Saturday, January 05, 2008

Michael Lewis is not Amused

Thanks to columns like this effort from Bill Simmons, Moneyball continues its ascent as one of the most misinterpreted book in the Western Canon, right up there with the Bible and the Prince. Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane overcoming the A's financial disadvantages by exploiting a market inefficiency, namely the undervaluing of strike zone judgment and college players in the market for baseball players. In so doing, Beane rejected the subjective judgments of his scouts that certain guys "look like players" in favor of objective statistical analysis of prospects.

Simmons claims that a similar revolution is taking place in the NBA:

Here's the new mantra for savvy NBA teams: "Chemacterility." Why haven't you heard the term before? Because I just made it up. But it's an amalgam of three concepts that have formed the foundation of the Duncan era in San Antonio: chemistry, character and (cap) flexibility. As soon as Duncan arrived, in 1997, Popovich and Buford began to avoid bad guys and bad contracts, preferring role players, quality guys and short-term deals.

You're probably aware of the obvious stupidity of this argument, especially with Moneyball as the lead-in. One of the primary themes of Moneyball is the importance of objective analysis of players. Beane figured out that it was better to evaluate players statistically than to listen to scouts, who based their judgments of their experience and near-mystical beliefs in whether a guy could succeed or fail. Simmons has Moneyball backwards and claims that the analogous revolution in the NBA is to evaluate players based on chemistry and character, both of which are inherently subjective.

You would think that a guy like Simmons who pays attention to the NBA would realize that there is a much better parallel between Buford's Spurs and Beane's A's. The Spurs were one of the first NBA teams to figure out that foreign players were undervalued because they developed better team skills - namely passing, movement without the ball, and team defense - than American players did. Thus, they capitalized on the good fortune of landing the best player in basketball (Tim Duncan) by surrounding him with Tony Parker (28th pick in the Draft) and Manu Ginobili (57th pick in the Draft). Screw character, the Spurs pay homage to Moneyball because they had a better player acquisition strategy than anyone else in the league did.

Simmons cites the Miami Heat as an example of a team that has ignored the character strategy at their own peril, but this completely misses the reason why the Heat aren't very good. Miami has two marquee players. Dewayne Wade is coming off of a significant shoulder injury. He is still rounding into form. Shaquille O'Neal is a shell of his former self. He can barely lift his arms over his head after years of getting pounded in the post. The rest of the Miami roster is crap. It doesn't much matter whether that crap is high- or low-character. Does Simmons really think that Dewayne Wade is frustrated because Ricky Davis and Mark Blount are bad guys or because he doesn't have any teammates who can hit open jumpers or rebound misses?

The irony of Simmons touting a character and chemistry strategy is that his beloved Patriots are unbeaten in large part because of their acquisition of Randy Moss. Apparently, character and chemistry matter in the NBA, but they don't matter in the NFL.


Fox said...

You really have a hard-on for Mandel and Simmons don't you.

It sure seemed like Simmons was making a simpler point--that the newfound emphasis by some in the NBA on chemistry is a sea change in how teams approach team-building in the same way that Billy Beane changed the way baseball execs built their teams. He certainly wasn't saying that NBA execs adopted the Moneyball approach (although some, like Houston and Dallas sort of have).

You are absolutely right that Miami was a horrible example by him--their problems are less to do with chemistry and more to do with a startling lack of talent and bad cap management decisions necessary to win the title a few years' back. (It's hard to be good when you're paying a semi-useless player about half your cap space.

A much better example would have been Portland of four years ago versus Portland now--both teams probably had about the same amount of talent but this group plays especially well together and so is playing above their heads.

Daniel said...

Just one note, it's Dwyane, not Dewayne.
Good article though!

Michael said...

Simmons and Mandel are both capable of better writing than the schlock they sometimes put out (Simmons especially).

I sorta agree that NBA execs (save one) are realizing that players like Zach Randolph and Stephon Marbury aren't worthwhile because they are crazy people, but there is also an argument that there are plenty of objective ways to criticize their games, as well. A better point would be that teams are figuring out that guys who get their points through volume shooting and contribute little in other areas aren't especially useful.

Daniel, I knew that Dwyane spelled his name funny and I went with the wrong funny spelling. The sad thing is that I got the spelling right in my post after the Hawks-Heat game that I attended and then got it wrong on Saturday.

Fox said...

Yeah, they do tend to be sloppy, but I think it's usually because they're making a superficial point and don't bother to explain it's limits/flaws. I wonder if it has to do with their readership...the average SportsGuy fan is, well, not quite as well-educated as your average reader.

What, scoring 25 on 40% shooting doesn't always make your team better? Isiah's inability to recognize that Starbury makes his teammates worse was just the first sign he was an idiot.

I'm not convinced that there's always a real connection between chemistry and character. To take a weird example, Rodman was far from a boy scout but he was good for the Bulls' chemistry; then again Jordan was there to keep him in line. And there are plenty of people who are good guys off the court--Jerry Stackhouse comes to mind--who would suck to play with. Unless they're worried about scaring off their fans, people should mostly be worried about "basketball character", right?
But there is a lot to be said for acquiring guys who fit together, will sacrifice for the good of the team, and who will pass, defend, rebound, etc. rather than just worry about getting theirs.