On Barkley vs. Morey (02/11/15)

By Paul Bessire
Charles Barkley says something on TV (with vitriol); nerds unite in defense...

What follows is a conversation about "analytics," how I view the concept, the pointlessness of the debate and the true divide within any industry. It is (probably) not what you would expect to read from someone who has spent over a decade using math to predict who is going to win upcoming games.

My issue with this debate is that it exists. A debate has been created that seemingly forces individuals to take sides, while the debate is not over anything of substance. There appears to be an "us" and a "them," but there should not be, at least as it relates to how I would define "analytics."

When I started in this business, the word "analytics" literally did not exist (I blogged about much of this almost exactly three years ago). To some extent, that means that part of what Barkley said is right in that it is a recently invented term that was essentially created by those who want to abuse the word for personal gain. While I have strong feelings about what I do and how others interpret that, I am confounded by the use of this term in any industry. Aside from the debate's existence, the biggest problem with the "analytics" conversation is that each individual talking about it defines it in a way (explicitly and/or contextually) to fit his/her viewpoint. That's certainly not indicative of a word that should carry much weight.

Personally, I wish we would stop using the word altogether as it only forces our biases. That being said, here is how I would view what is at the root of how I think and just about everything I do in sports and with other industries (for those who want to ignore most of the last three paragraphs and take this as my definition of "analytics," so be it):

Make smart decisions in a way in which one can be reasonably sure that the decision is a smart decision to make. Do so by leveraging available means to find the truth, while ignoring conventional wisdom.

This is what we all should be doing. Every person, every company has this goal (or at least should) for every decision. The resistance and the debate seems to emanate from the evolution of "available means" and stubbornness (or laziness) not to question or rationalize "conventional wisdom." The world is ever-evolving and ever-learning. We all need to be doing that too.

Admittedly, the vast majority of conventional wisdom aligns with the truth. Michael Jordan was good. Ryan Lindley is bad. Etc. But everything warrants continuous review and sometimes the truth - as generally discovered via research, which is being purported as "analytics" - completely flies in the face of preconceived notions. The world is not flat. Houston does not have a bad defense. (On the topic, the Rockets give up more points-per-game than 14 other teams in the league, but it's largely due to the fact that only two other teams use less time per possession on offense than the Rockets. Offensive pace has little to do with defense. Also, when Houston plays one of those other two teams, exponentially greater points than an average game should be scored regardless of defense). These days, it would be insane to believe and claim (with vitriol) that the Earth is flat. Similar reactions should resound for anyone who believes that offensive pace should essentially dictate a team's defensive worth (FYI... Wisconsin and Cincinnati are not very good defensive teams this year). We will get there and it has little to do with "analytics" and everything to do with the truth.

A confession: I'm not great at math, especially in my head. Give me an addition, multiplication or algebra problem to do and more than half of the people I know would be able to do it accurately faster than I could. But most would say that this site is about math. I would say it is different. This premise of this site is objectivity, technology, automation, market inefficiencies, and, most importantly, thinking about and addressing problems in a different way than convention.

As it relates to sports specifically, I realized long ago that I am not smart enough and that I, as most do, have too many inherent, personal biases to understand exactly what should happen when competitive forces interact. Coaches, like Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich, who have been intimately involved with one game for essentially their entire lives and who are willing to think about things independently, without concern for conventional wisdom or personal bias, can draw from experience and think quickly enough to make smart decisions in real-time. Most of us cannot do that, but we do not need to. Belichick, Popovich, Chip Kelly and others are right there with Nate Silver and Daryl Morey as examples of a way of thinking we should champion, rather than condemn - they may not all be the faces of the "analytics" movement, but I respect them in the same ways.

I leveraged technology to help me solve that problem and address a topic that is both interesting to me (and many, many others) and that has an inefficient, exploitable market. I love sports and I love winning, but I also knew that I would never be able to play or coach or even watch every game enough to comprehend everything that could possibly happen in the course of an upcoming game, let alone its relative likelihood. I'm no savant, nor genius. I just let the advancements in technology help me.

Players are not whittled down to a number. Information and technology that is more prevalent and available than ever is used to figure out who players really are.

In the past, the alternatives to watching/coaching/playing games with respect to gaining expertise for said game were extremely limited. Even a decade ago it took me a half an hour to simulate one game 50 times and spit out the same information it takes less than a second to spit out from 50,000 simulations today.

This is akin, to me, to the poker boom around a decade ago. Doyle Brunson took decades to play the number of hands that any kid with a credit card could get through in a month. In the sports world, Brunson would be Barkley and the kid would be Morey, and yet, there they both are at the table playing the same game and with the same level of experience and understanding of the sport with no possible way to debate that. In today's world, Brunson's approach to learning the game would be better... Yet this is what Barkley is defending (or at least portraying with vitriol): Do not leverage available technology. Do not question anything. Do not evolve. Resist. That may make for great headlines (and hey it lead to one of my first blog entries in a while), but it is also a great way to get passed by.

Ultimately, I do believe there is a clear divide in this debate. It's not jocks vs. nerds. It's definitely not "analytics" people vs. non-"analytics" people. There are "gets it" people and those who do not "get it." It seems just as many nerds or "analytics" people do not "get it" as jocks or non-"analytics" people (this is a problem and it's the exact reason this debate is so ludicrous). People who "get it" are rational, analytical, inquisitive, malleable and considerate. "Gets it" people embrace and appreciate change. They want to learn and evolve... Those who do not "get it" try to make their marks with vitriol.