One of my biggest pet peeves is someone who refuses to acknowledge that life changes. Or, the improvements that have been made. You know which people I’m talking about – the ones who start conversations with, “Back in the day . . .” I used to belong to that group, maybe not as a charter member, but, if there were ID cards, I definitely would have had one.
Being a techno-idiot (there was a time I hoped that computers were a fad), it was difficult coming to grips with the fact that I had become a dinosaur. The two main skills I possessed during my youth were 1) I was great with numbers (adding and subtracting, even multiplying and dividing – in my head) and 2) I was a sensational speller. Then, along came calculators and spell check. So, it was join the crowd or allow myself to get left behind.
Or . . . find somebody (or somebodies) who could help. You see, in life, you don’t need to know everything, just know others who do. What I found out was, when you begin to allow others to think for you, if you have a shred of self-respect, the pursuit of knowledge calls and you actually learn how yo do some things yourself. Not everything – but improvement nonetheless. What I’ve learned has quintupled since I opened my mind (don’t be so impressed, the beginning number times five is still somewhere in the neighborhood of infinitesimal).
And so we come to the point of this blog. Due to my love of stats, I could keep score at a baseball game – when I was 10 years old. I knew which opposing player to foul at the end of a game. I understood (depending on certain variables like the weather or what the scouting report said) what play to run if 2 or fewer, 3-7 or more than 8 yards were needed for a first down. I loved statistics.
Until they became lord and master of which players to play, which ones to trade for or draft, which group should play the most because the stats said they made up the best unit. In other words, when, for lack of a better term, the stat heads took over. Joe Lunardi, Brian Windhorst, Skip Bayless and Mel Kiper Jr have a place in the game. Their long term track record are proof of they should be included. They found a shtick, e.g. young guys who had zero physical talent but wanted to be “in the game” so they studied and did whatever they could to get noticed – and carved out a niche. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they spawned a flock of wannabes, some of whom have taken statistics, in particular, to new and unnecessary heights, who really and truly believe that every contest can be explained by their set of statistics. Usually after the game has been played.
Analytics have overtaken everything else in terms of how a game should be evaluated. The Oakland A’s won with a small budget, a book was written, it turned into a movie and now there are actually people in power positions in all of the major sports who think these numbers and formulas were carved out of stone and brought down from the mountaintop. Take basketball, for instance. We used to have points, rebounds and assists per game. Every player had a field goal percentage, free throw percentage and, later, a three-point field goal percentage.
That wasn’t good enough because too many people understood it. The stat heads thought, “What can we come up with to get us accepted? We have no skill or feel for the game. Let’s find something in our wheelhouse – that’s waaaaay beyond what the ‘old-timers’ can easily understand. We have to make sure it sounds relevant, i.e. uses actual recorded stats, but make sure they can’t be comprehended without our help.” What am I talking about? The following are a few examples, along with how they are calculated.
Turnover percentage, the measure of how often a team loses possession of the ball before creating a scoring opportunity.
Or this one I heard yesterday during the Miami-Toronto game: “In games decided by three points or less, the Heat was third in winning percentage.” Does that mean Spo tells his guys to just work on cutting their opponent’s lead to three and “we got this one.” Except, of course, when they’re playing one of the top two.
During that same game, there was mention made of a team that “was second best in the NBA in contested shots.” How proud that club’s fan base should be.
Then, there’s the all-important NBA efficiency rating which is computed by the formula, (points + rebounds + assists + steals + blocks − ((field goals attempted − field goals made) + (free throws attempted − free throws made) + turnovers)). To get a player’s efficiency rating per game, divide all that by the number of games played. Makes the game a lot more interesting, doesn’t it?
And, finally, for the true stat head geek, the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In order to figure it out, remember that all calculations begin with what is called unadjusted PER (uPER). That formula is (and you have to scroll right for a while):
When multiplied out and refactored, the equation above becomes:
Maybe this will clarify it for the reader. The highest career player efficiency rating ever belongs to Michael Jordan and the highest single-season player efficiency rating was that of Wilt Chamberlain. If the casual fan was asked the questions, “who had the highest PER ever and who had the highest PER for a single season,” I’d venture to say most people would have each of those in their top 5 guesses. In fact, the top 27 players on the PER list are, or will definitely be, in the Hall of Fame. So, did we really need stats to tell us that?
Basketball is a game of action-reaction. My last college boss – and Hall of Famer – the late Jerry Tarkanian was fond of saying, “The more a player thinks, the slower his feet get.” The best players ever were cerebral – in a basketball sort of way. There’s absolutely no doubt that the stat heads think they’ve got the game figured out. It’s just that:
“No matter what you believe can be solved, no matter how smart you are, don’t think you can predict, or even influence, the outcome of a basketball game – or most any sporting event – by crunching some numbers.”