Last week an event called the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was held on the campus of MIT, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. Its purpose was to discuss the increasing role of analytics (read: stats) in the sports industry. Although the conference was for many sports, one of the main branches of the conference talked about the growing number of advanced stats and techniques being developed to gain a better understanding about basketball.
I would have absolutely loved to be there.
As those of you know that have read my column regularly, I am heavily in favor of these types of advanced techniques. It has gotten to the point that it's hard for me to even have a basketball argument with people that aren't well versed in advanced stats, because it seems like they're missing so much of the game. I know these stats aren't perfect, especially when taken as individual measures, because each one has its own flaws. But since there are so many different stats now that take so many different directions for breaking down the game, it's getting harder and harder for the "just watch the game!" guy to defend his case.
Just recently I had a long, drawn out argument with someone about just how good Jason Terry and Josh Howard were as supporting players on the 2006 runner-up Mavs versus Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the 2008 championship Celtics. The argument touched off because one side said that of course Pierce and Allen were better, because as future Hall of Famers it was just self evident that they were better. The other side, though, pointed out that there was no way you could look at their box score stats from their championship runs and say for sure that one pair was much better than another. In fact, let's play that game: see if you can tell me which is which:
Pair A: Averaged 17.8 points on 45% FG, 5.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, .4 blocks
Pair B: Averaged 17.7 points on 43% FG, 4.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steals , .3 blocks
I'll give you a penny if you can look at those box scores and tell me which was Terry/Howard and which was Pierce/Allen without looking it up. But the perception is that one pair was so much better than the other that the difference should be obvious. Anyway, the discussion went back and forth with both me and my opponent pulling out all types of advanced stats to support our points and really break down the difference between the two. The end result was that we each agreed that Pierce and Allen performed better, but it was a lot closer than people would think, and the regular box score stats weren't enough to illustrate the difference.
And in the end, that's the point of all of these new advanced stats: to be able to show and prove elements of the game that just aren't well captured with regular box scores. To me, the main thing that box score stats are good for these days is playing fantasy basketball. And for that reason, I still love looking at things like points, rebounds and assists. But if you really want to talk about what characterizes good, productive, winning basketball, and all you have in your arsenal are some fantasy stats, then these days we really don't even have much to talk about.
Situations to Watch and quick hits
Blatche quieting my fears: Last week I caught some heat for saying that Andray Blatche made me nervous because of his recent cooler spell against better defenses after teams had more film to scout him with. Well, in the week since he's averaged 25.4 points, 7.6 boards, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 52 percent from the field and 80 percent from the line. Thus far, I'm glad I didn't trade him.
Johnson's Achilles: Joe Johnson is out Tuesday with a sore Achilles tendon, and is unlikely to play on Wednesday as well. Jamal Crawford gets a boost in the meantime.
Williams' Back: Lou Williams was a surprise scratch on Monday night with a sore back, and he's a game-time decision for Wednesday. Back injuries are tricky, especially ones that pop up unexpectedly on players whose teams have nothing to play for. It doesn't sound like a major issue, but definitely keep an eye out.
Prince's Back: Tayshaun Prince took a knee in the back from teammate Jason Maxiell Monday night, and was forced to leave the game in obvious pain. Prince missed 26 games with a back injury earlier this season, so even though early reports suggest this injury isn't as bad, it's still worrisome. Which is a shame, because Prince had been playing really well of late.
Ailing Bulls: Derrick Rose sprained his left wrist on Thursday and has not played since, though the injury is not expected to be serious. Luol Deng (calf), Joakim Noah (plantar fasciitis), and Kirk Hinrich (suspension) will also miss Tuesday's game. Thus, for at least one day, the Bulls will be starting Jannero Pargo, Flip Murray, Acie Law, Taj Gibson and Brad Miller. I have nothing else to say about that.
Maxiell and Bynum strong subs: With Ben Wallace and Rodney Stuckey dealing with injuries, Maxiell and Bynum have stepped up and become consistent double-double threats as starters. Stuckey will miss at least the next game, though he may practice on Thursday with hopes of a return soon after. Wallace is still listed as questionable after missing seven straight games with a knee injury.
Smith dropping dimes: Josh Smith has dished at least five assists in six straight games and 11 of his last 12 contests to indicate that he has really fleshed out his all-around game. He dropped a career-high 11 dimes in his last outing, and considering his defensive capabilities, he's now the most likely player in the NBA to go 5 x 5 (five each of points, assists, boards, blocks and steals) on any given night.
Calderon takes job back from Jack: Jose Calderon will be back in the starting line-up for the Raptors on Wednesday, replacing Jarrett Jack. Calderon has averaged 17.5 points and 9.5 assists in 32 minutes off the bench in his last two games, which helped earn the promotion. This obviously boosts Calderon's value and likely sends Jack to the waiver wire.
Duncan's limited minutes: Tim Duncan played only 38 total minutes over two games this weekend, both of which ended with big victories for the Spurs. Most teams rest their stars when the game gets out of hand, but for Duncan to get only 13 minutes on Saturday suggests that the Spurs are going above and beyond to make sure he stays fresh for the playoffs.
Scola on zig: I wrote last week about how Luis Scola was playing really well, but after he exploded for 44 points and 12 boards on Saturday I had to go back to elementary school slang: Scola is on zig right now. He has six straight double-doubles, and is averaging 25.7 points with 14.5 boards over his last six games.
Douglas piloting D'Antoni offense: We have a new candidate for the annual Anthony Randolph/Ramon Sessions come-from-nowhere last-month fantasy stud award this season: Toney Douglas. Douglas played well enough on Friday to earn the starting nod as the point guard for the Mike D'Antoni-led Knicks, and in two games as a starter he's averaging 20.5 points, 7.5 assists, 3.0 treys and 2.0 steals. Will he keep it up? Who knows, but the Knicks are 2–0 in his short tenure so he should hold the job for the foreseeable future.
Harden out: James Harden will miss the next 2-to-4 weeks with a strained right hamstring. That's a shame, because he had been flirting with finding his groove just before the injury (averaged 16.7 points, 2.3 treys in 26 minutes over his last three games).
Mayo shooting well: O.J. Mayo ended last month in a shooting slump, but has really picked it up in March. He has shot greater than 50 percent from the floor in five of his last six games, and in four of those games he has scored at least 20 points as well.
Livingston sighting: Shaun Livingston has been getting some run for the Wizards, scoring 18 points with eight assists on Saturday and earning a start on Monday. He didn't do much with that start but still, for those that saw his knee explode a few years ago, it is nice just to see him back in an NBA rotation.
Quentin Richardson (32% owned): Richardson has cooled a bit from the hot spell that got him on the list last week, but he still is working on a seven-game streak with at least two treys per, so he has value as a long-distance threat.
Toney Douglas (18% owned): As mentioned above, Douglas is a must-add right now with the potential for big numbers down the stretch.
Jason Maxiell (16% owned): As mentioned above, Maxiell is a nightly double-double threat that should continue to be so for as long as Ben Wallace is out. Bynum could also be an add, but it sounds like Stuckey is expected back soon.
Nicolas Batum (16% owned): Batum has been inconsistent but trending upward over the last few weeks since he exploded for 31 points, seven assists and seven boards in his last game of February. He has two 20-point efforts thus far in March, including one in his last game on Sunday, and with his potential to contribute in difficult categories like treys, steals and even blocks, he has value.
Wesley Matthews (9% owned): Matthews has scored in double-digits in six of his last seven games, including a 29-point explosion on Sunday against the Thunder. He also contributes a bit in steals and treys, and seems to be finding his niche with Andrei Kirilenko banged up.
Article first appeared 3/16/10