The basketball statistical revolution is coming. Slowly but surely, advanced statistics are creeping into the game. The signs are everywhere: John Hollinger is a prominent national basketball writer for ESPN, primarily on the basis of his statistical model for player evaluation, PER. Daryl Morey and Rich Cho are two of the youngest GMs in the league, and both have foundations less rooted in basketball than in statistics. More than half the league's teams employ at least one full-time analyst devoted to statistical work. Regardless of how you feel about advanced stats, it is impossible to ignore the growing impact they have on the modernizing NBA.
Of course, opinions vary greatly regarding how far along the revolution is. Some would have you believe that stats are already providing all the answers. Who is the best player? That's easy: check PER, or adjusted +/-, or win shares. Which team is the best? Forget the standings: check adjusted point differential, Pythagorean wins and losses, and power rankings which involve BCS-level calculations of strength of schedule, point differential, etc. There are plenty of others who are doubtful, from those who disregard the "stat geeks" altogether ("Just watch the games" is their battle cry), to those who simply have a healthy skepticism of the assumptions which are made to reach some of the "easy" answers current advanced stats provide.
As history tells us, revolutions hardly every occur peacefully, and this one is no different. There may not be any bloodshed, but there are plenty of battles being waged over the usefulness of advanced stats. One such battle has come to the fore, perhaps almost by accident: the question of whether the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat will win the NBA championship. Miami is the paper tiger (it is as yet unknown whether they are also a real tiger), a team made up of such overwhelming statistical parts that their power cannot be ignored by the statistically inclined. Statistical models aren't as fond of the Lakers.They view the Lakers as a good team, to be sure, but they focus on certain things about the Lakers (their age, their somewhat underwhelming point differential last year) as evidence that they might not be championship-quality this season. But, the Lakers have two straight championships backing up their case, and a team chock full of all the qualities that stats non-believers will point to as not showing up in a box score. Perhaps most important to the argument is the nuance of familiarity. The old guard think the Lakers have it and the Heat do not. Familiarity doesn't fit into a statistical model, so, while the new guard isn't ignorant of familiarity as a factor, they are far more dismissive of its importance. This is hardly the first battle of the statistical war. However, unlike most of the battles waged before, this one has the possibility of being a real difference maker, either speeding up or slowing down the progress of the revolution.
Take a look at ESPN's championship predictions from their experts panel. Of the 25 votes total, 24 went to either L.A. or Miami, with the 25th vote coming from the guy who writes for ESPN Boston (Wait, you write for ESPN Boston, and you are the only one who thinks the Celtics will win the championship? I'm sure that's a coincidence). Take out the people who write for a regional site associated with one of the teams (Windhorst, Mike Wallace and Kevin Arnovitz all write for the Heat Index, and Shelburne and McMenamin write for ESPN LA), and you are left with nine Miami votes and 10 L.A. votes, split right down the middle. But check out the stark difference in the names associated with each team. Hollinger is a stats guy. So is Tom Haberstroh. Zach Harper does a large amount of work with stats as well. Henry Abbott isn't a stats guy per se, but he does champion the stats cause. There are a few regular analysts who picked the Heat, but the majority of the guys who think Miami will prevail are the ones who think their statistical greatness will translate to on-court success.
Now look at the names of the guys who voted in the other direction. Marc Stein, J.A. Adande, Chris Sheridan, Ric Bucher, Jack Ramsey... these guys are all old school. I'll admit that I don't know the professional pedigree of every single member of ESPN's panel, but I don't recognize a single one of the pro-L.A. voters as being inclined towards advanced statistics.
ESPN's just one forum, but the same pattern is seen elsewhere. The NBA blogosphere is the domain of many statistically inclined individuals, and just about all of them agree that the Heat are the favorites to raise the trophy next June. The guys from Basketball Prospectus, Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton, both picked Miami (Pelton took it a step further, predicting the Lakers would fall in the 2nd round of the playoffs). Basketball Reference's Neil Paine ran statistical models which spit out Miami as the overwhelming favorites to win it all (53% chance, with the next closest team being Orlando with a 12% chance). An array of contributors to Hardwood Paroxysm, all of whom seem pretty statistically inclined, made predictions, and 4 of 5 picked Miami (Note: Zach Harper is double sampled, as his pick is included with both HP and ESPN). I could go on, but you get the picture.
So where do we turn for the corresponding vote from the old guard? How about the annual GM survey. There may be a few statistical spies in their ranks, but the vast majority of NBA GMs still trust their intuition and judgment over the numbers being crunched by some guy in a windowless room buried within their team facility. And they voted the Lakers as favorites to retain the Larry O'Brien trophy, by a fairly comfortable 63% to 33% margin.
As previously mentioned, this is hardly the first "battleground" of the stats vs. observation fight. The most obvious example is the debate over the best player in the game. The statistician's champion is LeBron James. The King boasts extremely efficient scoring, production across the board, and has put up numbers not seen since the days when Michael Jordan pulled Excalibur from the stone and scored 31 points per game with a 60+ True Shooting Percentage. The champion of the old guard is Kobe Bryant. They say the Mamba has intangible qualities which cannot be captured by any number, such as work ethic, footwork and killer instinct. As the years go by, and Kobe's age creeps up towards his golden years, this argument becomes less and less relevant, but there were, and still are, plenty of knowledgeable basketball people who consider Kobe the best player in the game, despite a growing mountain of statistical evidence to the contrary. Now that LeBron has a team which is filled with talent, now that he has a supporting cast that rivals Kobe's (at the top of the roster at least), it's perfectly natural that this discussion of individual vs. individual has spilled over into team vs. team. Perfectly natural, but the team vs. team argument has much more far reaching implications.
Why? Because this is an argument that can actually have a concrete winner and loser. Comparing two players and labeling one as greater than the other is a subjective argument, and nothing can prove or disprove your stance. Every Kobe enthusiast can say "I don't care what statistics LeBron puts up, or how many MVP's he has won, Kobe is leading his team to championships." The LeBron camp responds with "If LeBron had Kobe's supporting cast, he'd win the title with much more ease than Kobe's Lakers have." Neither side is right, and neither side is wrong. But when you expand the argument to include the respective teams, that is an argument in which one side or the other (or both) will invariably be declared the loser. The NBA champion isn't decided by a vote. There is nothing subjective about winning (or losing) a title.
There are many scenarios in which this battle will amount to nothing. It's entirely possible that neither the Lakers nor the Heat will win it all this year (keep the faith, Chris Forsberg, keep the faith). The Lakers' age or Miami's match-up issues could render the argument null and void. It's possible, even likely, God forbid, that the mitigating circumstance of injury will rear its ugly head one way or another. But if all goes "according to plan," this season might provide the most compelling evidence yet of just how far statistics have come as a predictive force. Will the old school's street smarts rule the day, or is this the season in which Deep Blue beats Kasparov? Unlike so many of the debates waged in this war of words, it's a question that might actually have an answer.