The ball never lies: a lesson for analysts of all stripes

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Years ago, future President Rasheed Wallace (#Sheed2016) uttered the most profound phrase ever: Ball Don't Lie. How true that comment was.

What strikes me about the shockingly unsurprising results in the ballot box on Tuesday is that a substantial portion of the chatter around the election over the past year was a waste of time. The news coverage mattered, because in the end this is a poll. This gaffe or that speech or this policy position mattered. The serious character studies mattered. But the bloviating? The punditry? It was primarily a waste of time. Basically every poll average had the right result in the end. The betting markets had the right result. If you applied some sensible adjustments to the polls, as The New York Times' Nate Silver did, you saw the eventual result staring at you in the face. The polls didn't lie.

The same applies to the NBA and most if not all sports. All we as a collective -- those who write or talk professionally about the sport -- put in during the season comes down to a ball, two hoops, 24 men and seven games. The news coverage matters deeply -- injuries, rotation changes, offensive system changes, trades, dissension and chemistry all matter. And the raw results matter. The serious character studies are interesting. But the bloviating? The punditry? The stone cold gut feel locks? It's all primarily a waste of time. If you make smart, sensible adjustments to win-loss record -- by using proven methods like point differential and home-road adjustments -- you can assign probabilities for playoff series. Ball don't lie.

It's when a lower probability outcome comes to pass that we have problems. Those who rely on math tend to acknowledge that even in a 7-game series, upsets happen. When the Heat fell to the Mavericks in 2011, it was an upset based on regular season performance. Dallas wasn't "supposed" to waltz through the West, and they weren't "supposed" to win the title. But they did. The lower probability outcome happened, as it sometimes does. That's why it's called a probability.

The math-inclined certainly attempted to delve into why the Mavericks beat the odds; only some of this exploration was useful because it was a particularly difficult question. Many of those uninterested in quantitative analysis instead dug into the supposed character flaws of LeBron James. If the Heat didn't win a series most thought they should based on the team's exceptional talent, well, it was someone's fault -- not a reasonable if unanticipated probabilistic outcome. So we heard from Skip Bayless and Gregg Doyel and Buzz Bissinger and all of those Sports Karl Roves that LeBron was somehow a damaged person, a weak quasi-man and a loser. The math said that the Heat lost because LeBron had played worse than expected (possibly due to Dallas' defense, which had a better postseason than regular season by the numbers), and Dirk Nowitzki had played better than at just about any time in his career. (This was a former MVP.)

You'll remember which viewpoint got most of the attention: the one with all of the screaming and spittle. Not the one with data and reasoned hedging. Not the one that admitted "we don't know for sure." Because when you're a pundit -- sports, politics, anything -- "not knowing for sure" is admission of defeat. The dudes and dames on CNN don't get paid to say, "I don't know." Neither do the floating heads on ESPN or TNT.

But the ball don't lie. In 2012, the Heat again looked like favorites in the postseason based on regular season results, the injury to Derrick Rose and the untimely demise of the San Antonio Spurs. And guess what? This time, the heavier probability got the result, just like it did on Tuesday. And the math-tinged analysts who called it aren't screaming about how they always knew Mitt Romney was a clownfraud who can't close. They are pointing to the data that went into the probabilistic model and saying, "Yeah, polls don't lie." And the math-tinged analysts who picked the Heat heading into the 2012 playoffs didn't call into question the manliness or bravery of Kevin Durant or James Harden. They said, "Yeah, ball don't lie."

I don't know what in history made us as a people think we know everything, or made us as a people think we're supposed to act like we know everything. The only thing we know is that we know nothing. So we need to rely on data. We need to rely on math. We need to rely on what the ball tells us. Sheed knows. The ball does not lie.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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