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Horsepower, J.J. Barea And The Problem With Dismissing Math In Sports

Just a few weeks in, Grantland has dipped its toe in the boiling water of another good ol' Moneyball debate, this time with Wired editor Jonah Lehrer arguing something like because J.J. Barea was awesome in the Finals and because the Celtics lost after trading Kendrick Perkins, statistics are not the end-all be-all of sports decision-making. As with all such columns on the matter, Lehrer fails to point out even one person (in a position of power or otherwise) saying that statistics are the end-all be-all of sports decision-making.

After the boilerplate arguments about being unable to quantify the point guard who most helps his team (which actually has been quantified to some degree) and a cute analogy about buying a car, Lehrer presents some really, really odd evidence that stats are f--king us all up.

This is actually Lehrer's second slice of data (pun intended!), but it's more easily dismissed, so let's get it out of the way:

After all, there is no way to quantify the fierce attitude of a team that feels slighted, or the way even the best players can be undone by the burden of expectations, or how Kendrick Perkins meant more to the Celtics than his rebounding stats might suggest. (But Nenad Krstic looks so good on paper!)

Nenad Krstic actually looks awful on paper.

The Celtics wrongly thought their frontcourt could survive the massive downgrade from Perkins to Krstic because of the O'Neals; that was a crucial mistake. Boston also liked what Jeff Green brought to the team; most advanced stats dislike Green a great deal. And of course, we can't discount that Perkins desperately wanted an extension before the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, but couldn't get one at his price from Boston under cap rules. So instead of losing him for nothing, the Celtics traded him for Green, a placeholder named Nenad and a future first-round pick from the Clippers.

Perkins, of course, wasn't great in the playoffs either, and it remains to be seen whether Boston will come up ahead in the trade because of the draft pick. But to suggest Danny Ainge traded a by-the-numbers stellar defender and rebounder in Perkins for freaking Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic because he was too blinded by the numbers is just absurd nonsense.

And now, on Jose Juan "J.J." Barea.

During the regular season, the backup point guard had perfectly ordinary statistics, averaging 9.5 ppg and shooting 44 percent from the field. His plus/minus rating was slightly negative. There was no reason to expect big things from such a little player in the playoffs.

And yet, by Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Barea was in the starting lineup. (This promotion came despite the fact that he began the Finals with a 5-for-23 shooting slump and a minus-14 rating.) What Dallas coach Rick Carlisle wisely realized is that Barea possessed something that couldn't be captured in a scorecard, that his speed and energy were virtues even when he missed his layups (and he missed a lot of layups), and that when he made those driving floaters their value exceeded the point score. Because nothing messes with your head like seeing a guy that short score in the lane. Although Barea's statistics still look pretty ordinary - his scoring average fell in the Finals despite the fact that he started - the Mavs have declared that re-signing him is a priority. Because it doesn't matter what the numbers say. Barea won games.

Follow the logic here.

Barea was "ordinary" in the regular season according to statistics, and "still pretty ordinary" in the Finals.

The Mavericks won.

That makes Barea a winner.

Ergo, stats that indicated Barea was not great are not telling the truth because, look, he is a winner.




In his car-buying analogy, Lehrer argues that we think horsepower and fuel economy are the most important things to consider, and we do this because there are numbers -- a statistical hierarchy -- attached. As it turns out, in the end, things like seat comfort and dashboard aesthetics end up informing our pleasure level to a greater degree. As it turns out, then, our intuition -- that horsepower and fuel economy are most important -- is wrong, and further investigation into the data helps unblur the picture.

In the absence of box scores, all we're left with are the games themselves, wins and losses. That's an enjoyable way to follow sports for plenty of people, frankly; as basketball takes up so many hours of my day, I find myself following baseball and football in this more detached, observation-heavy and data-light fashion. It's lovely. But I'm not trying to win a football championship. Teams are. General managers are. Writers are trying to assess what teams that win are doing right, what teams that lose are doing wrong and what teams should do to get better.

Should they (the teams) rely on their intuition, and mistakenly chase the NBA version of horsepower (points and rebounds and assists per game) and fuel economy (field goal percentage)? Or should they delve deep into more accurate and telling measures of success, like per-minute scoring, rebound rate, assist rate and True Shooting percentage? Because J.J. Barea, an undersized Puerto Rican who "the stats" don't like that much, has a ring, should that tell us to give up on this whole "analysis" thing and start rolling the dice on guys that mess with your head being all short and scoring in the lane like that?

What about someone like DeShawn Stevenson? He won. He's a winner. He's a free agent. Should teams line up to sign him? Tyson Chandler, too. We have three winners here. Should every team try to sign them all? Is Chandler more important than Barea? He started more games. But Stevenson started more than Barea. I wish we had a system to sort this all sort.

I wish we had more information on why the Mavericks won so that we could better decide who is more important. ... Ah well, I think messing with your head being all short and scoring in the lane like that is the most important thing that happened for the Mavericks, so Barea it is. Shove off, Chandler.