Basketball Analytics (Take 2): Winning

I’m realizing from the feedback on my post about basketball analytics that the issues the phenomenon raises are more complex than what I’d thought or allowed for in that post.  In fact, they are too complex to properly examine in any single blog post.

Truthfully, all this has been part of a longer, academic project that has me very excited, very curious, and very impatient to know more. That impatience, led me to cast my “reflections and reservations” about analytics in an aura of understanding and conviction that belied my confusion and uncertainty and concealed the fact that I’m at the beginning of an open-ended process of discovery.

In fact, I have a lot to learn. I don’t at this point have a firm grasp of the methods of basketball analytics at this point, nor of how they are implemented institutionally.  I’m not sure what they might “mean” for the culture of basketball, nor, therefore, do I have a definitive opinion about them.  In all these areas, what I have are glimpses and impressions, partial comprehension, intuitions and half-formed thoughts, strongly felt but as yet poorly understood aversions and attractions, and questions I’m not entirely sure how to formulate.

At this point, I’m not even sure that it’s accurate to say that I have “reservations about analytics.” To be honest, I’m just ravenously curious to better understand analytics (both the reasoning and its institutional implementation) and how it harmonizes with or sits in tension with other facets of the culture of the sport that might be characterized as irreducibly “subjective” or “qualitative”.

Maybe this means I should keep my mouth shut until I figure it out. But—you guessed it—I don’t think so.  For one thing, maybe unfortunately for readers, I learn not only by reading and reflecting in solitude, but also by writing, both by the process of putting thoughts into words and having words shape my thoughts and by the process of considering the feedback of readers.  But also I believe, or at least hope, that my sharing that process with readers can enliven a broader conversation about the various complicated aspects of this issue. So let me make another pass at this, with greater care, humility, transparency, and respect for the complexity of the issues.

Some Premises

First, all my research into the history of basketball and its cultural accompaniments indicates that to grasp any element of the sport requires us to consider its relationship to the broader social context, beyond hoops, in which it has occurred. I’ve seen nothing yet to persuade me that the rise of analytics is any exception. My research has also confirmed what I believe by temperament: that the culture of basketball is just that—a culture. This means that we all contribute to it to varying degrees and in varying ways and that we all bear responsibility for the shape it’s in and the future directions it takes.

Second, here is a partial and inchoate list of issues (or terms or concepts) that I have come to think are in some way or another in play: quantification, statistical reasoning, probability, chance, prediction, beauty, knowledge, fact, Protestantism, aesthetics, emotion, economics, competition, winning, efficiency, discipline, innovation, creativity, order, chaos, big data, play, surveillance, ethics, labor, profit, capitalism, rules, the market, and value.

I view all these terms, considered both in and out of basketball, and each with its own history, as threads woven together into a complicated, dynamic, still unfolding fabric.  That fabric is basketball. That means it’s difficult for me to grasp the end of any particular thread and follow it without running into other threads running alongside or intersecting with it.

Thoughts and Questions on Winning

That said, I’ve got to start somewhere and for the moment I’m interested in winning, by which I mean, winning games as a goal for owners, coaches, players, fans, and other stakeholders in NBA basketball.  It appears that if winning is your goal, basketball analytics provides you with a set of methods for understanding how to do that in general and, if you’re smart, you can learn to adapt the insights provided by analytics to your personnel to achieve more wins given the current rules governing play and the laws and contracts governing the construction of teams.  Moreover, if you’re an owner, analytics also promises to generate those wins, as Daryl Morey put it in 2005, for less money. Winning, it seems, is valuable and valued, and so, like any valuable and valued thing, if you can get it more cheaply, all the better.

I’m not sure yet whether I want to try to question whether winning is a primary goal of everyone with a stake in NBA basketball. I wouldn’t know how to determine that, and anyway it does seem that winning is a primary goal for most of those (like owners and general managers) in a position to influence the way basketball gets played in the NBA, which really is more to the point.  And I’m guessing, though I’m not sure, that winning is their primary goal, among other reasons, because they presume that winning is a primary goal of most fans, who express that by spending money on the sport and so generate revenues for those decision makers.

But I do want to challenge the assumption that winning should be the primary goal and its frequently voiced corollary that it is natural for winning to be the primary goal where professional (or any other) sporting events are concerned. At the very least, I’d to make room in the conversation to ask some questions.

  • Is the drive to win really natural?
  • If not, how and by what forces did winning became the primary goal?
  • According to what criteria of rightness or goodness do we assert that winning should be the primary goal?
  • How were those criteria determined? And by who?
  • What impact, if any, does the primacy of winning have on the way professional basketball gets played?
  • What other aims do stakeholders bring to their engagement with NBA hoops?
  • What elements of play do these aims lead these stakeholders to value?
  • How are these aims and elements of play impacted, if at all, by the primacy of winning and the elements and styles of play valued by the drive to win?
  • Let’s say that I have a friend who worries that the drive to win, harnessed to the drive to make a profit, and capacitated by the powerful tools of basketball analytics, is tending toward a homogenization of the game by a process of “capitalist selection,” what should I tell my friend to do?

I have some thoughts about these questions, but I don’t want to take up too much time.  I realize there’s nothing terribly groundbreaking or provocative here.  But I’m hoping by taking it slow to invite reasoned conversation and to lay the groundwork for actually generating insight.  In any event, in my next post on the topic, I’ll to begin to explore these questions. . . . unless, of course, the questions change in the meantime.

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“Gladiators” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 6)

Hans Gumbrecht continues his brief history of sports in the West by turning from the ancient Greek games at Olympia to the very different events held hundreds of years later at the Colosseum in Rome.  Gumbrecht’s account of this is divided between descriptions of these events and an interpretation of what allure they may have held for the tens of thousands of spectators who attended.

Gumbrech vividly fills out our often oversimplified stock images of these events.  Thus, a program of events, usually paid for by a sponsor to curry favor with the populace and organized by a hired planner (called an “editor”) might last several days and include Greek style athletic events, simulated hunts, chariot races, reenactments of historical battles, music, and, yes, as the culminating attraction, gladiatorial combat. Here, though Gumbrecht professes to be wishing to stress discontinuities in sport history, he notes the obvious ways in which these extravaganzas resemble our contemporary mega-events.

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna --- Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna — Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

The most interesting part of this section of the book is, I think, Gumbrecht’s speculation concerning what might have been fascinated Romans about this.  We tend to think it is a kind of frenzy of distraction and bloodlust.  But, as Gumbrecht informs us, modern research maintains that by a ratio of 10:1, vanquished combatants were not killed, but rather released. So it wasn’t likely to be the prospect of seeing some hapless possibly overmatched or outwitted fighter killed that made these battles the main event.

Gumbrecht:

Together with the initial asymmetry between the combatants, the moment of truth must have drawn the crowd’s attention exclusively toward not the victor but the loser, who—for a few moments at least–lived publicly in the face of death (p. 105)

And what they wanted to see, Gumbrecht argues (prefiguring some comments he will make in a later chapter describing our own contemporary fascination with suffering) is “composure, a face ‘frozen as ice,’ ‘hard as stone,’ impenetrable as a mask” (p 106).  The combat in itself therefore was less important, he claims, than the moment it led up to; the moment in which the defeated gladiator could be transfigured through his public stoicism in the face of death into a heroic “icon for the psychic strength required to brave human frailty” (p. 106).

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Two aspects of this strike me as interesting.  The first is how strikingly familiar this attraction seems to me as a contemporary fan and student of sports cultures.  That is, not only is the stage spectacular mega-event context for the moment of truth somewhat continuous with modern sports, but so is appeal of the image of the human face overcoming the agony of coming to the limit point of physical destruction, mental stress, sheer exhaustion, or even simply tragic defeat.  Again, I’m a bit surprised to find that Gumbrecht’s own accounts, aimed at disrupting a “romantic view” of continuity between ancient and modern sports continue to show the opposite, at least as I understand them.

The other striking element of this is the important role played by competition in this scenario.  In his definition of athletics, Gumbrecht stressed the defining importance to his conception of athletics of arete (the striving for excellence) at the expense of agon (competition).  But here, it seems, excellence really doesn’t play much of a role and, even if competition is not the ultimate aim, it is a necessary catalyst to the staging of the moment that Gumbrecht believe was most fascinating to the ancient Roman spectator.

I’m interested in this because I’m continually trying to find ways to articulate my own sense that competition and the drive to win is essential to my enjoyment of sports, but not because winning (or losing) is especially interesting to me (even as a partisan of particular teams). It is because of all that competition sets in motion before, during, and after a contest.  In this too, I see more continuity than discontinuity between the fascination of modern sports and Gumbrecht’s description of sports in ancient times.