Barkley, Analytics + 'Revenge Of The Nerds'
“I’ve always believed analytics was crap,'' said Charles Barkley during Tuesday's TNT telecast of the Rockets' 127-118 victory over the Suns that featured his 10-minute diatribe against higher basketball education. "All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common — they’re a bunch of guys who have never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.’’
A certain portion of the basketball community is irate about this. Which portion? Well, those of us who never played the game and never got the girls in school.
Most of the rest of us are a) secure in our belief that analytics is a critical function in sports, and to whatever degree possible always has been (yes, even in Barkley's playing days), and that more information and more edification is never, ever bad; and b) aware that it is Charles Barkley job, by definition, to find ways for America to keep watching TV late into the night even after the game is over. If that means kissing an ass (that is, a donkey's butt) or running a sprint against an elderly NBA ref, or saying of San Antonio, "There's some big 'ol women down there. That's a gold mine for Weight Watchers. Victoria is definitely a secret; they can't wear no Victoria's Secret down there." ... then Charles kisses, sprints and insults.
It's an act. A joke. A bit.
There is no doubt Barkley has a healthy disrespect for Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and the NBA analytics community he champions; that may be one of the few things "healthy'' about the rotund Charles, who even in his playing days wasn't exactly fit for fashionable underwear, either. But there is also no doubt that this is Barkley "turning it up to 11,'' expanding a core belief of his -- that life is high school and he's the popular Prom King and y'all need to hurry up and finish building his float -- and comically goofing on the nerds.
Sir Charles called Morey “one of those idiots who believes in analytics.’’ It's only an insult if you take Barkley more seriously as an NBA analyst than you take him as an entertainer, because there is virtually nothing factual about Barkley's position. To wit:
*He said of the Rockets, “Just because you’ve got good stats doesn’t mean you’re a good team defensively. They’re not a good defensive team. They gave up 118 points. No good team gives up 118 points.’’
Obviously, lots of "good defensive teams'' have given up 118 points in a game, including, surely, some of the great teams on which Barkley starred. Furthermore, the Rockets (36-16, third best in the Western Conference) are "good'' by almost any eye-test measure, too. And it's not too math-complicated to comprehend that Houston is seventh in the NBA or points allowed per 100 possessions (100.2).
That's not MIT-level stuff. It's simple division. Fourth-grade-level stuff.
*Barkley said, "Listen, I wouldn’t know Daryl Morey if he walked into this room right now.’’ DB.com busts Morey's chops constantly as an offshoot of the Mavs-Rockets rivalry. But let's be clear: Nobody at TNT will tell Chuck this -- he's too large and in charge -- but while Barkley seems to be suggesting that his inability to ID the Rockets GM is an indictment of Morey, it is, in fact, the other way around.
The lead studio analyst in all the NBA absolutely ought to be able to identify the long-time GM of the team whose game he's telecasting.
Barkley insists, “First of all, I’ve always believed analytics was crap. ... They say that same crap in baseball.'' In fact, first of all, "analytics'' is really, mostly, simply math. It was around before Barkley, when somebody decided to calculate that a baseball player who got one hit in four at-bats is hitting .250. (The late Dean Smith was a numbers junkie even in his early years at North Carolina.) It will be around after Barkley, when the concepts are fine-tuned to the point when most coaches won't just have analytic departments but rather will themselves have analytic backgrounds -- or at least the ones who want every possible winning edge will do so.
Dallas' Rick Carlisle, by the way, has always been a model to me in this area. As I've written before, the former Celtics benchwarmer has fully embraced the old-school "gut feel'' of Red Auerbach while marrying it with the full-speed-ahead-brained Mavs owner Mark Cuban. And without going team-by-team on this subject, I will guess that the large majority of NBA franchises now make sure their coaches have access to the wide delta of available info.
"I guess the word would be 'selectively','' Carlisle said Wednesday before the Mavs' home win over Utah. "There are tools there that are extremely useful."
Analytics could help Barkley right at this very moment as he prepares for another of his trips to Vegas, where he's been known to drop enough dough to be down $30 million Ah, Charles, if only you understood math ... probability ... analytics ... gambling.
*Barkley's description of the "analytics idiots'' as “a bunch of guys who’ve never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school’’ drags us all into an easy trap ... if our thinking on how school worked is born of watching "Revenge of The Nerds'' too many times.
In an otherwise smart "open letter'' to Barkley, Nylon Calculus writes: "I get that once upon a time athletes had their corner and nerds had their corner and we stayed in our little corners and didn’t bother each other, the occasional aggressive wedgie excepted. That kind of separation of nerds and athletes hasn’t been true in a long time though. It wasn’t even true anymore when I was in high school, and that’s a hell of a feat.
"But I understand, honestly, that in your day athletes did their thing and nerds did their thing largely so that they didn’t have to do the other one. Nerds became nerds so they didn’t have to get hit by the dodgeballs so to speak. Athletes avoided the classroom so they didn’t have to do math.''
Funny. But this was never true. Not all smart people can't play. Not all players can't think. People aren't boxes. People aren't either/or. And "numbers'' vs. "gut feeling'' isn't either/or, either.
And this isn't old-school/new-school stuff, either. Just ask Barkley's most prominent contemporaries who, because they run NBA teams, must make decisions based on something other than punchlines.
Is Larry Bird a good-enough non-nerd for Barkley? In his operation of the Pacers, Bird supervises an analytics department and coach Frank Vogel, a prominent pro-analytics guy. Vogel, by the way, was his college basketball team's captain with a major in pre-med.
Is Michael Jordan a good-enough non-nerd? In his ownership of the Hornets, Jordan pays "Quantitative Analyst/Systems'' staffers and "Basketball Research and Analytics'' staffers and has hired as his GM a man named Rich Cho. Cho has a degree in mechanical engineering, worked as an engineer at Boeing, has a degree from Pepperdine University School of Law and has been an NBA exec for 19 years.
Is Charles sure he's too busy getting oral sex from prostitutes to get advice from Frank Vogel or Rich Cho?
Cuban, playing along, said he fits into the high-school-almost-never-been-kissed category. "Let’s say, by the time I graduated, I had not lost my virginity. And it wasn’t for lack of trying.” But as a true believer in the real subject at hand, he says now that everyone has advanced-stat access, they are less valuable.
“Analytics really worked well for us when nobody had them,” Cuban said.
Nevertheless, he added, “They serve a purpose .... analytics makes you look at guys and see what you see. And then, for analytics to work, you have to be able to confirm it with what you see.”
In other words, more information and more edification. And if Charles ever really became a GM of an NBA team, as he's playfully suggested might be in his future? Yes, "acquire LeBron James'' would trump studying spreadsheets. But how else can a team succeed? You really think GM Barkley wouldn't enlist the help of a department full of "nerds'' to help with information and edification?
Barkley boldly states, "The NBA is about talent.'' That is a statement that fits cozily on Twitter or on his granny's needlepoint throw pillow. But it's nonsense in this world and again, Barkley simply has to know this. The NBA is about a countless number of things, and to say otherwise isn't just insulting the "nerds.'' It's insulting owners, GM's, coaches, support staffers, fans, and maybe most of all the 99 percentile of NBA players who aren't as gifted as Barkley was.
So this is one of TV's funniest personalities doing a bit. Because if "talent is all that matters in the NBA,'' Charles Barkley would've won more than zero championships.
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