By Julian Reed
A recent Charles Barkley tirade on TNT’s Inside The NBA (above) has ushered in a new referendum on stats and analytics in sports (In this case, basketball). Now a segment of the population is questioning their (stats) validity entirely and what purpose they serve. The problem with this argument, no clear cut answers. If you asked 15 people who were avid stats enthusiasts what that purpose was and how much their numbers could predict/indicate about a player or team, those answers would vary. Like anything, stats aren’t the end all be all. That fact alone disconnects a large group of people from ever giving stats their due credit because they’re not perfect and fluctuate. Not an easy sell.
The truth (In layman’s) is that analytics at their core are about making the complexity of sports simple and easy to understand by boiling every aspect of the game down into a number ratio output. PER was created by a former stats crazed ESPN analyst John Hollinger, who now is the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. By looking at PER (Player Efficiency Rating) in the NBA, you can quickly assess who the most efficient players in the league are. PER factors 2 point/3 point baskets, steals, blocks, rebounds, assists, turnovers, fouls all into a single number. It’s a clever way to assess across the board who are the most impactful players in the NBA by looking at everything they contribute positively and negatively to their teams. Currently, the players with the highest PER as we head into All Star Break are the best players in the league like Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul (click here for ranking). PER is one of the most widely accepted analytics.
The problem with Barkley’s thesis is that it makes a series of assumptions that most who champion analytics aren’t arguing to begin with. For starters, his central premise was that talent wins (Using previous LeBron led Miami Heat and reigning Spurs rosters as his example). No logical person (Whom accepts analytics or not) would argue otherwise. Obviously, talent is the key catalyst to success in basketball. Analytics and metrics in that context serve as a roadmap to explain why those teams were successful. In particular, how relative non superstars Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Shane Battier, and Mario Chalmers made massive contributions to championship winning teams. More specifically, why they were effective, from where on the floor, at what point in games, and how valuable each was in comparison to other players around the league. That’s some of the most valuable contributions of analytics. They provide tangible context for exactly what a player or team is doing, capable of, and worth monetarily. Numbers are now sophisticated enough to be able to tell fans, GM’s and owners all the same information and truly redefine the concepts of value and efficiency.
Despite those massive contributions, analytics aren’t perfect and continue to evolve alongside sports. There are many aspects of basketball that are tangibly obvious to the human eye. Kevin Durant is amazing at the sport of basketball. Stephen Curry has an incredibly fluid shooting motion. John Wall is a remarkable athlete. There’s no reason to try and output stats and metrics for any of those assessments. Goes without saying. Stats and analytics aren’t everything, and that’s okay. A proponent of not letting perfection be the enemy of good. Just because metrics can’t tell me everything with tremendous ease and convenience doesn’t negate the totality of their existence. Stats are the Rosetta stone for the nuance of sports. I enjoy being able to tell quickly with a single number what players control the ball most often (Usage stat), as well as assist and turnover ratio to gauge who manages an offense most effectively. Impact of stats comes down to how deep into the sauce you opt to get, but in a basic template, they can be very effective tools to gain an added understanding of the sport of basketball.
Though Charles Barkley chooses to remain closed minded about what metrics actually are and what purpose they serve, that doesn’t apply to us. We individually and collectively can choose how we want nuance conveyed to our eyes and minds. A lot of people work very hard to craft and hone new and old metrics to be the most accurate. And many others (Like the gambling community) have a heavy monetary interest in the accuracy of that information. Societally, I feel like we’re entering an age where we’re comfortable with numbers. They can be very effective and probability and assessment. Though never the end all be all, they will continue to help reshape the acquisition of players, nutrition and schematic lineup changes. Not just for the NBA, but all of professional sports. It’s about us getting comfortable with that reality and not being afraid of change and nuance. The numbers aren’t everything, but they’re not nothing either.