Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

On Charles Barkley and the value of analytics

Charles Barkley went all in Tuesday night on TNT’s Inside the NBA with a rant against the growing influence of analytics in the NBA.

The focus of Barkley’s ire was the Houston Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey, who is as pro-analytics as they come. According to Barkley:

“(They’re the worst team defensively) among teams that are going to make the playoffs. They’re awful defensively. Just because you’ve got good stats, doesn’t mean you’re a good team defense. They’re not a good defensive team. They gave up 118 points (in a win against Phoenix earlier in the night). No good team gives up 118 points.

“I’m not worried about Daryl Morey. He’s one of those idiots who believes in analytics. He went out and got James Harden and Dwight Howard, and then he’s going to tell me that’s analytics? Then he went out and got Trevor Ariza. Then he went out and got Josh Smith. I’ve always believed analytics is crap. I’ve never mentioned the Rockets as a legitimate contender, because they’re not.

“Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent. Because they had no talent to be able to play, so smart guys wanted to fit in, so they made up a term called analytics. Analytics don’t work.”

We’re not sure what set Barkley off, and naturally the pro-analytics crowd has been out in full force since his comments (because what would a Hall of Fame player know about what it takes to play in the NBA?), and we’re really not comfortable with him calling Morey an idiot (you can criticize someone for not playing well or doing their job well, but you don’t make it personal).

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a little bit truth in what Barkley had to say.

Since Morey took over as Houston’s general manager in 2007, the Rockets have lost in the first round of the playoffs three times and missed the playoff three additional times. So it’s not like he’s taken the NBA by storm with his thinking.

What we would like to think the Barkley was trying to point out, in his own ham-handed way, is that when analytics is the only tool you have in your toolbox, you’re not going to win.

We can see the value in trying to measure everything you can about a player to try and maximize his value to the team. If you are looking at a choice between signing two players, for example, and you can determine that Player B will give you as much on-court or on-field value as Player A, and Player B will cost $5 million a year less, then that is important information to know. And that stretches across both the NBA and NFL, with their salary caps, and into Major League Baseball, where teams like the Indians can’t afford to waste any salary dollars (cough, Nick Swisher, cough).

We believe you still need to take into account other factors beyond just numbers on a spread sheet, however. And that goes both ways; we have just as little tolerance for the anti-analytics crowd (think just about every baseball beat writer over a certain age) as we do for those who believe that so-called advanced stats are the only thing to look at.

We find it interesting, too, that fans under a certain age think that analytics are a recent addition to building a sports franchise and that the subsequent arguments about their merits is also something new.

Those of us who have been watching sports for a while remember, however, how the Dallas Cowboys were often criticized in the 1970s for using computers to help build a franchise that made five Super Bowl appearances in the decade. Head coach Tom Landry was portrayed as an unfeeling robot on the sideline (and this was before we knew that Skynet was one day going try and kill us all) and that his players were just interchangeable cogs in the machine.

That type of thinking overlooked the fact that players like Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, Randy White, Tony Dorsett and several others were very, very talented.

It’s often forgotten, too, with everything else that went on during his tenure in Cleveland, that Bill Belichick was an avid believer in what could be labeled as analytics. Belichick and his staff analyzed league data to try and determine what type of player fit each particular position on the field in an attempt to build a sustainable and successful organization.

But while Belichick could determine, for example, that the best outside linebackers were all between the ages of 25 and 28, were all 6-foot-1 to 6-f00t-3 and weighed between 220 and 235 pounds, that didn’t automatically translate to putting a winning team on the field.

While those data points may be useful in determining which players you will look at to fill a particular need, they don’t take into account whether or not the particular player can actually, you know, play. And that is an important key to the puzzle.

Being overly rigid in how you evaluate players is how teams end up overlooking talents like Darren Sproles, Andrew Hawkins and Julian Edelman, while over-valuing players like Braylon Edwards. (Sorry about that one, Browns fans.)

Used correctly, analytics are great; but you have to be careful not to be an extremist — in either direction — if you expect things to work out.

While Barkley probably violated that rule in his comments last night, that doesn’t mean the role of the importance of analytics in sports isn’t worthy of further analysis.

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