Thursday, February 12, 2015

Charles Barkley Pulls His Jock, And Rank

This Isn't Going To End Well
"Analytics don't work at all. It's just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent. Because they had no talent to be able to play, so smart guys wanted to fit in, so they made up a term called analytics. Analytics don't work... All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common: They're a bunch of guys who ain't never played the game, they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game." - Charles Barkley, NBA on TNT, 2/12/15

Hoo boy.

I enjoy Charles Barkley. His presence on TNT makes for the only watchable studio show, because he's got true comic timing, and I rooted for him a lot as a player. He doesn't pull punches or seem to care if he steps on toes, and if more athletes worked on television like he does, sports studio shows might be fun. For the most part, they are not. No one has ever accused Charles of being bought and sold by his sponsors, ducking the difficult questions, or living his life in fear of someone getting butthurt by something he said. And God bless him for that.

And I don't even want to get into the ridiculous idea that looking at a game with any understanding of math, or that you might figure out some useful way to rank players and teams with that math, is somehow less than manly. The girls in high school who only went for guys who would not think... well, they peaked in high school. Just like those guys. And the modern world really isn't a great place for those folks, because we live for a really long time past high school.

Rather, I want to get into the true heart of Chuck's beef. He played the game, so he knows it better than people who did not.

And, well, I get why he'd be annoyed at having that experience dismissed or degraded. He's spent decades of his life on hoop, played until he got hurt, had surgery to keep playing after that. He's taken charges from bigger men than him, taken the hatred of tens of thousands of fans on a routine basis, put up with "journalists" who used his candor to beat him over the head and shoulders. Basketball is a huge part of his life. For the vast majority of the rest of the planet, it's not.

Everyone thinks they are right when they offer up an opinion, or they wouldn't offer it. And basketball where the mid-range game does not exist *seems* wrong to people who grew up with it, much in the same way that NFL fans of a certain age hate offenses that refuse to run the damn ball, or MLB people who sneer at power hitters who strike out too much, because goddamit, Joe DiMaggio didn't strike out, and so on, and so on.

The game you fell in love with, usually as a child, is the game you want to keep watching, especially when you get older and the pace of change in life just seems to keep getting faster. If you want to hate the Rockets (the team that inspired Chuck's rant in the first place), fine, go on and hate the Rockets. No one's stopping you. I think Dwight Howard's incredibly overrated, and James Harden has only recently started to care about defense, and that they are only a pretender for the NBA crown... but I don't think they are being hold back because they use analytics.

They are held back because they just aren't as good as teams that are better than them. And the teams that are better than them... use analytics as well.

The real problem with Chuck's opinion is that it makes all non-players suspect. When players have, with a few scattered and wonderful exceptions, been absolutely and truly terrible at giving the public any insight into the game at all.

You see, there's a difference -- an astounding one -- between knowing the game with your muscle and your nerves and the system that you were taught, and knowing the game with your intellect and your analysis and the history that you have studied.

If Barkley's argument was valid, all military generals would be ex-infantry. All chiefs of surgery would be ex-paramedics. All coaches would be ex-superstars. All master chefs would be ex-farmers, slaughterhouse workers, and short order cooks. We'd respect career politicians, and only trust the Presidency to very old and very experienced multi-term Senators and Governors. Our CEOs would have all started in sales bullpens, and would never get the job before turning 60. Venture capitalists would never fund anything but people who had gone public before. And so on, and so on.

The plain and simple fact is that there is no such thing as "no" talent. The Sixers are getting useful minutes out of Robert Covington, a guy that anyone in the NBA could have had for a cup of coffee, because there is talent all over the damned place. Basketball is played on six continents, and limited players in the correct situation, or exposed to exceptional coaching, can be part of winning teams.

And outstanding players, like Barkley in his prime, can be kept from winning through small measures and moments. (The mind shudders at just how much damage Barkley did to his teams by being one of the worst and highest volume three-point shooters in the history of the league. Anyway.)

Finally, this. Analytic analysis has taken over every professional league on the planet. The reason why is because it's a false choice to think you have to go for talent or math. Consistently winning organizations, like the Spurs and the Cardinals and the Patriots, are maniacally focused on taking every possible advantage. You might not think that your team has gone all Billy Beane / Daryl Morey on you, because they've got ex-jocks in prominent positions and don't seem like numbers nerds... but they've got scouts, with statistics, and they use those things for defensive shifts and strategies and plays that they are definitely going to call because of, well, the numbers.

And the only people who are dumb enough to think otherwise are on your television, telling you the same things they've been telling you for, well, ever.

Mostly, what their coaches told them. As children.

So I think I've got an idea of what doesn't work at all, and it's this.

The seemingly mandatory presence of ex-jocks on each and every goddamned game broadcast and studio show...

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