An Instance When Stat Heads Were a Little Too Much into Their Brilliance

There are infinitely more people who want to be involved in athletics than are talented enough to do so. One way to become part of the sports world is to create a niche, preferably one that has yet to be “invented.”

Back when the Celtics dominated (1950s-60s), it’s common knowledge that Red Auerbach was the head coach/mastermind of the franchise. Less known is that, during that era, teams couldn’t afford a staff of assistants, scouts, conditioning coaches and a large front office. In fact, Auerbach held many other roles, e.g. general manager, head of scouting, personnel director and travel agent.

Not too long after the Celtics’ dynasty, assistant coaches were introduced to the league. Trainers and doctors obviously were necessary. Then, in the early ’90s, Tim Grgurich left UNLV and became the first “player development” coach in the NBA. In today’s jargon, players are referred to as assets. It only makes sense for professional clubs to improve the productivity and value of their assets. Soon, every team had one. Today, it’s commonplace for franchises to employ a couple player development coaches, along with interns who shag balls and bang against players outside of actual team practice sessions (to keep everyone fresh and decrease injuries).
Everyone I’ve ever met who worked for an NBA team falls in love with their job. It’s exciting, gives employees a certain amount of fame (ego for some who forget where they came from/who they really are) and the perks are incredible – especially now that so many owners are billionaires (unlike when Auerbach patrolled the sidelines). For those in the travel party, per diem is (I think) $135/day (it was $127/day in 2015 but, with the new collective bargaining agreement, how could anybody expect to get by on such a meager amount)? In addition there is usually food in the locker room and on the plane. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that life? There is also the swag – the gear, shoes, supplements, most everything imaginable.
Many players employ personal trainers, chefs, nutritionists (don’t forget agents) – and why not? When the new CBA kicks in next year, the average player salary will be $9 million per year, with superstars making upwards of $35-$40 million – over multiple years. With that much money, so few spots (approximately 450 – 30 teams, 15 players per) and a zillion guys trying to steal your job, it’s vital to be at the top of your game.
So the question is, how does a non-player get involved in this sweet business? Something called analytics is the way to go. Come up with different ways to evaluate performance – for a team’s current players as well as those it’s considering adding to the roster via trades, free agency or the draft – and a person becomes not only valuable, but indispensable. P.S. It works for radio and TV also, as more and more stations are employing passionate “stat heads”, i.e. guys who have no physical skill – we used to call them wannabes – but have memorized minutiae so now they have actually found a place in the sports world.
Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane is the pioneer of the fields of analytics, making the low budget Bay Area team competitive, while turning heads of other franchises – and not only those playing baseball. His counterpart in the NBA is most likely Houston’s Daryl Morey (with a honorable mention going to Sam Hinkie). Where there used to be just “stats,” there are currently advanced stats which predict much more than the old ones guys like me are used to, e.g. eFG% is a better version of FG% (just don’t ask me why but, in a nutshell, advanced stats are a much greater indicator of overall player value). Keep in mind, though, they can’t measure heart which is why putting a team together will never be an exact science.
I tell people “I’m not from this century” (by the way – I mean BTW – it’s not something I’m proud of). However, anything that improves the effectiveness and enjoyment of the game, for players, coaches and fans, is most likely a good thing. All that said, sometimes these guys go a tad overboard. The latest absolutely useless statistic fed to the listening and viewing public occurred following Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, in which the San Antonio Spurs blew a 25-point lead to the Golden State Warriors (see my last blog – Kawhi Leonard’s injury most likely had something to do with the outcome).

The analytics’ folks gave us this gem to chew on: “The Spurs were 316-0 when leading by at least 25 points under Gregg Popovich before today (regular season & playoffs).”

Fascinating! I have just one question:

“What is every other coach’s record when leading by at least 25 points (regular season & playoffs)?”

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