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The Sixers and Analytics: Basketball Is Not Moneyball

Some people think you can either believe in basketball or numbers about basketball. That's just wrong.

Bob Levey - Getty Images

[ed. note]: You knew we had to.

In case you were preoccupied yesterday watching the Eagles go all Eagles, the Inquirer’s John Mitchell wrote an "Inside The Sixers" piece on Sunday touting the organization’s decision to promote longtime personnel guy Tony DiLeo instead of an analytics based thinker. Grantland’s Zach Lowe linked to the article on Twitter, and a pretty big reaction followed, about as much as you’d get during an October NFL Sunday anyway. And almost all of it was negative.

As far as the specifics of piece go, it really speaks for itself. The gist of Mitchell’s point is that basically because Daryl Morey has recently had a run of teams around the .500 mark in Houston, analytical thinkers who utilize advanced statistics would have been a poor choice for the Sixers. Good friend of the blog Spike Eskin wrote a nice response breaking down the glaring contradictions of the Mitchell article, which is definitely worth a read.

But the main point where Mitchell misses the mark, and there are many, is the separatist stance taken towards analytics in basketball. Don't get me wrong, he definitely isn’t alone in hearing the word "analytics" and automatically placing his focus on Jonah Hill’s nerdy computer whiz character in Moneyball. Mitchell paints Morey as a man with a computer and calculator in a dark room who spits out numbers and makes decisions, and that depiction isn’t fair to anyone.

The characterization is mostly unfair because simply, it's hard to build a successful team in today's NBA without a top-flight player. There are teams who have had much less success than the Rockets without an analytics based approach, and also very good teams with an analytical element within their organizations.

Let me tell you a quick story about myself. Like some readers undoubtedly did, I played high school basketball in Philadelphia. I was an average player who was lucky enough to play against some pretty good players. In fact, one of the better ones I was fortunate enough to compete against is now in competition to win the Sixers’ backup point guard job. This playing experience is where my interest in the NBA came from initially, schematically and on the court. I love offensive schemes, defensive rotations, pick and roll coverages, and whatever teams use as a plan of attack to either score or defend.

In school, math was my least favorite subject by far, and boy, was I bad at it (still am, actually). Yet my favorite two stats by far in my limited analytical understanding of today’s NBA are not the traditional points and rebounds per game, but the more "advanced" (even though they are very easy to understand) true shooting percentage and usage rate. Why? Because they are able to help give a clearer understanding of what I’m watching on the court.

It seems that the skeptics or critics of any advanced statistics are worried that the game will become secondary to the numbers, a development which will never happen. The truth is that anyone who uses these numbers is also served by becoming a skeptic, treating the data as the "what" to the game’s absolutely necessary "how," "where," "when," and "why." After all, people don’t make these statistics up. They derive from what happens on the court, and considering the complex team nature of basketball (more so than baseball), game observation is critical to place a context on the numbers.

Oftentimes, the observation and statistics reach the same conclusion. For example, the evaluation a scout would reach from watching Dirk Nowitzki, a deadly two-point jump shooter with a pretty much unblockable release, would coincide with that of an analytics guy who charted his shooting percentages from different spots on the floor and saw his ridiculous percentages from those spots. In that situation, you are coming to the same conclusion regardless of which method you use. And after looking at both, you feel really good about the assertion.

The same goes for Elton Brand’s awesome post defense last year, something a scout could take note of by mentioning his great upper body strength, sneaky long arms and great timing as a shot blocker. Similarly, the statistics would show that Brand was at the top of the league in points per possession defending against post-ups. Ditto for Andre Iguodala’s wing defense. This is not particularly hard stuff.

As always though, you have to watch the games to place a context on the numbers, and sometimes they may be misleading. For instance, Jrue Holiday’s disappointing last season came in a low-risk, conservative offense without any semblance of a finishing big man. Will he be better if those circumstances change? I don’t know, but at least that’s a case of the numbers not necessarily defining a player.

Every basketball fan should know that it is possible to use both statistics and observation in an effort to come to the best possible answer in evaluating both individual players and teams. There is so much data out there today which makes the NBA blogosphere so great. 82 Games, Hoop Data, Basketball Reference, Synergy Sports, Basketball Value, and a whole other list of places that goes on and on, help us as fans gain a better understanding of basketball. The amount of great statistical resources online is staggering, and for the NBA teams who make the investment, so much more is helping them make informed basketball decisions. Mitchell failed to mention that one of those "number friendly" teams, led by its "number friendly" owner, happened to win an NBA title in 2011.

This brings us to the Sixers and their general manager hire, Tony DiLeo. Often stuck with the unenviable task of picking in the late teens, DiLeo has been a part of making some good value picks in his time running the team’s draft. Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday, and Lou Williams are all examples of value picks, players that would be selected higher if their respective years were redrafted today. DiLeo has certainly been a part of some good decisions in the Sixers’ front office, but declaring him the right choice because of the nature of his player personnel background is totally misguided. Letting his draft record stand on its own merit would have honestly done a much better job of making the point.

There is no doubt that the Sixers could use a analytics mind in the front office to supplement DiLeo’s scouting background and Doug Collins’ coaching, the way Mike Zarren has become Danny Ainge’s right-hand man in Boston. Even though it’s still unclear how much power Collins has in making personnel decisions, DiLeo has said all of the right things in regards to analytics. Here is a quote from the GM:

"We feel that if we can supplement our basketball minds with the analytical part of it, that will give us more of an advantage and it will give me more information so that I can make better decisions."

There’s no one and specific correct way to build a basketball team, and that more than anything, is why it’s important to have all of the information you possibly can in making personnel decisions. Luckily for Sixers fans, the owners seem to understand the place of analytics in basketball, and the "unsexy" GM hire does too.

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