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Don't take the stats in your own hands---take them to the court

Sports Illustrated roundball writer Chris Ballard takes an interesting and cheery look at basketball statheads (analogous to their famed Moneyball counterparts in the baseball realm) who have made inroads in NBA front offices---both in terms of awareness and career opportunities. (Note: The online article is more of a summary of the topic; the article in this week's magazine itself, which I read last night, is a bit more involved. That's what I'll refer to in the rest of this post.)

I use the modifier "cheery" quite consciously; whether it's the reality of the situation or merely Ballard's spin, the perception I gleaned is that roundball statheads/advisors are not viewed with nearly the contempt your more successfull sabermetricians or Stat Drunk Computer Nerds are. Even old guys like Dell Harris (who basically employs the Frank Robinson-esque "I can't even turn on a computer" line in the article) treat basketball performance analysis with some measure of respect---so far as to consider it as a kind of supplemental scouting report. (Perhaps rightfully so, I might add. It's been said that the guy who writes Basketball Prospectus is one of the few who can withstand 41 Atlanta Hawks' home dates a season.) Conversely, while the all-out war between Michael Lewis and the baseball traditionalists might overshadow the true nature of give-and-take between statheads and "baseball men" within Organized Baseball, I perceive substantial resistance---for whatever reason(s), I'll propose in a minute---to departures from old truisms, doctrines, and methods.

If this contrast has a basis in reality, it's nothing if not strange on a superficial level. As Ballard notes, baseball lends itself to more discrete analysis and more bright-line notions of success and failure (except for the effect of defense, I'll add) than basketball, which is more fluid in its action. Thus, while the language of both sets of analysts are similar in their logic (runs scored vs. runs allowed in baseball, points scored vs. points allowed in basketball), I would imagine that basketball analysis involves more steps to separate the signal from the noise, so to speak.

But, in Ballard's article at least, the relationship between the analysts and the establishment is cordial. Sure, when the analysts propose something loony, the idea is discarded. But there's no hard feelings, and Ballard presents that scenario as fairly uncommon, anyway.

And, hence, we might get to the heart of the matter---or at least a central point of understanding: according to Ballard, the analysts tend to reinforce the basketball establishment's conventional wisdom.

To tell you the truth, I'm not sure that Ballard explores precisely what that means (that, or I did not read the print article carefully), but in the context of the article, it sounds like the recommendations of the featured analysts tend to square well with the observations of established scouts. They might propose something that had not yet dawned on a scout (for instance, one of the analysts advised the Dallas Mavericks from playing two players in the same rotation, something that on reflection sounded reasonable to the front office), but they don't seem to frame their insights in terms of "revolution"---as statheads, especially those in Baseball Prospectus appeared fond of doing in the recent past.

Thus, the difference in relationship---if one truly exists---might come down to things as simple as personality, rhetorical approach, and job security. It might come down to one side not saying, "Mercy, you're an idiot," and the other side saying, "Oh yeah? You never even played!"

Moreover---and this one just hit me---maybe a younger and more open-minded national basketball media might have something to do with it, too.