Answering the Stat Guys

Frequent commenter, William, has been engaging in a season long conversation with the stat guys at Basketball Prospectus over the way they have been rating teams as well as certain assertions made concerning the NPOY race.  For whatever reason the guys at BP have been less responsive in answering his queries.  So William has written a rebuttal for some of the assertions made at BP which can be found after the jump.

One of the interesting things in life is when a person becomes a leader in a field and develops devoted accolytes and then changes beliefs, or “sins”, if you will in the eyes of his or her accolyes.

Robert Nozick, was a noted libertarian philosopher, famous for his debates with John Rawls concerning the proper reach of government.  Nozick is noted furthermore by hoops fans for using the unmatched talent of Wilt Chamberlain as one of his main analogies against government, in his opus, Anarchy, State and Utopia.  Unfortunately, Nozick later had the temerity to sue his landlord for violating a rent-control statute, and his libertarian followers were not happy.

In the field of sports statistical analysis, Bill James is king.  Dean Oliver wrote an excellent, aforementioned book, extending statistical analysis to basketball, called Basketball On Paper, which caught the eye of Ken Pomeroy, someone who is well known to virtually all college basketball fans who are interested in the statistical analysis of college basketball.  His site, Kenpom.com, is a smorgasborg of interesting data, with link data, which leads to predictions of upcoming games, although for most, it seems not used for gambling, but simply to buttress arguments about which team is truly superior in the world of college basketball.

This is all well and good enough, except lately some of Pomeroy’s accolyes, if you will, are beginning to question some of his methods and some of the conclusions reached by him and other commentators at basketballprospectus.com.

Recently, John Gasaway, another writer and commentator at this web site, known to many college hoops fans formerly as the entertaining and irreverent, Big Ten Wonk, wrote an article asserting that basketball writers were wrong to award Tyler Hansbrough the 2008 Player of the Year Award.

Based upon Gasaway’s analysis of their statistics,  Kevin Love of UCLA, and nephew of the Beach Boys, believe it or not, deserved the award. Gasaway tell us, and that is that.  Love is best–wasn’t that a Beach Boys’ song or was it the Monkees?–and Hansbrough should be happy being second best.  After all, it was good enough for Avis, wasn’t it?

Now to be fair, Gasaway has made his name by being hardhitting and writing with a certain verve and flair and this article seemed to get plenty of attention.  Somewhat like J.J. Redick or Bobby Hurley, Hansbrough seems to be the kind of person that many people dislike because they feel like he gets too much media attention, although it is hard to believe that a 6′ 10″, basketball-playing, nephew of the Beach Boys is likely to be underexposed by the media.  Happily, there doesn’t seem to be any racial issues at play, as both Love and Hanbrough are, well, kind of big, goofy-looking white guys.

I am a big fan of revisionism, myself, so what’s the problem you might be asking,

Well, Gasaway tries to make statistics do something that they simply can’t do here.  First of all, he really didn’t have a lot of data upon which to base a conclusive determination.  While snarkiness is a trait that I highly admire, the emperor needs to have a bit more clothes on before engaging therein–Gasaway is scarcely wearing a banana hammock with the data he presents.

UCLA and UNC, the teams of the two players that Gasaway compares, haven’t played this year and they play in two different conferences whose teams rarely play head to head.  Gasaway never tells us how reliable his data are, whether they are significant, or how he can compare two guys conclusively who are not playing in the same league.  This differs greatly from baseball, where until recently, all teams in the same league played exactly the same schedule with a number of iterations (162) which produces much nicer and more reliable data sets.

Secondly, the data Gasaway did have, seemed pretty even.  Perhaps he knows so much more than the rest of us about the value of defensive rebounding, which is basically the crux of his argument against Hansbrough and in favor of UCLA post man, Kevin Love, that he doesn’t feel the need to explain.  Nevertheless, not all that many people seemed convinced by his argument.  A quick internet search shows even Duke people deriding Gasaway’s arguments.

One sentence particularly stands out for me:  “The Player of the Year award rightly belongs to the player who’s as good as Hansbrough on offense, but vastly superior to Hansbrough on defense. It rightly belongs to Kevin Love.”  This stands out because it reminds me of what legal writing teachers and many judges often point out.

When lawyers don’t have cases or statutes that are open and shut, they tend to fall back upon words such as “clearly,” or “vastly,” because in fact, they implicitly recognize that the case they are arguing is far from open and shut.  Some judges go as far as telling their law clerks to circle it in red every time a lawyer uses the word “clearly” in  his legal briefs, just so the judge can be clear about what the proponent’s weakness in fact, are.  Recently, another writer at the site has tried to tip-toe away from what Gasaway in fact said, but Gasaway’s article makes it clear that he will brook no debate.

I won’t go into a full statistical rebuttal, as others have done this, but I will reiterate that while Gasaway makes some good points on behalf of Love, ultimately, his article fails because it doesn’t carry its premise.

Surely, I am biased.  I am a Carolina and ACC fan, but that doesn’t mean that I am not also a basketball fan first and that I don’t want to know what really makes the game tick.  Nevertheless, when things don’t make sense to me, I am not just going to receive the wisdom from on high. The baseball stats guys generally don’t do that. They argue about everything, from the value of base stealing to whether pitchers can cause ground balls or prevent home runs, until people are generally convinced of the truth of their assertions.

One reason, in fact, that Pomeroy has many Carolina fans as readers is because his site has tended to advocate many of the basketball insights utilized by North Carolina coaches such as Frank McGuire, Dean Smith and Roy Williams, and Carolina fans are more than willing to debate these issues, but understandably did not much like it when Gasaway laid down the gauntlet and essentially said, “if you are a stats guy, then you support Kevin Love as player of the year over Tyler Hansbrough.

The other important point is that I don’t believe that Gasway realizes that he has traded in his Big Wonk hat for a different one at Basketball Prospectus, where we expect him to develop detailed arguments with data, not to decide things for us based upon his seeming whims, likes and dislikes. He had that freedom as the Big Ten Wonk, but now he should be applying sounder principles or at least, how about a disclaimer?

I will give him credit for starting a debate about the true worth of players, although let the record reflect that the awards are generally called either Player of the Year or Most Valuable Player, not most efficient, and may indeed, include recognition for attributes such as exceptional hustle or guts.

He starts out by making some interesting arguments that made me want to  watch Kevin Love some more and which make me wonder if Love isn’t the top player this year. Thankfully, Gasaway only obliquely makes the often prevalent and irrelevant and unprovable argument ad hominem, that Love will be a better professional player than Hansbrough.

But Gasaway ends up precluding you and me from deciding for ourselves based upon watching the two of them and their teams play, and then taking a look at their stats. Gasaway has determined that Love is better and there simoly is no way around that.

This is silly because first of all, there is not a lot of difference that I can see between the numbers Gasaway presented. Secondly, unlike a full season of baseball where raw data is more persuasive, Gasaway seems to think that we don’t even need to watch the guys to know who is better.

This seems especially specious, given that virtually everyone who watches Hansbrough comes away impressed by the sheer audacious will and tenacity that he shows on the court. Love looks good out there too, but not in the crazed, frenetic, win at all costs manner that Tyler has. Coaches and commentators from Dick Vitale to Billy Packer to Coach K have all expressed the notion that Tyler Hansbrough is sui generis and they derive this belief from having watched him and thousands of other players in person during their lifetimes.

But according to Gasaway, their eyes deceive them.  Hansbrough isn’t so special at all.  Just look at the stat sheet, you dunces, and you will see it.

I guess there was a similar argument years ago regarding East coast and West coast jazz and we all knew who won that one.(East coast). But just imagine if someone told us we should just look at the sheet music without ever actually listening to it, in order to decide which was “best.”

Gasaway’s approach, whether he realizes it or not, is anti-basketball. You don’t even need to watch the games and just based upon a few statistics, he can tell you who is better.

This is not the way that Dean Oliver did it. Take a look at his book. He talks about stats being persuasive but doesn’t tell people that it is his way or the highway. I recently did a short review of one of his chapters where Oliver purports to tell us who was better, Wilt or Bill Russell, and guess what, Oliver goes through all the arguments and then makes a hypothesis but lets us draw our own conclusions. That is how you do it, not by trying to shove it down people’s throats.

Well, that is enough for now–I won’t even go into the issue of Ken Pomeroy’s allegedly fudging his possession calculations, which makes Carolina look even worse on defense than it actually is, and to those who think that I am making mountains out of unimportant molehills, well that is true, but I can’t always be writing every article about the incredibly large U.S. prison population as it gets depressing after a while, no?

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11 Responses to Answering the Stat Guys

  1. jackiemanuel says:

    Harsh but fair. We do have to remember that Basketball Prospectus is only 6 months old. If John had just said: Kevin Love deserves to be in the discussion too and left out the Psycho snark, he would have been on much more solid ground. Snark is more fun though.

  2. Tar Heel Fan says:

    But wouldn’t you agree that if you are running a site that is supposed to be about the numbers your arguments should be more of the snark free variety?

  3. jackiemanuel says:

    Not entirely. I think he went too far….especially when talking about Tyler’s increased efficiency while Tywon was out he said:

    “By all means, give Hansbrough an admirable behavior award. Call it the Gutsy, call it the Irving Thalberg Award, call it anything you want. Only please don’t call it the Player of the Year award.”

    That made me mad because those guys are supposed to see through stuff like that. All in all, John was calling attention the media’s love affair with Tyler and how the media was ignoring Kevin Love. In some ways this was helping your point (that yo made in a post a few days before this article) about race not being a big factor.

    Joe Ovies had a great comment about the BP guys being anti-establishment…..or indie. That might be part of why I like them, but just because the establishment loves Psycho does not mean he must not be the best. Hype can be annoying but they didn;t really look past it, they just turned against it.

  4. […] legend. Bilas is a douche bucket. Could be much worse, though. Roy wins his battle. Tar Heel fan posts a reasonable rebuttal to Basketball Prospectus’s first six months of […]

  5. Wilson says:

    Nice article. It’s not like Love hasn’t gotten his fair share of media love. You make a good point in that the basketball season is vastly 😉 different than baseball because of matchups and the teams played. Hopefully we can see this settled on the court in April.

  6. william says:

    I love snarkiness, but there is an art to it–just look at Bill Maher for someone that I think practices it well–and Big Ten Wonk was always good at it. Maybe he wanted to make people angry here or maybe he was having an off day, but all he had to do, was end the piece by saying something like, “but then again, I could be wrong,” or, when the criticism came in, he could have re-visited the issue in more depth or allowed an opposing viewpoint.

    Honestly, he could be right, but the way he wrote the article without vigorously analyzing the data, we don’t know. He just left us hanging, wondering, “defensive rebounding percentage,”–gee I never heard of that being the determining factor for being MVP. Gasaway didn’t even tell us what defensive or team rebounding sets UCLA and UNC use–do they play zone or man to man– or which team has more height–or which team has opportunities for rebounds. He didn’t tell us who plays more minutes or who has more fouls or who fouls out the opposition more. He didn’t tell us who takes more charges or has more steals or sells more popcorn.

    The more I think about it, the more lame the article by Gasaway becomes in terms of statistical analysis. He didn’t do his job properly, unless he was just trying to do a throwaway comedic piece, and if that was the case, he failed because we didn’t get the joke.

  7. Tar Heel Fan says:

    ^And that was how I saw it. The stats he gave did not strike me as a clear cut case for Love, he omitted other key figures and just declared that Love was better and the media was handing it to Hansbrough because they liked him more.

  8. william says:

    Here’s an interesting article on some of the history of stats and basketball. Let’s all note the contribution by Frank McGuire:

    http://collegehoops.scout.com/a.z?s=426&p=2&c=735571

  9. Russell says:

    Hansbrough suffers from the perception of unorthodoxy in his play. He does not APPEAR smooth, calm, collected. His exacerbated demeanor in play is not “corporate.”
    Love does present the rerquisite appearance. He looks smoothly orthodox in his play.
    Looks are sometimes deceiving. So we go to the stats. Only the statistician, in this case, is not purely running stats, he’s looking, feeling, judging. The statistician – not the comparative statistics – fails.
    Russell

  10. william says:

    I don’t disagree with that. Gasaway was contacted by email and given several opportunities to either expand his comments and fully flesh out his case and or to back away from the doctrinaire aspect of his ariticle. He was asked to by others besides the author and he refused.

    I am sure that if he wanted to respond further, THF, would give him a prominent forum to do so, as though he didn’t already have one. I can only surmise that he realizes that he bit off way more than he could prove and that is why he has become uncharacteristically silent.

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