There’s a stupid and disturbing trope that arises again and again in much American commentary, whether dedicated to sport, art, or politics. That trope is contrarianism; in one variety, it takes the form of locating a generally derided specimen from one of the above categories and making the case that said specimen is actually great. Or if not great, at least not irredeemably awful. You can see this trope at work amongst people who try to defend Michael Bay or insist that Michelle Bachmann is a credible presidential candidate. The converse form of contrarianism is to locate a concept of some merit or utility and try to argue that it sucks donkey balls. In general, this is actually more defensible; people love a lot of stupid shit and once in a while it’s great to have someone come along and remind people that the shit is stupid. But when you make a charge of this nature, you have to be prepared to back it up. Preferably with facts.
Few places is the contrarian impulse of the second kind more prevalent than in writing about sports and its relation to statistics. If there’s one thing that sportswriters hate, it’s numbers; yes, John Hollinger is tolerated at ESPN (although if I were looking for statistical wizards to trumpet Hollinger would hardly be my example) but for the most part sportswriters treat numbers like they are invading aliens from an alternate universe, when they dare acknowledge their existence at all. In baseball, it’s pretty hard to escape the importance of advanced statistics, what with Moneyball and what have you, although old and stupid writers don’t give a shit about that. In basketball, advanced metrics are relatively less well established, basketball being a more dynamic game with more possibilities and ways to assess a player’s value. And that of course gives idiots an opening because when someone tries to figure out how good a player is using statistical methods, you can just throw a tantrum about INTANGIBLES and perhaps dribble applesauce down the front of your shirt.
This is all expected from old and stupid people; it’s a lot less expected from someone my age, someone who has a scientific background, someone who was a Rhodes Scholar. Enter into this “debate” (I put that in quotes because there is no debate here, just as there’s no debate about the validity of evolution; there are people who are right and people who don’t understand how evidence works) a dude by the name of Jonah Lehrer.
You may remember Lehrer from such fiascos as this article in which he bemoans how hard it is to prove things in science and how can we really know anything is true, really? (note: I am aware that Lehrer has posted a follow-up to the article attempting to explain what he was going for, but it’s not much better than the original). Of course upon reading this a whole bunch of professional scientists jumped all over him, explaining that his understanding of science (or at least his rendering of that understanding for popular consumption) was hopelessly flawed and sounded a lot like freshman philosophy “What is truth anyway, man?"-type discussions.
Ok, whatever, Lehrer doesn’t get science. But he also doesn’t get numbers. Or basketball.
A few days ago, this article by Lehrer appeared on Bill Simmons’ new venture, Grantland. I like Grantland; a lot of good stuff has appeared there in the scant few weeks of its existence, some of which was even written by Simmons himself. I don’t know how Lehrer got on there; presumably his celebrity as a “science writer” catapulted him to such heady heights, although what his qualifications are for opining on basketball or math is unclear (presumably a Rhodes Scholar would know at least some basic math, you know, division, addition, basic stats, that kind of shit). The basic premise of Lehrer’s piece is: aren’t numbers terrible and haven’t they ruined sports? Naturally Lehrer answers these questions in the affirmative (spoiler: the correct answers are “No.” and “No.") and he gets where he’s going by way of some of the most convoluted, ignorant, and just plain incorrect reasoning that I have ever had the displeasure to see in writing outside of conservative blogs.
Lehrer starts his discussion with an analogy to buying a car and pointing out that some variables you would think are important when purchasing a car (horsepower, fuel consumption) are less important to owner satisfaction than various amenities (reliability, comfortable seats). Right off the bat this should raise some red flags. For one, while sports teams certainly value fan satisfaction, that satisfaction is primarily correlated to an objectively measureable metric of performance; namely, winning. Fans are satisfied when their team wins and not when it loses, and that’s quite a bit different than being satisfied with a car. Secondarily, it is truly bizarre to try and make the case against advanced metrics, which seek to find ways beyond the obvious box score numbers to measure player performance, by drawing on the example of obvious metrics providing less satisfaction than less obvious ones. If Lehrer wanted to make the argument for advanced metrics, it would have made sense to start with this analogy; as it stands, his example is simply incoherent. (It’s worth noting here that Lehrer uses the term “sabermetrics” to encompass all advanced metrics, which is wrong).
What follows is garden-variety idiocy which could have been lifted straight from the nursing home about how, sure, numbers might help here and there but THEY HAVE RUINED THE GAME AND WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE INTANGIBLES. I mean, Lehrer literally trots out the “what about things that can’t be quantified” argument, which is so stupid that it doesn’t really deserve a response. As arguments go, it’s on par with the guy on the bus trying to talk to you about UFOs in Roswell or ranting about how science can’t prove he loves his wife; there are only two valid responses, backing away slowly or ridicule (and you can tell which route I’m taking here). And what about having playoff experience you guys?!
But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.
Yeah, there it is, right on schedule. Wait, Jonah Lehrer, are you sure you’re not missing some key sports cliches?
But that’s not what happens. Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions. After all, there is no way to quantify the fierce attitude of a team that feels slighted, or the way even the best players can be undone by the burden of expectations, or how Kendrick Perkins meant more to the Celtics than his rebounding stats might suggest.
Ok, there we go.
It’s rather beside the point that the “excessive” focus on numbers is something that Lehrer simply made up for the purpose of setting fire to some straw statisticians (Deadspin has a more eloquent summary). It’s not even the greatest offense Lehrer commits in his article, since this is just garden-variety invention and mendacity, hardly rising to the level of egregiousness. No, Lehrer greatest mistake is to draw “evidence” for his moderately idiotic position by making a really idiotic argument, one that happens to be very much in my wheelhouse to refute.
This is the moral of the Dallas Mavericks.
Let me tell you something. I have watched somewhere in the vicinity of 50-60% of Mavs games this year during the regular season. Other than a few post-season games I missed due to travel, I have watched every game of their postseason run. I have also watched the majority of the games in the other series starting with the second round. So I’ve probably watched more NBA ball in the last three months than Lehrer has ever seen, and I’m absolutely sure I’ve watched more Mavericks games in that time than he has. All that is to say, I have some basis for talking when I talk about the Dallas Mavericks, a team I’ve been a fan of for years and that I follow pretty closely. And let me tell you, using the Mavs as an example of a team that won despite the numbers is so unbelievably wrong that it’s like trotting out the fossil record to prove that evolution is a hoax. Thanks for doing my work for me, chump!
The fact is that the Mavericks are one of the most notorious teams in the NBA (other than perhaps the Rockets) for their reliance on advanced metrics. The Mavericks are coached by Rick Carlisle, hired very much for his willingness to rely on statistics and for his remarkable track record of fielding the statistically best five players available in any situation. The Dallas coaches’ bench is home to Roland Beech, only the guy who started 82games.com. Mark Cuban chaired the motherfucking Sloan Conference on Sports Analytics, for fuck’s sake! This is the team that, more than any other team, is defined by their scrupulous adherence to the optimal lineup and performance!
And to compound the stupidity, Lehrer cites none other than… J.J. Barea? Apparently, Barea got the start because Carlisle “saw something” in him that couldn’t be captured by stats; just loved his grit and hustle, you know? It can’t possibly be because Barea destroyed Mike Bibby in the matchup battle; or because he was able to get his shot against two seven-footers who were unable to keep up with his speed; or because he could run a devastating pick-and-roll with Tyson Chandler, using Nowitzki as a decoy. None of those things (all quantifiable via matchup analysis and points-per-play and so on) could possibly have made Carlisle change his lineup! It must have been Barea’s monster intangibles and hella hustle!
These are not grand mysteries of the cosmos; the facts in the above paragraph are known to any basketball-competent observer of the finals (so, you know, not Jonah Lehrer) and certainly to me, as someone who has watched Barea all season. To make everything even worse (you didn’t think it was possible, but you were wrong), Lehrer actually undermines his own earlier car analogy by pointing to Barea’s shooting stats to claim that his introduction was not statistically motivated since he didn’t perform particularly well in the playoffs as opposed to the regular season. But if your claim is that the most obvious statistics (horsepower, mileage; shooting percentage, PPG) don’t tell the whole tale, but supplemental statistics do, you can’t then go and say that it wasn’t statistics but intangibles that made the Barea substitution logical, because you’re explicitly ignoring those same supplemental statistics you said were needed for a complete view earlier.
The patronizing anecdote from Philip Roth at the end is only the final dingleberry on the shit sandwich that is Lehrer’s article. All I have to say to people who think like that is: go fuck yourselves. I will enjoy my sports however I want, you sanctimonious assholes; in fact, I will enjoy them even more if I can make ignorant fools like you madder about my enjoyment.
Lehrer’s phobia of numbers is all too sadly representative not only of conversations that we have about sports but conversations that we have in general. It’s not that things that are unquantifiable (which exist) are not worthy of consideration; it’s rather that instead of figuring out which statistics are useful in which contexts and what they tell us, we have these worthless screeds against those horrible nerds who are taking all the fun out of life or something like that. Instead of trying to understand the usefulness of the data we have available to us, we cut ourselves off from that avenue of knowledge by inventing things that are ex hypothesi unquantifiable and then claiming that numbers are worthless because they can’t quantify those things (even when it turns out that numbers can quantify them). And worst of all, ostensibly intelligent people who should know better take these contrarian positions without bothering to collect even the most rudimentary evidence for their arguments. Lehrer’s entire article is almost as wrong as one could possibly be when discussing basketball, and yet he’s given national exposure with minimal fact-checking to air his stupidity. Turn him into a right-winger and you’ve got pretty much everyone at Fox news. The rot goes deep, and Lehrer is only its most superficial manifestation.