Robbie Hargett: Tell your statistics to shut up

Feb. 03, 2013 @ 03:32 PM

On Wednesday night, when the Memphis Grizzlies traded their leading scorer Rudy Gay for what seems like nothing, one Twitter user said Gay had a terrible PER. Now you may be thinking, what does that mean?

Even if you don’t watch basketball, you may have heard the name John Hollinger. He was an analyst and writer for ESPN, and before that he created a rating system that would take all of a basketball player’s stats and combine them into one all-powerful number, known as the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). As of last year, the “king of stats,” as Hollinger is known, was hired by the Grizzlies’ front office to be vice president of basketball operations. This writer-turned-VP moved up in the ranks because more and more teams want to use advanced statistics to make decisions.

If all of this is obscure, just think of the book and film “Moneyball,” based on baseball’s Oakland Athletics, who in the early 2000s used advanced statistics known as sabermetrics to try to do exactly what the Grizzlies are trying to do now. The A’s front office noticed that certain advanced statistics like on-base percentage might translate into wins better than traditional statistics like batting average.

But how far do advanced statistics go, and to what degree does a sports team propose to use them? Theoretically, statistics could be used to make decisions that would normally be left to a coaching staff. If one statistic says that a certain player on your team scores more points when guarding someone 2 inches taller than he, that might suggest to the coaching staff that he needs to guard taller players.

I don’t see this kind of on-court micromanaging as the future of the NBA, because so much more is involved in any given matchup, but the possibilities are endless.

We make fun of the random statistics, like “he’s the only player to post 30 or more points against a former Harlem Globetrotter.” And we think, what does that have to do with winning games? But what if a situation arose like that in a game? It’s possible, and creating the right matchup could be the difference in whether you win or lose.

All of this illustrates a trend in sports — and the world at large — that favors objective data over subjective wisdom. Statistics are everywhere. Modern science is counting and prediction. Businesses rely more and more on collected and interpreted data to make decisions, and as we have so often heard, professional sports teams are businesses.

Statistics don’t only measure the past, they predict the future. Whereas we used to say, “Oh, it seems like this,” or “I seem to remember that these people like that,” now we say “statistics show ...” and that’s usually enough to convince a room of investors — or in this case, a basketball team.

But that’s the catch: Statistics can only predict to a degree. There is no certainty, and there will always randomness that statistics for which can’t account. Stats come down to a best guess based on objective evidence.

There’s a lot to be said for what statistics can’t measure, like, for instance, team chemistry. Before the new regime (and following an incredible playoff run in which the 8-seed Grizz beat the 1-seed San Antonio Spurs in the first round and then lost to the Durant-Westbrook-Harden-clad Thunder in an exciting seven-game series), the Grizzlies were all about getting players who meshed well with each other and bought into a hardworking, defensive-minded, grit-and-grind ethic. Now, the new regime seems to be about landing hidden gems for cheap, in a sly attempt to stay competitive with the big market teams that can afford to lob money at two or three superstars every season.

But is the king of stats a benevolent ruler? Most likely, his input will be used outside of games, not in them. Statistics will inform decisions on trading, signing and even drafting players. However, other teams have been using advanced statistics in this way for several years, and it doesn’t always work. Oh, and the PER doesn’t take into account defense, the aspect around which the Grizzlies developed their entire worldview.

So now it may seem as though the Grizzlies have just made themselves worse by trading away their best player. His PER is indeed terrible, but that’s not the whole reason for the trade. It was more of a logistical move, not one to better the team, because Gay was being paid like a superstar but not producing like one.

Still, the front office just broke up its most competitive team to date, squandered its chances of making a deep run in the playoffs, and all while knowing it will still turn a profit. Because statistics show losing teams still make money.

— Robbie Hargett is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 218 or e-mail to rhargett@themountainpress.com.