Revenge of the Nerds: Analytics Proponents Strike Back at Charles Barkley

Revenge of the Nerds

“I’ve always believed analytics was crap,” Charles Barkley told a TNT audience Tuesday night.

Sir Charles’s tirade came in response to a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, apparently flummoxed by Barkley’s criticism of his team as soft defensively despite their stats suggesting otherwise.

“It’s just some crap that some people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent,” Barkley maintained of analytics. Shaquille O’Neal concurred: “Analytics don’t work.”

The Round Mound of Rebound insisted that analysts pushing statistics to gauge player and team value never played basketball, missed out on their proms, and enjoyed few interactions with the opposite sex growing up.

Auburn’s Barkley probably had more dates at Marquette than I did my first couple of years there, so I cannot dispute him writing us analytics guys off as geeks. But he cared a lot more about stats than he did in his recent rant against analytics on TNT.

First, let me concede the attack on us for never having dates. I showed up with two t-shirts in college, and admit that despite doing so well in one of the early fantasy baseball leagues potential dates seemed less than impressed. When Barkley came to Milwaukee to play the Bucks I thought he was going to kill Marquette’s best basketball player when the latter briefly stepped between him and the girl (who I am almost positive was a Packers cheerleader and Marquette student) he had taken to a bar. So while I did have a prom date, I will not dispute the contention that the athletes attracted more girls than us analytics guys (but by my calculations an early, long, and happy marriage has made me happier than dating a lot of girls would have).

Second, I will never forget a conversation with a long-time sports reporter and editor of a hot-selling book on Alabama football, Darryal Ray, in which he described Barkley after one of his Auburn games. Ray sat in the locker room listening to Sonny Smith chew out the team for a terrible performance. As soon as Barkley saw Ray come into the locker room, he snuck over, grabbed the stat book held by Ray, and, ignoring Smith’s tirade, asked, “How many rebounds did I have?”

Third, he rattles off current great teams, including the Chicago Bulls that he said have achieved success without any need for “analytics.” Here is where I have him dead to rights with two words—Jimmy Butler. Butler was on nobody’s list of possible NBA players his junior season at Marquette—except mine. One person from the Chicago Bulls called me and asked to meet—partly out of curiosity from me ranking Jimmy Butler as the fifth best player in the country as a junior. Butler had not even been one of the top five players on his team the year before. I would be stunned if either Barkley or Shaq—who joined in the trashing of analytics—had ever heard of Butler at the time when I was explaining how the analytics showed that Butler was not only one of the top five players in college, but his skills (not shooting too much, etc.) projected him as a great NBA player. The Bulls grabbed Butler with the last pick in the 1st round, and he won NBA Player of the Month in November for the Eastern Conference.

And therein lies the problem. Obviously if Barkley, Shaq, and I watched 20 games together they would do a much better job of picking out how good each player was. But they can’t watch 4,000 players at once to spot the surprises. Yes, analytics misses on occasional players where a player is doing things that Barkley sees but that cannot be measured. That is why I balanced my list of the Top 100 players released this morning between the subjective ratings of experts and the objective ratings of analytics (see Breitbart Sports story here). The two usually line up pretty well, but occasionally there is a big exception like Jahlil Okafor who has a bunch of turnovers and missed free throws to drop him down the rankings—and in those cases when every expert is saying he is either the best player or at least in the top three we readily admit analytics does not measure his true value.

However, it would take thousands of words to cover the many more cases in which analytics spot players a long time before they are seen and give them credit after measuring their performance based on their level of competition, etc.

A perfect example of where analytics works better than observation is in the Value Add ratings of Shabazz Napier. When Value Add rated Napier as one of the top few players as a sophomore no observer agreed. Two years later observers caught up after he won the National Title and Player of the Year honors. However, the Value Add NBA Indicators assessed that his skills (and size) did not translate to the NBA so he was unlikely to be a good player there. However, as soon as LeBron James said that he thought Napier would be a great player he suddenly turned into a big NBA prospect in the eyes of most observers and arguments started over where in the first round he would go.

So observers were two years too late on figuring out how good a college player he was, and then overreacted and suddenly guessed wrong that he would be a great NBA player. Value Add was steady and correct all the time.

When I named Frank Kaminsky the top center in the country and Willie Cauley-Stein the third best center in the county last year observers thought I was crazy—but a year later the correctness is clear to almost any observer. I could cite endless examples.

My push back is funny, since I actually painted the words “Wade-Barkley Court” on the court by my house because I am such a fan of Barkley’s pro analysis. His in-game NBA analysis remains without comparison. But I doubt if Barkley has ever watched Seth Tuttle from Northern Iowa, who many analytics started to peg as an All-American this season—forcing observers to watch him and now realize after he destroyed Wichita State that they might be right.

Stick to the great in-game analysis—and all the other social commentary which only you can get away with saying! Leave the number-crunching to the guys who do not need to keep up with the social distractions of a basketball star!