Discussing the proliferation of advanced statistics in NBA personnel decisions, Lehrer argues that we run the risk of being seduced by numbers, and forgetting the long list of intangibles. He asks, can the numbers lie?
For reasons that remain mysterious, some teammates make each other much better and some backup point guards really piss off Ron Artest. These are the qualities that often determine wins and losses, and yet they can’t be found on the back of a trading card or translated into a short list of clever equations. This is the paradox of sports statistics: What the math ends up teaching us that is that sports are not a math problem.
Isaac takes issue with Lehrer’s analogies, statistics, and even the precise example he uses (starting JJ Barea in the finals) to counter, No, numbers cannot lie. They can be misread, they can be taken out of context, they can be overvalued, but they will not lie.
There is nothing radical about the formalization of player evaluation or sports teams leveraging information using formal methods — it is only the introduction of advanced math that has sportswriters up in arms. Teams have long had formal systems in place that help scouts identify important player characteristics and standardized methods for evaluating these characteristics in different players. But if you throw in something that looks like this:
suddenly you are obscuring the heart of the game. Sportswriters’ reactions to quantitative analysis has generally been a combination of fear of the unknown, macho posturing (“those nerds are missing the point!”), and premeditated controversy creation.
Sabermetrics aren’t a silver bullet or an algorithm that gives a single, well-defined answer. It is not playing fantasy basketball. It is not comparing the backs of trading cards. It is thinking about basketball in the most formalized possible way in an effort to remove traditional biases and provide an alternative perspective on players and the game. It is nothing to hate on, it is never going to dominate sports, but it might force some journalists to take a math class.