores me, though I understand that some find it appealing to watch a guy try to hit a ball with a stick for three hours (I am told there is even “strategy” involved, though I’m not sure I believe it). Football lives up to its martial metaphors, with the consequence that intermittent moments of brilliance are frequently obfuscated by the prolonged tedium of a war of attrition. Whoa, that guy just gained two yards, let’s all stop for five minutes and contemplate that! I suppose it’s quite possible to be engrossed in every action that takes place on the football field, but I would hardly call it “entertainment” as such, and generally view it as an occurrence best left running in the background; they’ll show you replays of the good stuff anyway.

But basketball, despite entirely too many foul shots, is dynamic and entertaining. Pretty much every play contains the possibility of watching a human being do something really, really amazing, whether that’s a between-the-legs pass, an alley-oop, or a clever ankle-breaking crossover. Because there are only ten men on the court, you get to see everything that happens so you can follow plays as they unfold. It may be too much to equate basketball completely with explicitly artistic pursuits like ballet, but surely there’s some genuine parallel here that would allow us to appreciate basketball as an aesthetic phenomenon. Since basketball consciously sells itself as entertainment the game invites that kind of analysis. Say what you will about David Stern (and I hatessss him, preciousss), but if there’s one thing you can’t fault the man for, it’s understanding that.

We’re something like 8 games into the season, and it’s turning out to be every bit as great as I’ve expected.

Fuck your numbers, hippie

tThere’s a stupid and disturbing trope that arises again and again in much American commentary, whether dedicated to sport, art, or politics. That trope is contrarianism; in one variety, it takes the form of locating a generally derided specimen from one of the above categories and making the case that said specimen is actually great. Or if not great, at least not irredeemably awful. You can see this trope at work amongst people who try to defend Michael Bay or insist that Michelle Bachmann is a credible presidential candidate. The converse form of contrarianism is to locate a concept of some merit or utility and try to argue that it sucks donkey balls. In general, this is actually generally more defensible; people love a lot of stupid shit and once in a while it’s great to have someone come along and remind people that the shit is stupid. But when you make a charge of this nature, you have to be prepared to back it up. Preferably with facts.

Few places is the contrarian impulse of the second kind more prevalent than in writing about sports and its relation to statistics. If there’s one thing that sportswriters hate, it’s numbers; yes, John Hollinger is tolerated at ESPN (although if I were looking for statistical wizards to trumpet Hollinger would hardly be my example) but for the most part sportswriters treat numbers like they are invading aliens from an alternate universe, when they dare acknowledge their existence at all. In baseball, it’s pretty hard to escape the importance of advanced statistics, what with Moneyball and what have you, although old and stupid writers don’t give a shit about that. In basketball, advanced metrics are relatively less well established, basketball being a more dynamic game with more possibilities and ways to assess a player’s value. And that of course gives idiots an opening because when someone tries to figure out how good a player is using statistical methods, you can just throw a tantrum about INTANGIBLES and perhaps dribble applesauce down the front of your shirt.

This is all expected from old and stupid people; it’s a lot less expected from someone my age, someone who has a scientific background, someone who was a Rhodes Scholar. Enter into this “debate” (I put that in quotes because there is no debate here, just as there’s no debate about the validity of evolution; there are people who are right and people who don’t understand how evidence works) a dude by the name of Jonah Lehrer.

You may remember Lehrer from such fiascos as this article in which he bemoans how hard it is to prove things in science and how can we really know anything is true, really? (note: I am aware that Lehrer has posted a followup to the article attempting to explain what he was going for, but it’s not much better than the original). Of course upon reading this a whole bunch of professional scientists jumped all over him, explaining that his understanding of science (or at least his rendering of that understanding for popular consumption) was hopelessly flawed and sounded a lot like freshman philosophy “What is truth anyway, man?”-type discussions.

Ok, whatever, Lehrer doesn’t get science. But he also doesn’t get numbers. Or basketball.

A few days ago, this article by Lehrer appeared on Bill Simmons’ new venture, Grantland. I like Grantland; a lot of good stuff has appeared there in the scant few weeks of its existence, some of which was even written by Simmons himself. I don’t know how Lehrer got on there; presumably his celebrity as a “science writer” catapulted him to such heady heights, although what his qualifications are for opining on basketball or math is unclear (presumably a Rhodes Scholar would know at least some basic math, you know, division, addition, basic stats, that kind of shit). The basic premise of Lehrer’s piece is: aren’t numbers terrible and haven’t they ruined sports? Naturally Lehrer answers these questions in the affirmative (spoiler: the correct answers are “No.” and “No.”) and he gets where he’s going by way of some of the most convoluted, ignorant, and just plain incorrect reasoning that I have ever had the displeasure to see in writing outside of conservative blogs.

Lehrer starts his discussion with an analogy to buying a car and pointing out that some variables you would think are important when purchasing a car (horsepower, fuel consumption) are less important to owner satisfaction than various amenities (reliability, comfortable seats). Right off the bat this should raise some red flags. For one, while sports teams certainly value fan satisfaction, that satisfaction is primarily correlated to an objectively measureable metric of performance; namely, winning. Fans are satisfied when their team wins and not when it loses, and that’s quite a bit different than being satisfied with a car. Secondarily, it is truly bizarre to try and make the case against advanced metrics, which seek to find ways beyond the obvious box score numbers to measure player performance, by drawing on the example of obvious metrics providing less satisfaction than less obvious ones. If Lehrer wanted to make the argument for advanced metrics, it would have made sense to start with this analogy; as it stands, his example is simply incoherent. (It’s worth noting here that Lehrer uses the term “sabermetrics” to encompass all advanced metrics, which is wrong).

What follows is garden-variety idiocy which could have been lifted straight from the nursing home about how, sure, numbers might help here and there but THEY HAVE RUINED THE GAME AND WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE INTANGIBLES. I mean, Lehrer literally trots out the “what about things that can’t be quantified” argument, which is so stupid that it doesn’t really deserve a response. As arguments go, it’s on par with the guy on the bus trying to talk to you about UFOs in Roswell or ranting about how science can’t prove he loves his wife; there are only two valid responses, backing away slowly or ridicule (and you can tell which route I’m taking here). And what about having playoff experience you guys?!

But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.

Yeah, there it is, right on schedule. Wait, Jonah Lehrer, are you sure you’re not missing some key sports cliches?

But that’s not what happens. Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions. After all, there is no way to quantify the fierce attitude of a team that feels slighted, or the way even the best players can be undone by the burden of expectations, or how Kendrick Perkins meant more to the Celtics than his rebounding stats might suggest.

Ok, there we go.

It’s rather beside the point that the “excessive” focus on numbers is something that Lehrer simply made up for the purpose of setting fire to some straw statisticians (Deadspin has a more eloquent summary). It’s not even the greatest offense Lehrer commits in his article, since this is just garden-variety invention and mendacity, hardly rising to the level of egregiousness. No, Lehrer greatest mistake is to draw “evidence” for his moderately idiotic position by making a really idiotic argument, one that happens to be very much in my wheelhouse to refute.

This is the moral of the Dallas Mavericks.

Let me tell you something. I have watched somewhere in the vicinity of 50-60% of Mavs games this year during the regular season. Other than a few post-season games I missed due to travel, I have watched every game of their postseason run. I have also watched the majority of the games in the other series starting with the second round. So I’ve probably watched more NBA ball in the last three months than Lehrer has ever seen, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve watched more Mavericks games in that time than he has. All that is to say, I have some basis for talking when I talk about the Dallas Mavericks, a team I’ve been a fan of for years and that I follow pretty closely. And let me tell you, using the Mavs as an example of a team that won despite the numbers is so unbelievably wrong that it’s like trotting out the fossil record to prove that evolution is a hoax. Thanks for doing my work for me, chump!

The fact is that the Mavericks are one of the most notorious teams in the NBA (other than perhaps the Rockets) for their reliance on advanced metrics. The Mavericks are coached by Rick Carlisle, hired very much for his willingness to rely on statistics and for his remarkable track record of fielding the statistically best five players available in any situation. The Dallas coaches’ bench is home to Roland Beech, only the guy who started 82games.com. Mark Cuban chaired the motherfucking Sloan Conference on Sports Analytics, for fuck’s sake! This is the team that, more than any other team, is defined by their scrupulous adherence to the optimal lineup and performance!

And to compound the stupidity, Lehrer cites none other than… J.J. Barea? Apparently, Barea got the start because Carlisle “saw something” in him that couldn’t be captured by stats; just loved his grit and hustle, you know? It can’t possibly be because Barea destroyed Mike Bibby in the matchup battle; or because he was able to get his shot against two seven-footers who were unable to keep up with his speed; or because he could run a devastating pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler, using Nowitzki as a decoy. None of those things (all quantifiable via matchup analysis and points-per-play and so on) could possibly have made Carlisle change his lineup! It must have been Barea’s monster intangibles and hella hustle!

These are not grand mysteries of the cosmos; the facts in the above paragraph are known to any basketball-competent observer of the finals (so, you know, not Jonah Lehrer) and certainly to me, as someone who has watched Barea all season. To make everything even worse (you didn’t think it was possible, but you were wrong), Lehrer actually undermines his own earlier car analogy by pointing to Barea’s shooting stats to claim that his introduction was not statistically motivated since he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. But if your claim is that the most obvious statistics (horsepower, mileage; shooting percentage, PPG) don’t tell the whole tale, but supplemental statistics do, you can’t then go and say that it wasn’t statistics but intangibles that made the Barea substitution logical, because you’re explicitly ignoring those same supplemental statistics you said were needed for a complete view earlier.

The patronizing anecdote from Philip Roth at the end is only the final dingleberry on the shit sandwich that is Lehrer’s article. All I have to say to people who think like that is: go fuck yourselves. I will enjoy my sports however I want, you sanctimonious assholes; in fact, I will enjoy them even more if I can make ignorant fools like you madder about my enjoyment.

Lehrer’s phobia of numbers is all too sadly representative not only of conversations that we have about sports but conversations that we have in general. It’s not that things that are unquantifiable (which exist) are not worthy of consideration; it’s rather that instead of figuring out which statistics are useful in which contexts and what they tell us, we have these worthless screeds against those horrible nerds who are taking all the fun out of life or something like that. Instead of trying to understand the usefulness of the data we have available to us, we cut ourselves off from that avenue of knowledge by inventing things that are ex hypothesi unquantifiable and then claiming that numbers are worthless because they can’t quantify those things (even when it turns out that numbers can quantify them). And worst of all, ostensibly intelligent people who should know better take these contrarian positions without bothering to collect even the most rudimentary evidence for their arguments. Lehrer’s entire article is almost as wrong as one could possibly be when discussing basketball, and yet he’s given national exposure with minimal fact-checking to air his stupidity. Turn him into a right-winger and you’ve got pretty much everyone at Fox news. The rot goes deep, and Lehrer is only its most superficial manifestation.

Where is the madness that you promised me?

I am mad at the Miami Heat.

I should be clearer about that. There is the standard sports-fan mad, where Team X upends your favored Team Y. That is the likely outcome of the Celtics-Heat series, which is very likely to come to an end tonight, with Miami leading 3-1 and playing game 5 on their home court. These things happen and they are not what I’m writing about.

What steams me is the manner in which this Heat team has progressed through the post-season. This Heat team was supposed to be a revolution. It paired two and a half superstars with supposedly competent if not spectacular role players. It was supposed to be Wade throwing 15 alley-oops to LeBron every game while Bosh is drilling long 2-pointers. I was promised stellar fast breaks and unbelievable dunks and my eyes literally turning into stars and a motherfucking unicorn.

Shockingly, almost none of that has materialized. Sure, there were some blowout wins against decent opposition during the regular season, but pasting the Kings is pretty much what you expect out of any decent playoff team. This team was supposed to be an unstoppable juggernaut and the impression I came away with after watching game 4 of its series against the Celtics is that of two prize fighters beating each other with foam sticks. Someone is going to wear down eventually and lose (and in this case that ended up being the Celtics, a result which seems largely based on the fact that they’re just older and more tired). The game itself was nigh-unwatchable with horrible offense on both ends. Sure, credit the defense for making that happen, but how is it possible for a Miami team loaded with this much talent to not even attempt to run plays? Every second-half possession for Miami was basically dependent on either low-percentage shots going in or one of LeBron or Wade driving to the basket and getting fouled.

People slagged Mike Brown a lot during his Cleveland tenure for failing to run a real offense, but is this Miami team doing anything better? The only difference to me is that there’s just more talent on the floor, so more of those bad shots and desperate drives end up succeeding. I don’t know if Spoelstra is even coaching this team or if he just throws them out there and lets them do whatever they want, but whatever the cause, the results are frustrating and downright dull. I could live with a transcendent Heat destroying everyone on their way to a title, but watching them grind out aesthetically unbearable, sloppy wins is the very antithesis of the fireworks I was promised.

How not to talk about LeBron James

Ok, let’s start with something light. As some of you may or may not know, there’s this guy, his name is LeBron James, and he’s pretty ok at this whole basket-ball game. Cool. You might also know that James used to play for a certain Midwestern team but then decided after becoming a free agent to take his talents to Miami. That’s ok too.

What’s not ok, in fact what’s really stupid, is the conversation surrounding James. I don’t mean the whole “OMG HOW COULD YOU LEAVE US” bit that Cleveland was doing, which is the equivalent of a guy who lives in his parents’ basement and schedules his showers to coincide with the full moon wondering why his girlfriend left him. I also don’t mean the part of the James conversation that goes “OMG HOW TACKY” because, shit, you media people have been all but fellating him for 7 years and you wonder why he thinks he’s god allmighty? No, what I’m referring to is the pernicious strain of commentary that alleges that LeBron James will never be “great,” and specifically that he will never be as good as Michael Jordan.

Now it goes without saying that most sports commentators are idiots. We’re talking here about people whose job it is to take what Alvy Singer’s second wife referred to as “a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop,” and finding something to say about it other than “that one guy is really great at stuffing a ball through a hoop.” It turns out that watching this hoop-stuffing is a lot of fun for many people, and if you’re smart like Bethlehem Shoals or a small number of other worthwhile writers, you’ll find something interesting to say about the game that goes beyond the stupid and formulaic (apologies for the redundancy). Maybe you might write about what basketball tells us about the state of economic or race relations in the country, or about how the game has evolved over the decades, or about some interesting statistical metric (FORESHADOWING) that tells you something you didn’t know before.

But chances are, if you’re a sportswriter, you’re an idiot who has trouble dressing themselves. So of course you’re never going to write anything interesting because that would require you to have interesting and novel thoughts; much easier to simply pick up a common thread (“LEBRON WILL NEVER BE JORDAN”), add your own contribution (“I AGREE”), and laugh all the way to the bank while people who actually know what they’re talking about weep into their gin. It’s not only an easy thing to do, but it’s also an easy way to score points off cheap moralism. Of course you can never go back and implicate yourself and your ilk in promoting James to the skies, but you sure can turn around and scoff and pass cheap, stupid judgments that make you feel good about yourself.

This all would just be par for the course except for one problem: LeBron James is really great. It doesn’t matter how you feel about him personally; the guy is an absolute monster on the court, excelling in almost every statistical category for his position. He scores, he assists, he rebounds. He’s nearly unstoppable in the open court, an insane combination of speed, power, and accuracy. He is clearly the best player in the NBA today, and the LeBron-Kobe comparisons are simply laughable: Kobe wasn’t even the best player of the decade in his prime, and he’s in no way better now than James, who just has more of everything. Given these unarguable points, Jordan, as the universally acknowledged best player of all time, remains the only real point of comparison for James.

But that comparison cannot be made by talking heads on TV divorced from the facts. There is one thing, and one thing only, that will determine James’ status in the basketball hierarchy, and that is his performance on the court. And that performance can be measured, across many dimensions. It’s measured by some obvious metrics like points scored, field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists, and some non-obvious ones like PER and win shares. How do we know that Jordan was great? We know this because he leads the NBA in all time win shares per 48 games with an astounding 0.28 in that category (incidentally, Jordan led both the 80s and 90s in that stat; it also happens to be what James is averaging for the 2010-2011 season in the same category). We know this because he’s third on the all-time scoring list, and could have easily been first if he hadn’t missed two seasons. We don’t, incidentally, know this because Jordan has 6 titles (a statistic which means nothing for assessing individual greatness). But what we do know, and the reason why we’re justified in putting Jordan on top of the pyramid, is that he really was a great performer as quantified by just about any objective measure of basketball excellence.

For the same reasons, we can be nearly sure that barring catastrophic injury, James will finish his career (which I suspect has a good decade left in it) as one of the best players of all time. Simply projecting his career arc forward and integrating with respect to time allows us to confidently conclude this. And again, we know that this is so (or, for future events, have good reason to believe it) because we possess multiple statistical tools indicating this. We don’t need “intangibles” or “hunger” or “will to win” or any of this other bullshit that gets talked about year after year by the sports media, which reflexively in the absence of any semblance of original content will reach for tried and tired cliches. All we need to know is: what is James doing on the court? And we have the information that allows us to evaluate his performance and that’s all that matters. He could never win a championship in his life and conceivably end up being a better player than Jordan if he plays better as measured by the relevant indicators.

Of course, being better than Jordan would be incredible because Jordan is every bit the statistical monster that James is and then some. But so what? If we’re being honest assessors of basketball excellence, then we should admit that there is a possible (indeed, even plausible) combination of statistical indicators that would amount to a player who is better than Jordan. Maybe James will be that player and maybe he won’t, but the final judgment can’t be rendered without the relevant information. To simply declare Jordan the best by fiat and then assert that James can never measure up is not only to belittle James’ skills, but Jordan’s too. It is the recourse of the lazy and the stupid, not of anyone who is interested in evaluating the game with open eyes.

Edit: The main thesis here, just to avoid confusion, is that statistical methodology trumps “gut feeling,” when it comes to evaluating players. If at the end of the day you like Jordan better than James because of certain aesthetic preferences, that’s fine; what matters is that any initial degeneracy is broken by reference to some objective factors rather than “I like player x/I don’t like player y.”

Obligatory “gay for Steve Nash” post

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns – Box Score – January 11, 2010 – ESPN

30 points, 7 rebounds, and 11 assists on 12-18 shooting, including 2-4 from 3. But his +/- is still inexplicably lower than Channing Frye’s, who was 0-5 from the field and had 5 rebounds.

Ok, granted, it was against the Bucks, but still. Here’s a 35-year old dude who is leading the league in assists per game (11.3) despite playing almost 4 minutes fewer than the second place guy (Chris Paul) and several minutes fewer than most of the other top 10 assist leaders. He’s averaging 18.9 PPG, which makes him the 3rd highest scoring point guard in the league, behind Arenas at 22 and Deron Williams at 19.5; again, this while playing several fewer minutes per game than either. In terms of offensive efficiency, he has the highest field-goal percentage of any guard in the league (everyone above him is either a forward or a center). He is second only to Randy Foye in free throw percentage and is one of 3(!) Phoenix players in the top 10 in 3-point shooting (he isn’t even the best 3-point shooter on his own team; that honor belongs to Jared Dudley (!!)).

As much as it pains me to admit it, the odds are excellent that Nash will never win an NBA title. The Suns of this year are not a team built for playoff domination; when the threes are falling, they’re unstoppable, but they also can’t stop anyone and have no inside game beyond the Nash-Stoudemire pick’n’roll. But there’s no way you can look at those numbers and make the case that this is an overrated player. These are MVP numbers by almost any standard, and had he not already won the award twice, there’s no question that he’d be in contention. And this isn’t even a contract year, since he’s already accepted a two-year extension on his contract this summer. If Nash hadn’t, would he not have had his pick of places to go after this season?

I don’t know what the point of all this is except to say that obviously Nash is a terrific player. He’s going to be remembered as one of the greatest players of the decade, title or no.

Addendum: Nash is actually the 4th-highest scoring point guard. Chris Paul is averaging 19.5, but for some weird reason he doesn’t show up on the leader board of either basketball-reference or the NBA stats section on ESPN. I have no idea why this is, but that’s why I missed it the first time. I knew something had to be wrong so I looked up Paul’s individual stats.

Addendum 2: The only people Nash trails in adjusted field-goal percentage are Kendrick Perkins and Dwight Howard.