This extract of The Midrange Theory: The Evolution of Basketball in the Age of Analysis by Seth Partnow is reprinted with permission from Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Bookshop.org or TriumphBooks.com/MidrangeTheory.
It’s a book on analytics. I hate analytics.
Not the discipline mind you, but the word. The word has become hopelessly poisoned, reduced, confused and misapplied. But we’re stuck with the word so we might as well define it correctly. Before you do so, there are a lot of misconceptions to put aside. So here is what will not be in this book: An interesting trick to solve basketball.
Basketball analysis is often described as an area of pride, undeserved certainty, and disrespect for knowledge gleaned without the aid of a calculator. To try to reduce the art of the game to spreadsheets and graphics. I have to admit that these fillers are not made from whole fabric; it is not difficult to find real examples of each. But these missteps are not “analyzes”, they are “poorly done analyzes”. No true Scotsman would think otherwise.
Done well, analytics is the domain of constant curiosity. The hard-won expertise of experienced professionals is essential to the process, even if the lessons learned from this expertise are sometimes called into question. While many techniques require some flattening of events to make it easier to calculate and compare, this is not the point in itself, but rather in the service of creating a deeper and more nuanced understanding and even an aesthetic appreciation of the game.
Analyzes exist at the intersection of mathematics, statistics and computer science. However, these are just the tools rather than the domain itself. They might even be the main tools applied to basketball and other sports. However, the tools are not the thing. Rather, it is a way of thinking that seeks to reduce the impact of the cognitive biases that we all suffer from. In a world of imperfect information and uncertain outcomes, it is about putting yourself in a position to be less wrong. Or if you are an optimist, to be right more often than the competition, and in so doing, win big.
For as many retroverted accounts as there may be descriptions of why some draft players ‘pass’ and others fail, we’re talking about how well you can know what a young person from 18 to 24 will be like. . projection is incredibly difficult and inaccurate. On the players, you do your best, make the choice and try your luck. These bets may have better or worse odds of success, but hindsight will not always help distinguish good bets from crazy bets that have occurred.
Anyone who’s been rocked by the winds of macroeconomic trends in their first job out of college – that is, all of us who entered the workforce after graduation – understands how often things get out of hand. My first job was with an e-commerce startup, which failed about 18 months after I arrived. Could I have done more to prevent this? Sure, but I don’t think the slightly better merchandising choices of a 23-year-old business analyst made the difference between wealth and ruin. For me, it was the wrong place, the wrong time.
And so it is with young players. Some will become long-term NBA stalwarts, a few even All-Stars and MVPs. Most will not.
Sometimes these results were easily predictable. For others, the invisible forces of the basketball world have lined up against them. They ended up with the wrong team, the wrong coach, in the wrong city. I chose the wrong agent or sales manager. The wrong trainer. I was hurt. Get sick. Developed the wrong skills for the direction in which the league or its team was moving. Sometimes shit even happens to the most “must-see” prospects. Greg Oden was partly unlucky and doomed by his own physiology even though when he was able to be in the field he was just as dominant as the assessment that had named him the top pick by consensus Kevin Durant would have suggested.
Even for established players who change teams, the adjustment can range from perfect to catastrophic. When I was at the Milwaukee Bucks front office, we signed Brook lopez to a one-year contract for the half-yearly exception. As the name suggests, this “BAE” provides a mechanism, usable once every two seasons, for a team to exceed the amount otherwise allowed by the salary cap to sign a player. It sounds impressive, but the BAE is the second smallest exception available under the league’s collective agreement. This allows a player to receive an amount for which you are happy to find a decent seventh or eighth man. Not a starter and certainly not a high impact player.
It was a good move for us. We improved our central position without having to give up long-term assets or trade tokens.
By reputation, Lopez had been an excellent goalscorer but a poor defender for much of his career. While arriving in free agency in the summer of 2018, he had made himself known as much for the bloated contract that had just ended as for his ground game. This previous agreement, signed just before the “traditional” center was hit by the asteroid that was the Golden State Warriors, made it appear like an overpaid dinosaur rather than a making a difference.
Lopez’s signing was a low-cost and reasonable game, addressing what had been a weakness by adding a proven player who had developed the desired three-point shot for the offensive system we wanted to play.
Brook immediately became the backbone of the defense that ranked as the best in the league over the next two years. He had the perfect combination of size, surprising agility, a deep understanding of illegal NBA defense rules, and a willingness to get physical in the bouncy battles we needed.
So, did we make a brilliant signing from a player the rest of the league significantly undervalued, or were we just lucky? In short, both.
Were some of the signs of Brook’s upcoming excellence there when we decided to bet on her form and value? Sure.
We thought the perception of him as a player in the league was too negative, more about his previous contract than his current contributions. More importantly, we had reason to believe his defensive shortcomings were overrated. His bad reputation in this area was largely due to his low individual rebound totals and his inability to function in the aggressive defensive schemes that were popular in the league for much of his career.
In terms of rebounding, Lopez was an almost perfect example of the difference between individual and team stats. He may not have picked up a lot of rebounds himself, but his team always ended up circling most of the opponent’s misses while on the ground.
Of the 100 centers who played at least 2,500 minutes in the five seasons before arriving in Milwaukee, Lopez ranked 94th in defensive rebound percentage. During the same period, he was ranked as the sixth player with the most positive impact on his team’s defensive rebound, according to Regularized Adjusted Over / Under techniques. In terms of team success, is it more important for the center to rack up defensive rebounds or for the team to “finish” defensive possessions with someone grabbing the board? Asking the question is answering it, and over the course of his career, Lopez has proven to be an elite when it comes to what’s really important in helping his team gain possession of the ball.
We also suspected that the defensive scheme we wanted to play would match Lopez’s abilities better than what had been the trend for most of his career at that time. With the success of the first Boston (Kevin garnett) then Chicago (Joakim Noah) using a nimble center to ‘cover’ ball screens in the late 2000s and early 2010s – Garnett frequently chased a point guard almost to half the court! – many teams have adopted this brand of cover. While Lopez is quick and very nimble for his height, “for his height” is still 7’1 ”and 280 lbs. Take inspiration from Fantasia’s hippo ballet.
Although he was never going to win a race with the league leaders at the top of the court, Brook had shown a consistent ability to defend at the edge. According to NBA player tracking data, in the same five seasons he had been such a hard-hitting rebounding presence, opponents had only managed to score on 53.7% of shots in the Restricted Zone with Lop within five feet of the shooter as the closest defender, 87th percentile of all players and just one tick behind Anthony davis. In the conservative defensive strategy our coaching staff planned to employ, Lopez would be asked to protect the rim first, second and third, relying on our guards to chase and harass opposing players.
Given these statistical and schematic arguments, we were pretty confident that he would be a perfectly solid defender for us. If we (or anyone else) had thought he would make an All-Defense team, he wouldn’t have been available as a signing for such a deal. After all, he had received a total of zero (0) votes for All-Defense Honors at this point. Already. That’s not to say he never made the first or second team. He hadn’t run on a single ballot. Even by accident. And every year a few truly miserable defenders garner misguided All-Defense votes.
So while we did a crafty signing, correctly predicting that Lopez would surpass his reputation, we were also very lucky.
The temptation will always be there to say, “See, it worked” after positive results, no matter how the result was achieved. This kind of results-oriented thinking is the most common form of prejudice to fight against. Good decisions will sometimes go wrong, while ridiculous decisions will sometimes work very well because the universe has a dark sense of humor.
It will never change. The right process and the right analysis can help tip the scales in your favor. Basketball analysis isn’t always about having the answers, it’s about asking the right questions so you can be on the safe side of those odds often enough to come out ahead in the long run.