The Analytic Turn in Basketball: Achieving Reflective Equilibrium on Player Values

Anyone who remotely keeps up with professional basketball has heard the following, whether it’s from pundits or other fans, and the familiar refrain goes something like this: “Player X (insert name here) does a lot of things that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet/box score, but he adds value to the team.”

The very fact that basketball watchers have been hearing this refrain for years on end is indicative of one thing: namely, that professional basketball has not achieved reflective equilibrium on how to measure player values.

But first, what is reflective equilibrium? The term itself is philosophical in origin, and this entry (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) does a pretty good job of defining the term:

“The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our “intuitions”) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among these beliefs. An acceptable coherence requires that our beliefs not only be consistent with each other (a weak requirement), but that some of these beliefs provide support or provide a best explanation for others. Moreover, in the process we may not only modify priori beliefs but add new beliefs as well. In practical contexts, this deliberation may help us come to a conclusion about what we ought to do when we had not at all been sure earlier. We arrive at an optimal equilibrium when the component judgments, principles, and theories are ones we are un-inclined to revise any further because together they have the highest degree of acceptability or credibility for us.”

Defined thus, reflective equilibrium is both a process and a result. The process comes from the fact that we need to reconcile our claims about particular instances with general principles, and the result is the state in which claims about particulars and the principles are coherent with each other.

How does this apply to the context of measuring a player’s value in professional basketball? There are, in my opinion, two levels of gauging player values. First, on a more intuitive level, there is just simply the act of watching how a player plays in games. If you watch enough basketball, if you keep up with certain teams, if you follow certain players, eventually you come to gain an intuitive, if not articulated, sense of how valuable that player is to his team. However, there is a higher, more abstract level of measuring player values, namely: statistics. Currently, professional basketball has an official set of statistics that it measures for each player, and they are the items that make up the box score as we know it: minutes played, points, rebounds (sub-divided into offensive and defensive), assists, steals, blocks, personal fouls, turnovers, field goals, 3-point field goals, and free-throw percentages.

The reflective disequilibrium comes from the fact that one’s intuitive understanding of a player’s value is sometimes dramatically different from the statistical measures of a player’s value. Hence, that familiar refrain: “Player X does a lot of things that do not show up on the box score, but he adds a lot of values to the team.” That this is true is undeniable, as anyone who watches basketball somewhat seriously can tell you. So this suggests that thus far, we have no achieved coherence between two ways of gauging player value, even though on some level, most basketball fans acknowledge that both ways of measuring player values are true in a non-trivial sense.

An aside: for a really good example of this reflective disequilibrium, check out Michael Lewis’ (he of Moneyball fame) in-depth profile on Shane Battier, which, in my opinion, demonstrates in no uncertain terms the very real existence of this reflective disequilibrium.

If this reflective disequilibrium exists, how can we achieve equilibrium? I think the effort is already underway, and this is what I call the “analytic turn” in professional basketball. How does the analytical turn try to achieve equilibrium? It does so by coming up with new statistical measurements that better match our experienced, intuitive understanding of player values. While it would take too long to examine all the ways in which these new statistical measurements better capture our intuitive, if very experienced, understanding, certain things are easy to pick out. For example, one low-hanging fruit would be to measure charges taken: this is one long-neglected stat that fail to capture an important aspect of playing defense. A good defender will often voluntarily take the charge from an oncoming opponent, resulting in the opponent’s being hit with a foul and preventing him from scoring. This has a double positive effect: it stops a score, and it limits the opposing player by getting him into foul trouble. This is easily measurable, but yet it is not a part of the official box score that the league keeps.

This is just one little example out of many, and actors in the league, whether it’s statisticians or teams, are coming up with even more sophisticated measurements. As far as I can tell, the Holy Grail, so to speak, right now in the analytic movement in professional basketball, is to find the “Be-All, End-All” stat that accurately captures a player’s value. Some prominent examples include Dave Berry’s “Wins Produced Per Player,” John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, Adjusted Plus Minus, and BasketballProspectusWins Above Replacement Player (WARP). And this is not even to mention the various proprietary and confidental statistical measurements used by teams like the Rockets.

But, it’s just as important to note the fact that the reflective disequilibrium goes the other way too: sometimes, our understanding of a particular player’s value is based on official statistics that overrate their true value. I call this the “Fantasy Basketball Syndrome.” That is to say, these players would be great for your fantasy league, because they excel in all some of the official statistical categories, but in real life, they do not add value to their teams. That they exist is also undeniably true, but people tend to overrate them because they happen to excel in particular statistical categories.

So clearly, the disequilibirum exists on both ends, and the purpose of these new statistical measurements is to adjust both our intuitive understanding of player value with their quantative aspects. The ideal, at least in theory, is a set of statistical measurements that achieves coherence between our qualitative evaluations and our quantative measurements.

That this effort is underway is no doubt true, and some of these advancements are very interesting. However, the problem I see it, as it is with any emergent field, is the lack of consensus. Although many of the players in this movement share the same goal, they naturally have different, competing conceptions of how to go about it. I think it is high time that all the actors involved: fans, players, teams, statisticians, economists, and the league to start a commission of some sort to actively start developing a new system of statistics.

But will it happen? I have my doubts, because the current statistical measures officially kept by the NBA has entrenched a set of incentives. These statistics are part of contract negotiations. If you change the statistics, you inevitably change incentives from the various stakeholders involved, and in any large and entrenched institution like the NBA, change is unlikely, and if it does happen, it’s likely to happen because of a crisis.

Anyways, enough geeking out for the day.

Where Hast Thou Gone, Steve Nash?

The Huffington Post posted a wide-ranging interview, ranging from his experience with the new Phoenix management, his point-guard playing style, and also his ballet (?!) abilities.

Watching the interview, you can tell that Steve Nash is an intelligent person; I mean, you have to be right, given that Steve Nash is probably the best pure point guard in the league right now. He’s also extremely articulate, probably the best spoken athlete in the NBA. And most importantly, the man actually has an opinion. Read Chuck Klosterman’s profile of him in Esquire from a while back, and you realize that Steve Nash is honest about his opinions, but not arrogant. This is a refreshing change, given that the league discourages players from airing their opinions in order to avoid potentially offending fans, which results in players’ self-censoring and saying nothing whatsoever in order to retain their market appeal (*cough* LeBron James *cough*)

Thus, it is really hard to see the Steve Nash of old, he of 7 seconds or less, have to force himself to slow down in order to accomodate Shaq, who slumbers his way down the lane. The current Suns offense have very little rhythm, and Nash’s talents are seriously mis-utilized. Steve Nash is a playmaker, not someone who just passes the ball down the post and see what the center does.

And from the interview, it doesn’t sound like Nash wants to stay in Phoenix after his contract is up in 2010. There is an intriguing possibility that he might go back to play for D’Antoni in New York. Now, the Knicks have enough cap space to sign two free agents in 2010. They are definitely going after LeBron, and assuming that they can get him, the prospect of playing with a guy who has the potential to be the best player in the history of the league has surely crossed Nash’s mind. I can totally imagine a scenario in which an Nash would be willing to take a pay cut in order to play together with LeBron, which frees up cap for the Knicks to potentially sign another all-star caliber player. This scenario makes a lot of sense: Nash gets to play for D’Antoni again, that offense would pretty much be unstoppable, and if they surround that team with athletic wing players, tough big men, and sharp shooters, I can guarantee that that team will be contending every year, in and out.

But unfortunately, the Steve Nash of the old Suns is nowhere to be seen right now, and it’s sad to see one of the most brilliant players of his generation wasting the next 18  months away in a system that does not utilize him.

Mind Blown in 3, 2, 1…

According to this article on HoopsHype, there is a possibility that the Lakers will bring Kwame Brown back.

Hold. Up. Say What?!?!

The same Kwame Brown who was booed by the hometown fans?! The same Kwame Brown whose exit led to chorus of cheers? The same Kwame Brown that squandered the potential people saw in him as a former number one pick in the draft? The same Kwame Brown who can’t even hold a piece of cake?!

But I suppose I could see some reason in even the remote possibility of getting Kwame Brown back. After all, the Lakers just lost Ronny Turiaf to Golden State, and Andrew Bynum’s knee is still a question mark in training camp. So the organization probably felt like they needed another body, in fact, any BODY, for nothing else other than taking up some room in the post. And believe me, if there is one thing that Kwame Brown is even remotely competent at, it is standing there and taking up space. But sometimes, he can’t even do that right.

Yet one must wonder, how awkward must this re-union be? I mean, this is worse than saying to an ex whom you triumphantly dumped for someone much hotter, and then later going back to that ex and saying: I would like you back just so that I can another pair of hands around the house, but by the way, I’m sleeping with the much hotter girl that I dumped you for while you get to sleep in the basement on an old futon.

But, I suppose if the Lakers pay something like a $1 mil a year for two years with a second-year team option, I can see the deal making both basketball and financial sense. And even as the logical part of me can potentially rationalize this, there is a part of my brain that just exploded when I read that article.

If this deals does end up happening, then the Lakers will have essentially traded Ronny Turiaf for Kwame Brown–surely a trade that no one would make, considering that Ronny Turiaf is an improving young player that plays with energy and provides a lift off the bench, whereas Kwame Brown is a has-been who wasted ten years in the league and has nowhere to go but down, assuming that he can even go lower.

None of this would have happened if the Lakers simply matched the offer sheet for Ronny Turiaf. After all, the Lakers are one of, if not the, richest and most profitable franchises in the NBA. And this is where the notion of restricted free-agency makes no sense to me. First of all, the very phrase “restricted free-agency” is a contradiction in terms.

Second, restricted free-agency is completely biased in favor of the players, because no matter what happens, the player who has an offer sheet made to him will get paid than what he’s actually worth. From a prospective team’s point of view, the only reasonable way to get a restricted free-agent is to offer him a contract whose value exceeds his market value, because otherwise the original team can always just match the offer sheet. Therefore, you have situations in which second or even third-tier players being offered ridiculous contracts, in which case, he wins whether his original team matches or not.

The effect of this is obvious: it grossly inflates payroll, which means additional costs passed onto the consumers. Really, the NBA should get rid of free-agency altogether: let both teams and players have complete freedom when their contract is up, so that both sides can negotiate in a more optimal way. But then again, restricted free-agency is skewed towards the players, and for this reaosn alone, it will probably stay because the players’ union can use it as a huge leverage when it comes to renew the collective bargaining agreement.

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Lakers-Celtics: Why it’s the Patriots-Giants All Over Again

By this point, it is only a matter of time before the Celtics win their 17th title in team history, their first in 22 years. Realistically, the Lakers can at best only hope to extend the series for one more game tonight, two if they are really playing out of their mind. That they can extend the series to the full 7 games seems by now very improbable.

But, that is the objective basketball fan in me that is saying the above. The Lakers fans in me unapologetically says LAKERS IN SEVEN!!!!

Okay, now that my denial mode is over, let’s talk about how the 2008 Lakers are really the 2007 Patriots. For starters, both are staggering offensive teams who can score at will due to the combination of a superior talent (Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady playing at career peak levels), surrounded by a supporting offensive unity (the Lakers front court combo of Odom and Gasol, and Pats receiving corps), that on most nights can simply outscore their opponents while playing defense that is just good enough.

Going into their respective post-seasons, both are picked as champion favorites due to their seemingly-unstoppable offense. And up until the championship round, the predictions seem warranted, as both the Lakers and the Patriots outscored their opponents by healthy margins. But in the championship round, both lost (or will lose) because they have met a superior defensive team.

In the 2007 Patriot’s case, it was the Giants’ tough front line that repeatedly bludgeoned both Tom Brady and his receiving corps; in the 2008 Lakers’ case, it was the tenacious defense of the Celtics, led by Kevin Garnette and a much tougher front-court that killed the Lakers on rebounding. In both cases, the defense side of the teams crippled the offenses’ best options: Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant. This is not to say that both have sucked, but rather that they could not single-mindedly impose their will on the game as they could in the games up to that point.

So as a Lakers fan, I can take some small consolation, though it is not much, in relishing the fact that an seemingly unbeatable Boston team was beat, and beat by the same kind of dominant defense that the Celtics are now putting on the Lakers. The fact that this is something I’m even mentioning should tell you how disappointed I am in this Lakers team.

UPDATE:

Thank God the Lakers saved me some face by winning game 5 and not letting the Celtics take the trophy at Staples Center–that would have been horrible: to listen to trash talk while being surrounded by a bar full of Celtics fans. By the way, where in the hell did all these Celtics fans all of a sudden pop up? The last time I checked, DC isn’t Boston. Are these just Eastern Conference bandwagon fans, or do people outside LA really hate the Lakers that much? I’m guessing it’s the latter.

Regardless of their win, the Lakers did nothing in this game to address any of my concerns:

  • They still do not play good defense consistently. There are stretches when they are just shutting people down, but at other times they are just standing around and watching Paul Pierce drive to the rim at will.
  • Related to the first, the Lakers just can’t seem to keep a large lead. They nearly blew a 19 point lead this game, which isn’t as bad as blowing a 24 point lead in game 4.
  • All of which points to the fact that Lakers just can’t play a dominant game for the entire 48 minutes, and this worries me more than anything else, because a championship team will do what is necessary to play a complete game of basketball. And so far, the Lakers have not played a single game where they completely dominated. On their two wins, they did barely enough to win, but that and no further. They are getting out-hustled on rebounds and second-chance points, and this kind of lackadaisical effort simply will not do on the road.

If the Lakers want to make history, they will absolutely have to play with the kind of effort which they have not been showing the last five games. They need to come with a killer mentality and dominate the entire game, not just the first half. And for fuck’s sake, please put either Lamar Odom or Kobe on Paul Pierce, because neither Radmonivic or Luke Walton can guard him for beans.

Sasha Vujacic: Part Man, Part Machine

The Machine at work

If you were to tell me that Lakers starters not named Kobe Bryant would only combine for 22 points and still beat the Boston Celtics, I would have thought you were smoking some of that good crack. But damn, Sasha “The Machine” Vujacic stepped up BIG TIME, and the Lakers finally made this a real series.

Therefore, I hereby recant and renounce any and all disparaging remarks I have ever said about Sasha Vujacic, of which there were countless instances in the past. I will no longer call him belittling nicknames, like “10:30,” and I will no longer speak with anxiety whenever he touches the ball and looks like he’s about to let it rip.

So last night, there was a thunderstorm in DC, and coming out of the Metro, I was caught right in the middle of it with no umbrella. I was faced with a dilemma: either I walk through the thunderstorm (it was also hailing by the way) and watch the Laker game at Momo’s, or I go back to the Metro and go home.

The choice was easy: go through the hail and rain and watch what was then a must-win game for the Lakers. Yes sir, I watched in the pouring rain and hail for ten minutes before I found the bar, and was soaked from head to toe, hair dripping wet, and sat my ass down at the bar and got a knowing glance and an approving nod from the people around me. Because they know that as a true basketball fan, there is nothing short of divine intervention that can stop you from watching the most important game of the season for your home team.

The bar tender kindly handed me a towel to wipe myself off, and as a favor from one basketball nut to another, he gave me a free shot of Jameson to try to warm me up. What a great guy! But soon, after the game started, I realized that I was in a deeply hostile territory: I was the only Lakers fan in the building–everyone else was rooting for the Celtics. So as you can imagine, there was a lot of friendly shit-talking and ball-busting going back and forth. And back and forth it went without letting up, because the game was really close, and no one really knew who was going to win.

Late in the game, when every basket was worth its weight in gold, the entire bar would erupt after a Celtics field goal. So to try to equal things out, I went crazy whenever the Lakers scored down the stretch. Man it was great. After the Lakers won, I made sure to gloat, but of course in a friendly, jesting manner. And the people at the bar were such good sports that I got several free drinks.

Now that was a great game, a great night, and it shows that people really do bond over basketball.

And whom do I have to thank? Why of course, it’s The Machine!!!!! With 1:58 left, Lamar Odom found Sasha open in the corner, and after catching the pass, The Machine just let it rip, and it was all net. After that three, the Lakers were up by 5, and the game was effectively over.

So here’s a big fucking toast to The Machine, who on yesterday night, became The Man.

A Hegelian Interpretation of Superbowl XLII

The story: an underdog team led by an unproven quarterback plays stifling defense on the odds-on favorite team with a dominant offense, ends up winning by 3 points on a last second play, creating one of the biggest upsets in Superbowl history. 

If you think I’m describing today’s game in which the Giants upset the Patriots, you are wrong. Because I’m really talking about Superbowl XXXVI, in which Tom Brady, then an unproven commodity, led the New England Patriots, a 14 point underdog, to victory by defeating the St. Louis Rams. 
But before I go on, let me just say: it’s about to get HISTORICAL up in there. 
The similarities are uncanny. The Rams came into the Superbowl as the most dominant offensive team in the league, being first in total scoring and yardage, having racked up over 500 points during the regular season. They had offensive weapons in every position: Kurt Warner was named league MVP, they had Issac Bruce and Torry holt as receivers, Marshall Faulk in the running game and was named the league offensive player of the year. Their offense was called “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The Rams’ defense ranked 3rd in the league.
Sound familiar? That’s because the 2001 Rams were remarkably like the 2007 Patriots: a team that dominated both offensively and defensively, had weapons at every position in the offense, led by a league MVP at quarterback, and considered the odds-on favorite to win against the underdog. 
I couldn’t help but remember, after watching today’s game, the similar historical forces at work. It is positively Hegelian. It is as if the Geist of professional football decided that it’s time to get dialetical and to bring about an event of historical significance: the nearly perfectly symmetrical rise and fall of the New England Patriots. To top it all off, the “Spygate” incident that marked the beginning of the Patriot’s 2007 season also came to haunt them at the end of their season, an allegation that said the Patriots also videotaped the Rams in 2001. 
Coincidence? So says everyone. But I suspect that there is some deeper, world-historical force at work here: the Spirit of Professional Football seeking its own self-actualization and self-awareness, using the Patriots as its instruments. Just as Geist used Tom Brady in 2001 as its instrument, so did Geist use Eli Manning as its instrument in completing this historical occurrence. 
What does this mean? It means that World-History has passed the New England Patriots: they will no longer be dominant, for their role in world-history has been passed onto someone else. They were instruments of world-history for a while, but Geist is always moving. 
(and yes, this is all a joke, don’t take it seriously, I’m sure Hegel is rolling in his grave right now)

The Travails of Being a Lakers Fan

My head just about exploded when I heard the news: the Lakers traded for Paul Gasol, one of the premier big men of this generation in the league, and all they had to give away are Kwame Brown, one of the biggest busts in NBA history, Jarvaris Crittenton, a third-string point guard, and two draft picks.

It blows my mind how much the Lakers gained in return than what they gave away. I mean this is fucking Paul Gasol we are talking about here! HOLY SHIT! Oh man I cannot contain my excitement, because this is the starting five when Andrew Bynum comes back:

1 – Derek Fisher
2 – Kobe Bryan
3 – Lamar Odom
4 – Paul Gasol
5- Andrew Bynum.

I mean, HOLY FUCKING MOTHER OF GOD! Look at that line-up: three of those guys command automatic double teams: Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum. Can you imagine either Bynum or Gasol down in the post, drawing two defenders, passing kicking out the ball to Fish for a 3, or to Lamar/Kobe for penetration, or simply passing it to the other big on the weak side for an easy lay-up/dunk because of single-coverage.

Oh my god I can’t even imagine how fucking crazy that offense will be: it will be virtually unguardable, because at least two of them will command double teams, or if they are single-covered, they will absolutely dominate the defender. And combine that with the fluid ball movement of the triangle offense–this is fucking unstoppable.

And this is not even to mention what they can do on defense: Kobe, Fish, Gasol, and Bynum are all good defenders. Bynum and Gasol will get so many offensive boards that they will have crazy second-chance points. They are both long and athletic and will create so many shot-blocking opportunities. Not to mention Kobe and Fish’s individual, lock-down defense they can play on the opposing team’s guards.

For the first time since 2003, I can unequivocally say that the Lakers have as good of a chance of winning the championship as the best teams in the NBA, up there with Detroit, Boston, Dallas, and San Antonio. They can easily beat Phoenix with this line up, since there’s no way Phoenix can defend on the interior. I am just super PUMPED!

It has been a long time coming though after the 2003-2004 season ended. That’s when it all started down hill. Shaq and Phil left, Kobe couldn’t lead the team to more than 30 wins. They couldn’t get past Phoenix in the last two seasons in the first round of the playoffs. They traded Caron Butler for Kwame Brown, only to watch Caron Butlet become of the premier wing players in the NBA. They were plagued with injuries of their key players in the last two seasons just as their game was picking up.

So all in all, the years 2004 to 2007 has not been good to the loyal Lakers fans. I had to watch the most dominant team of the late 90’s/early 00’s become a pale shadow of its former self, torn apart by ego battles, injuries, incompetent management, and just bad luck. And now, wow, now within one day, the entire season is turned around. This must be how a Celtics felt when KG signed with Boston.

It is nothing less than a miracle: suddenly there is hope again. Suddenly the travails of the last four years seem a distant memory best left forgotten.

Hope springs eternal.