Numbers Game Jan26

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Numbers Game

It’s a momentous time in America. The NBA All-Star teams have been announced. Hell, it isn’t draft night, but it gets people talking. And this is where we run into problems. I was thinking I could write something soft to get back into the column game, maybe talk about some of the first time All-Stars instead of joining the ranks of self-defrocked ministers who will serve no god that doesn’t recognize Steph Curry’s divine right to be named among the Western Conference reserves. But I made the same mistake I always do. I read something on ESPN. So, rinse off your eye-tests and stick in your tampon of subjectivity, because its time for another round of Richy vs. the advanced metrics community.

Earlier this season, there was a piece of news that left me at a loss. John Hollinger, the patron saint of mathematical hubris, was hired to help run the Memphis Grizzlies. My initial reaction was fury. Why should he be rewarded for making up post-hoc units of measurement and then writing articles where he clumsily states his opinions and condescendingly backs them up with the numbers that he created himself? Why did it have to be the Grizzlies, a team that I sort of like? Why couldn’t he be sent to Miami to continue his constant fellating of LeBron James from a shorter distance and hopefully run that collection of assbags into the ground? But the silver lining was that I would no longer have to read his sniveling bullshit anymore.

Not so, it would seem. It looks like we have an heir to Hollinger’s Sybian saddle. Tom Haberstroh’s column picking his own reserves for the Eastern Conference has made him my current most wanted villain in asinine sports commentary.

He picks Kyrie Irving as his first guard. Which, in itself, is fine. I don’t like Kyrie Irving (I may be prejudiced against injury prone Dukies) and I don’t fully understand why he seems immune to the criticism heaped on all other shoot-first point guards on jaw-droppingly shitty teams, but he’s putting up All-Star numbers and he probably deserves a spot on the team. But it is of course, one of those All-Star numbers that has set me off. Haberstroh defends his selection of Irving by criticizing the concept that team performance should be factored in All-Star voting… we’re going to need a block quote here:

Based on Player Efficiency Rating, Kyrie Irving is a top-15 player in the world and that lofty status is only confirmed once you watch him routinely create havoc on opposing defenses with the basketball. So why is he a borderline All-Star candidate? Because stars on bad teams often get penalized for having dreadful teammates — and that lunacy needs to stop.

To illustrate, according to Estimated Wins Added, Irving is responsible for 6.4 of the Cavaliers’ 11 victories this season based on production alone, the seventh-highest mark in the East. Actually, combined with the injured Anderson Varejao the Cavaliers have received 11.5 wins worth of value from their two stars alone, more than their victory total. That means that Irving’s non-Varejao supporting cast in Cleveland has been so awful that it has collectively provided negative value to the team’s bottom line. And we’re going to punish him for that?

Let’s start simple. He references two statistics. PER and Estimated Wins Added, which are essentially the same statistic, just transposed from a random number describing efficiency to the amount of “wins” a player has added to his teams total over the mythical “replacement-level” player who has become such a key figure in all professional sports these days. But EWA starts with the PER value, which is just manipulated and divided based on the idea that one point of PER over 2,000 NBA minutes is worth about 30 points to a team and it takes about 30 points over an 82 game season to add a win. Who can argue with that, right?

Regardless of the statistical masturbation required to even arrive at these numbers, let’s just focus on the fact that this “argument” for Kyrie Irving’s inclusion in the All-Star game literally disproves the validity of the statistic it rests upon. My main issue with advanced statistics is that they are scouting tools, attempts to project the ability of a player independent of his situation, that are being passed off as measures of what he has done. According to this particular stat, Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao have accounted for 11.5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers 11 wins this season. It doesn’t take an MIT degree to realize that this doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

So, this statistic is so accurate that it can predict the physically impossible. Without the other-worldy talents of Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao, the lowly Cavs would have lost more games than they played. This despite the fact that the Cavaliers were without one of these two players for nine of their 11 wins. With their two “super-stars” on the floor together, the team went a formidable 3-12. I’m no sabermetrician, feels considerably worse than the 8-20 record they have put together with only one of the two stars in uniform.

I don’t think that this definitively weak team is better off playing at less then full-strength, and I will not make a Lin/Harden they-can’t-co-exist argument because it doesn’t make any basketball sense. All I am saying is, suggesting that this team would have been won negative games without these two players is completely absurd. And even if you subscribe to the less literal definition, that replacing the rest of the team with D-Leaguers (the actual incarnations of the replacement-level player) would make Cleveland better; you’re still a horses ass.

The central problem here is not so much the existence of these scouting tools, I’m sure they have some value for distilling a players contributions into an easily understandable number for charting in front offices, and can be combined with traditional scouting methods and basketball knowledge to evaluate talent. My real issue is with what it has done to sports writing. There are litanies of articles that do nothing but use one statistic to rank players. And now it seems to be acceptable to drive home a point with a singular statistic and then completely undermine its validity later in the same sentence. But as long as it’s all written with a tone of snarky condescension and opposing opinions are written off as the ramblings of dumb jocks and traditionalists, I guess it all works out. Where do jocks and tradition fit in here, anyway? I mean, we’re talking about basketball.