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Stats, storytelling and Sloan: How to make advanced stats in basketball a more engaging conversation

Lest the basketball advanced stats world become an echo chamber, the community needs to engage with the media and fans to have conversations on topics.

Bob Levey

BOSTON -- During All-Star weekend the NBA unveiled a public data page crammed with numbers and statistics, some more familiar than others to the casual user. To the hardcore basketball fans that live on Twitter and League Pass, this was extremely useful. No more multiple browser tabs! All the shot charts, plus/minus data and line-up information in one place, and it's spectacularly easy to navigate.

The NBA didn't do this to help the true believers craft blog posts. What the league is doing, besides capturing page views, is making True Shooting percentage and the like part of the conversation for casual fans. This is roughly analogous to when baseball telecasts began listing OBP alongside batting average, home runs and RBIs when players come up to bat. Welcome to the normalization of advanced metrics.

I was reminded of this over the weekend when the city was overrun with geeks, quants and hustlers for the annual networking orgy known as the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. When gathered in multitudes they may seem like they run the world -- or at least The Fours where the nerds overran mystified Bruins fans at their favorite post-game watering hole.

The reality, of course, is much different. For every analytically inclined member of a team's front office there are several more who aren't interested. For every Hoopdata loving basketball writer (please come back, Hoopdata) there are crusty beat writers who don't care nothing about fancy-boy stats. And for every enlightened fan there are hundreds more who count the ringzzzz first, last and forever.

And that's where this whole thing breaks down in a self-congratulatory echo chamber of smugness and mistrust. The cultural divide is still strong, but it doesn't have to be. As Kirk Goldsberry mentioned in his presentation, we need to get better at communicating what the metrics mean and that's where the media comes into play. With a little more patience and whole lot less hubris, we can start talking with people instead of at them.

Step 1: Educate the broadcasters

There is no more direct link between teams and fans than their local telecasts and it's not as if hometown announcers need much prodding to rally the fanbase to the cause. If they can convince the fans that the refs have it in for them, they can just as easily explain why the mid-range game is deader than the '90s and the corner three is king.

Let's start small. Per-game numbers are more informed when adjusted for pace. Rebounding percentage is more telling than raw totals. If the broadcasters narrated the game with a few of these basic concepts in mind, fans would get a more complete picture of what's actually happening on the court and it wouldn't seem so mysterious.

There's a reason League Pass addicts hold the Orlando crew of David Steele and Matt Guokas with such regard. They are tremendous at filtering out the statistical noise and helping fans understand what they're watching.

This isn't rocket science, after all. Its just basketball and the wonderful thing about advanced metrics is once you get past the awkward acronyms and wonky-sounding labels, they include many of the same concepts that the great coaches of the past and present incorporated with their teams.

Step 2: Eliminate the myth of the magic number

All basketball statistics are context-dependent. Who's on the court, what's the score, how good is the opponent, are they on a back-to-back? ... these are all important variables that need to be taken into account when making judgments about performance. In the rush to quantify everything, every single day, there's often a lack of critical perspective. (See: Rondo, Rajon and the Celtics are better/worse without him).

Hoop nerds understand that John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating is a box score mashup that doesn't reward defense as much as offense. They get that plus/minus is dependent on other factors. Context is always far more interesting than naked numbers and it's okay to acknowledge that we don't always know everything definitively.

To many, the lack of an all-encompassing number along the lines of WAR is proof that advanced basketball statistics have failed and the game is too complex to be broken down categorically. Frankly that's part of what makes them so appealing. It's a puzzle that can be broken down, studied and analyized. Every insight sends you scrambling in a half-dozen different directions.

The onus, fellow geeks, is on us to fill in the gaps and provide that context with all the tools at our disposal, which brings me to my final point.

Step 3: Don't forget the human element

Statistics help tell a story. When used correctly they offer a more complete portrait of performance, but too often a fundamental question is left out of the equation: Why? All the fancy shot charts, Synergy clips and intricate numbers only tell part of the story.

Many times I've heard numbers skeptics say something along the lines that this a human game played by people. Despite their dismissive tone, they're absolutely correct. What was the coach's motivation for running out various line-ups? Why did a player react the way he did in a certain situation?

Whether intentional or not, the numbers have a way of dehumanizing the participants. Spend time with any self-aware NBA player and it becomes clear that they understand how the game should be played and their role in the process. Kevin Garnett may not know his PER from his rebounding percentage, but he thinks the game in a way that would make any stat geek swoon and he has valuable insights to share.

Players are not data points and getting five people to work together in concert is an elaborate dance that depends on a whole host of factors not collected in the box score. The Celtics, for example, talk a lot about communication as the key element to their stifling defense. That speaks to trust, intelligence, awareness and so many other things that get glossed over as intangibles because we can't quantify them in the box score but are extremely tangible. All you have to do is ask.

Take this piece by Matt Moore on Andre Iguodala. Combining analysis, access and reporting tools both new and old, Moore took us into Iguodala's world in a revealing, insightful piece that was one of the best of the year.

We need more of that. We need to tell better stories. More than any breakthrough study or insightful quantitative analysis, that will help bring fans into the conversation and continue the revolution.

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