Saturday, October 22, 2011

Moneyball for Basketball?

My wife and I went to the movies on Thursday night and saw Moneyball. It's a really good baseball movie, but of course it also got me thinking about basketball. The movie highlights the story of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's in the early part of the decade. Oakland had been getting pilfered of all it's good players by the "big boys" from New York and Boston so it decided to use a different strategy to build a team. Instead of looking at the "players" they put on the field they looked at the "numbers" that the players brought. They used sabermetrics, a mathematical formula that rates players purely on production, not on the "eye test". They signed and played players that traditionally may not have played because they couldn't play their "normal" position or their mechanics were funny. It also then takes into account how many of these statistics (hits, runs, on base %) you will need to win X number of games. It then uses a formula to calculate, based on the production you have, about how may games you can win.  This formula comes from the writings of baseball stat man Bill James. James bucked the old system of scouting (using the eye test) and favored just looking at the cold, hard data. In the movie his system allowed the A's to target several baseball players that were severely underpaid/undervalued, but had high production.

So what does ANY of this have to do with basketball? Well, I am very intrigued by the concept of just putting production on the floor - even if it isn't pretty or doesn't fit the classic position it is playing.

After I made that statement, all of you out there likely rolled your eyes and said some form of "tell me something I don't know!" But how many times have you seen the following scenarios play out:

  • A team plays their 6-6 post because he's the tallest player, but they have a 5-10 kid on the bench who would actually get more rebounds and be more physical on defense? We play the big kid because he could produce more, not because he actually does. 

  • How many times have you heard a coach say a kid can't shoot because his shot is ugly even though he can make a high percentage of his 3s? We judge the player by the eye test, not by his production. 

  • How many coaches have played their most athletic kid even when he doesn't produce? We play him because of what he could do.  

  •  How many teams play one of their best players even when he's having a terrible night and tanking the team? We play him because he should  be doing better but isn't.

I can readily admit to being guilty of all of the above! As I've gotten more experience I've become better at playing production, but still get caught in these traps. I think we all do from time to time. Our thinking always says "that player should give us _______".  Instead we need to be thinking in terms of "that player actually gives us ______".

Now, I will say that there are a lot of coaches that do it right - play their most productive players - but I also think that sometimes we love to play players based on potential. I know that I do. For instance, and I've done this, a player has a really nice looking jump shot so I encourage him to keep shooting in a game because I feel that he's going to catch fire. In my experience this usually doesn't happen, if he was a shooter they'd be going in. Someday he'll probably develop into a great shooter, but not now. In this situation we need to play him based on his production - which is not as a three point shooter.

Moneyball is also about finding players who can be successful filling given roles, not just putting the best five on the floor (again, another "NO DUH!" statement).  Who's going to rebound for you, get the extra one or two 50/50 balls a game, who's going to be a defensive stopper, who's going to be your extra zone-busting shooter against a 2-3 zone? Finding the situations to maximize production of your players - and knowing which situations they will be productive - is the key. We all know this, but do we all do it every time? It's about looking at where you need the production and figuring out who can best fill that role on your team. Sometimes the answer is going to surprise you.

Jerry Tarkanian was a master of this during his run at UNLV. Many times his teams were made up of players who were great in one or two areas and terrible at the rest. He was able to put them in position to maximize their potential and maximize their production for the team in their given area. They spent the most time in situations where they could be great.

Phil Jackson is also great at using the most productive players. Do you think that Steve Kerr was the best athlete that Jackson could have put at the point for the Bulls? Of course not, but he was the most productive player with his ability to shoot when they doubled Jordan. He was the most productive point the Bulls could have had.

Basketball does differ from baseball in one big way - it's more of a team game than baseball is. In baseball if you hate your second basemen it doesn't affect your ability to hit and throw, but in basketball if you hate your center you might not pass him the ball. So chemistry does factor into the combinations you put on the floor.

The Moneyball theory doesn't amount to you totally shaking up your roster, 90% of the players on the floor are the ones who should be there. Unlocking the hidden or underutilized production on your roster is what the Moneyball theory about. Finding guys who can give you statistics that you need to win and playing the guys that give you the most production - not the most potential. I haven't told you anything you don't already know, but hopefully it has you re-examine your team and the production levels of your guys. It will have my looking just a little bit differently at our squad this year.

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