May 4, 2008


Hoop Data Dreams (STEPHEN J. DUBNER and STEVEN D. LEVITT, 5/03/08, NY Times)

The Boston Celtics, owned by several men with venture-capital backgrounds, have for the past few years been one of the most data-driven teams in the N.B.A. They have also just completed the biggest single-season turnaround in history, entering the playoffs two weeks ago with a league-best 66 victories after winning just 24 games last year.

Coincidence? Probably, for the Celtics obtained two monstrously accomplished players in the off-season, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. It didn’t take a statistician to tell you that the Celtics would be a lot better this year than last.

But the team also employs what the general manager, Danny Ainge, calls his “secret weapon,” a 32-year-old named Mike Zarren, who seems to know every data point about every N.B.A. player, past and present. Garnett calls him Numbers, the Celtics Dancers call him Stats and Paul Pierce, the team’s longtime standout, calls him M.I.T. even though Zarren never went there. He did, however, lead a University of Chicago quiz-bowl team to four national tournament victories and later graduated from Harvard Law. (Disclosure: Steven Levitt taught Zarren while the latter was an economics undergrad at Chicago.) He subsequently fell from the lofty realm of academia into his dream job, as the Celtics’ stat savant. [...]

There are two channels through which Zarren can help the Celtics. The first is by assessing potential deals and draft picks, which means bouncing information off of Ainge. The second channel is strategic advice, which means going to Coach Doc Rivers, whom Ainge says is “skeptically receptive” to Zarren’s insights. You sense that Zarren has gained credibility within the Celtics not because the basketball people adore his regression analyses but because he adores the sport. “Most geeks are not basketball guys,” Zarren says, “and most basketball guys are not geeks. You have to be both to be successful in this developing field.”

What’s the most efficient shot to take besides a layup? Easy, says Zarren: a three-pointer from the corner. What’s one of the most misused, misinterpreted statistics? “Turnovers are way more expensive than people think,” Zarren says. That’s because most teams focus on the points a defense scores from the turnover but don’t correctly value the offense’s opportunity cost — that is, the points it might have scored had the turnover not occurred.

As for what the Celtics know about their own and opposing players — well, that information is guarded like the crown jewels. Off the record and under duress, Zarren did reveal some valuable information, but we judged credible his threat to hunt us down and kill us if it were published. He was willing to admit that Ray Allen’s worth goes far beyond his perimeter shooting, that Rajon Rondo’s rebounding was an undervalued asset, that Leon Powe’s surprisingly strong play was not so surprising to the Celtics and that, as transformative a player as Garnett was known to be, he has generated a variety of offensive and defensive pluses that even the Celtics didn’t anticipate. football, the players don't matter, only the coaches; in baseball, the coaches don't matter, only the players; in basketball, the coaches don't matter during the regular season, but do in the playoffs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2008 12:04 PM
Comments football, the players don't matter, only the coaches...

Really, now? How many Super Bowls has Mike Shanahan won since Elway retired? How many has Parcells won without LT? How many did Tom Landry win without Staubach?

This is nothing but the rankest kind of sports snobbery.

Posted by: Brandon at May 4, 2008 9:44 PM

Parcells is the perfect example. He wins everywhere he goes. The Dolphins will be a playoff team either next year or the year after.

Note that both Super Bowl teams this year were Parcellsian.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2008 7:20 AM

And Belichek? What was the great genius' record with the Browns?

Posted by: Brandon at May 5, 2008 10:50 AM

Another excellent example. He took them to their last playoff game.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2008 3:53 PM

Uh, no he didn't. That version of the Browns became the Ravens and won the Super Bowl.

Posted by: Brandon at May 5, 2008 4:19 PM

The Browns haven't won a Super Bowl. Belichick got them closest.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2008 7:20 PM

Although, they could make it this year, now that they're Parcellsian...

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2008 9:16 PM