Nerds vs. Jocks

Given the recent surge in productivity by my fellow enthusiastic webloggers, the occurrence of the NBA draft this evening as well as the release of the screenplay for the Moneyball film, I have decided to address, anecdotally of course, some of my thoughts regarding the rise of rational analysis in the National Basketball Association, and its seemingly quick infiltration into the corridors of power in the league  compared to the stubborn reaction it has received from the baseball establishment.

1.  The self-sustaining principle

I had a conversation recently with the other fellas here at the New Enthusiast about why there is less resistance to rational analysis in basketball as opposed to baseball.   Yes, we do spend time away from our computers.  There were a couple of facts that came up about baseball. I will concentrate on one of those facts; baseball’s old.  Because it’s old it has had many incarnations.  It’s not 1968 anymore although there are some baseball analysts, managers etc. who think it is.  Point being, as in other old bureaucracies and institutions, power gets entrenched and its tendency is to sustain and further entrench itself in the institution (Thanks Max Weber).

Relative to baseball, basketball’s widespread popularity is recent.  Because of this recent ascendancy, the game is  similar (zone defense, no hand checking, impact internationals and LBJ notwithstanding) to the game that made it popular, and the fans and subsequent coaches, management are younger.  One can assume that with this less entrenched power, newer ideas, such as rational analysis of player performance may be more easily adopted.

2. Economic constraints

Here’s yet another fact; collective bargaining agreements (CBA’s) are complicated.  That being said, I understand that there is one large difference in the CBA’s of the NBA and MLB.  That difference is the salary cap.  Unlike the large disparity in payrolls in Major League Baseball, the payrolls in the NBA only vary by about 40 million dollars and many of those dollars are doubled because of the luxury tax. Because of these constraints, owners can’t go spending their money willy nilly (don’t tell the Knicks). Management may be more willing to use rational analysis to find the undervalued, non-jean models and defensive specialists yearning to breathe free.

3. The draft

As in most forms of analysis, it is always best to triangulate methods. One of the best scenes in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball is when Paul DePodesta gets introduced to the scouts before the 2002 draft. Billy Beane sets out his constraints for whom they will be selecting in the draft. The scouts don’t like it. Billy does this because he had been talked out of picks in previous years in favor of young toolsy baseball players. Beane didn’t like that, mostly because they reminded him of himself as a baseballer. The answers, in drafting, especially in the NBA, lie somewhere in the middle of the geeks and the scouts.

This year’s draft in the NBA brings into stark relief what the NBA draft has become since the One-and-done rule took affect in the NBA and really since they started taking high schoolers. It looks more like a really mini-version of the MLB draft. Without more than one sure bet, there is no real consensus on who is going to be a good basketball player.  Blake Griffin and Ty Lawson are a couple of analysts’ favorites.  Aesthetes and potentialists really like Brandon Jennings and Ricky Rubio. Regardless it is clear that Jennings, Rubio and DeMar Derozan fall into the archetype of the toolsy guys that scouts love while Lawson, Griffin, and to a lesser extent Hansbrough, DeJuan Blair, guys with serious college track records are the darlings of the statnerds.

My long-winded point is that the NBA draft is very important. Management doesn’t want to mess it up. Some organizations such as the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers unabashedly triangulate with scouts and statnerds to try and get it right. Their track records prove that they are pretty good at it too.

4. Playoffs

“My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”

–Billy Beane

Like the addage of having to manufacture runs in the MLB playoffs, there are equally common conceptions of what it takes to win in the NBA playoffs.


Teams have to have a superstar, go to player to win the title.

It takes a dominant big man to win the title.

and so on…

Luckily for the reader I’m not going to get into specific examples, but it is my inclination that, given the amount of opportunities NBA basketball players have, luck plays a lesser role in the NBA playoffs compared to their MLB playoff cousin.  It seems as though given the larger number of opportunities players have in a single game much less over a seven game series, players will tend to  play more like themselves compared to players given the limited opportunities October baseball provides.

Basically, I think that the rational analysis merde could work in the playoffs especially with the all enthusiastic lineup of Billups, Rudy, Battier, Rashard Lewis, Tiago Splitter

Oh and in case you missed this classic Nerd vs. Jock case study

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4 thoughts on “Nerds vs. Jocks

  1. And yet without a salary cap, Major League Baseball has the best parity in all of the major sports. Look up Jayson Stark’s archives on the topic. One other flaw in your discourse: Baseball’s new growth of sabermetrics and the boom of statistics have changed the game and a large percentage of those who write about it. There are few that are stuck in 1968.

  2. A few comments on the comment, in reverse order…

    First, William’s second point about baseball’s near-total embrace of sabermetric analysis may actually strengthen the author’s hunch about why basketball has been quicker to adopt advanced statistics. While few baseball minds might be currently stuck in 1968, it took quite a bit of convincing to bring them all up-to-date. Watching this difficult process, and being able to weigh this reluctance against the evident benefit of robust statistical analysis, may have primed basketball front offices to willingly receive the gospel. While basketball nerds still had to design the new stats, they didn’t have to do nearly as much evangelizing as their baseball counterparts–Bill James, Rob Neyer, Michael Lewis, et al did that for them.

    Second, but first, in re the greater parity of the Majors….it sure does seems that way. But it’s not entirely clear whether this is a result of differing financial structures or just an artifact of the games themselves and the players that play them. For instance, since the 1984 season, when the modern salary cap was instituted, the NBA championship has been dominated by a handful of teams–Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Spurs, with Pistons and Rockets claiming a few, too. But is that a comment on the salary cap’s failure to foster parity, or just a result of each team having two or more of the greatest players of all-time on the roster at the same time? Furthermore, it’s the nature of basketball that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have a much greater influence on the outcome of a game than even Ruth and Gehrig ever did. Since basketball isn’t a turn-based game like baseball, individual greatness matters more. I’d say the same goes for football, though to a lesser degree. Still, when comparing the effects of differing financial structures across sports, we can’t forget to bear in mind the differences inherent in the sports themselves, and how these differences may influence the comparisons.

  3. William,
    Just curious as to whether we are talking about regular season parity or postseason parity?

    It would be interesting to see once teams get to the playoffs what the parity is like. Also, parity isn’t always the best thing in terms of watching a sport too. The NBA got really popular in an era when the Bulls reigned. I’m sure it wasn’t just love that made it popular. People watched it to hate on ’em too.

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