February 12, 2013

SMITH | Rudy Gay and NBA Analytics

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Since its release, I have always been puzzled as to how Hollywood turned Michael Lewis’ novel Moneyball into a blockbuster film.  If you really boil the story down to its core, it is merely about the importance of crunching numbers and crawling through pages of data.  Yes, Billy Beane and his assistant Paul Depodesta did radically reevaluate how America’s Pastime was played, but they did it in the confines of an office.  However, regardless of whether you find it entertaining or not, the results of their findings helped the Oakland Athletics achieve great success despite their miniscule payroll.      Essentially, the advanced analytics these two minds chose to value allowed the A’s to gain a competitive advantage over their peers. So now, because of their undeniable value in helping a team gain a competitive advantage, similar advanced statistical metrics are being used to reevaluate the way NBA games are played.

At the crux of this movement towards defining basketball through numbers is the trade last month between the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons.  For those unaware, it was in this trade that Memphis — which is currently in fourth place in the Western Conference — shipped leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto. The move was highly criticized in many basketball circles as it was assumed the trade was done merely to help Memphis avoid luxury tax penalties.  Why else would the Grizzlies be so keen to give up their most exciting and dynamic player in the midst of a playoff push?   One of these critics, the New York Daily News, described the trade this way: “The Grizzlies have gone from having championship aspirations to patting themselves on their backs for cutting more than $40 million in salaries over the next three seasons.”  And while the Daily News is correct about Memphis cutting salary, in no way has Memphis given up its lofty championship goals.

This determination is due to advanced statistical metrics like Player Efficiency Rating and True Shooting Percentage that prove that even though Gay might be a productive scorer, he is highly inefficient. Therefore, he is not nearly as valuable as the casual fan or traditional basketball theorist might perceive. In fact, Player Efficiency Rating, an all-encompassing metric developed by the former ESPN analyst John Hollinger, rates Rudy Gay as worse than the average NBA player (Gay’s PER is 14.92 compared to the league average of 15). Also, according to Hollinger’s Trade Machine on ESPN.com, the Grizzlies gained six win shares in the trade by picking up Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis and the Raptors lost three win shares by receiving Gay and Hamed Haddadi.What is even more interesting is that Hollinger, the long-time leader of this relatively underground analytics movement, was hired by the Grizzlies to be their Vice President of Basketball Operations earlier this year.  By making his move to the Grizzlies, Hollinger made the rare jump from member of the media to front office executive.  It is only fitting that he is now putting his advanced algorithms and analytics to work by pulling the trigger on the Gay trade.These revolutionary statistics do not come without their faults, though, and until they are fully put to the test, their true value will continue to be debatable.  For example, Player Efficiency Rating — the most prominent basketball analytic — is often criticized for not giving extensive credit for outstanding defense.  Also, there is no possible fool-proof way to use mathematics to predict how well two players will mesh together.  Unlike baseball, where each individual’s performance is largely independent of the players around him, in basketball, teamwork is essential. So despite the fact that Hollinger and his statistics made a solid case for the trading of Gay, there were still great risks to making this deal that the Grizzlies had to accept. Two other reasons stand out as to why the Grizzlies might want to make this type of trade.First, two seasons ago, the Grizzlies made an improbable run past the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs to the Western Conference Semi-Finals while Gay was injured. This gave the front office some background of on-court success without Gay and helped validate the evidence of their numbers.Secondly, the Grizzlies’ owner, Robert Pera, is the founder of Ubiquiti Networks, Inc., and one of the 10 youngest billionaires in the world. It only makes sense that the owner backing up this type of deal happens to be a tech start-up whiz kid who has achieved enormous success through innovation.The Grizzlies may be making waves now for their use of basketball analytics — especially since they hired Hollinger — but it is far from the first or only team using them.  For example, one of the highest profile basketball analytic proponents is Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets who was hired in 2005. Morey, a graduate of Northwestern University with an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was about as surprising a hire as one could imagine in the NBA at the time. But even Morey in his high-ranking position has faced many traditional barriers to implementing his metric driven opinions. The head coach of the Houston Rockets at the time, Jeff Van Gundy, was quoted in a recent Sports Illustrated article saying, “There was a lot of trepidation in our coaching staff. What did this mean? Would it impact in a negative light how we coach?” And while Van Gundy and Morey were quick to resolve their differences in Houston, this backlash of coaches against the analytics movement is a common theme. Earlier this season, the Philadelphia 76ers coach, Doug Collins, responded to a question about his use of analytics with the response that, “If I did that, I would have to blow my brains out.”  Unfortunately for Collins, however, the 76ers went out and hired an analytics specialist only a week later anyway.By now, most NBA teams are seeing the use of analytics as a way to gain a competitive advantage over their peers or at least negate another team’s advantage.  But no matter how much evidence there is to show the value of these statistics, there are still dozens of traditional basketball minds that reject them. Obviously, by making the move for Gay, the Raptors are neglecting them in their own right. A year or two from now, when we look back at this trade and evaluate its results, it might help us reach a clearer conclusion on which evaluation process is more effective —that of the advanced basketball analytic or the traditional basketball theorist.

Original Author: Alex Smith