My first reaction after reading Jonah Lehrer's piece on Grantland was to try and ignore it. It's the same debate we've been having since Lewis published Moneyball right? But there is something different in this latest railing against sports analytics (and please can we stop referring to statistics applied to any sport as Sabrmetrics? That is a baseball term, nobody in basketball or any other sport refers to their work that way.) The difference here is that instead of being accused of not being relevant, us geeks are being accused of being too relevant. Much as my grandfather accused me of ruining sports, Lehrer is accusing decision makers in sports of ruing the game because they only care about the numbers.
This is a rather bizarre charge, as any of who have worked for teams not named the Houston Rockets can tell you. Decision makers (GM's, coaches, etc) are not exactly waiting breathlessly for the latest pronouncements from their resident geeks. Do some teams factor good analysis into their decision making? Sure they do. By my count 11 of the 16 NBA playoff teams employed analysts, at least to some degree, but all of those teams also have serious scouting departments that employ a lot more people, and the scouts are not ignored. Personnel and coaching decisions are looked at from every angle imaginable, and it is rather silly to suggest that somehow math has put all of these other sources of information in the back seat.
I do want to address two specifics of the article though. The first is the use of the Mavericks as the counter example and the second is the phrase "The underlying assumption is that a team is just the sum of its players, and that the real world works a lot like a fantasy league." and both points actually tied back to the same idea.
First the Mavericks: The Mavericks are one of the most innovative teams when it comes to analytics, employing the first statistician who actually travels with the coaching staff and works with them on a daily basis. Roland Beech is one of the best statisticians in the world when it comes to basketball, and while I do not know what Roland's numbers looked like for Barea, I can bet that he had input on the decision. Data may not have made the decision, but, as it should be, was a factor. To continue on the Mavericks example, Lehrer notes that "According to one statistical analysis, the Los Angeles Lakers had four of the top five players in the series. The Miami Heat had three of the top four." (cleverly linking back to Beech's own site 82games.com to make his point). The problem is that not all analysis is created equal. What is published on the internet may not always be the cutting edge of basketball analysis (or football or baseball or soccer ....). Wayne Winston once famously said that, because of his analysis, we would advise a GM not to sign a young Kevin Durant at any price. Just because some one puts a number down does not mean it is a valuable number.
On the second point regarding the assumption that a team is somehow the sum of its parts, I would suggest that most GMs, Coaches, and even statisticians are sophisticated enough to know that this is simply not the case. I have never heard a serious statistician argue (outside of baseball at least) that you can simply add metrics together and get a result that predicts the outcome of adding a specific player.
What this comes down to, I believe, is a general misunderstanding about how sports analytics is both practiced and utilized. Sports analytics is, at times, a set of sophisticated tools that can help provide insight into the games we love. It can even be applied, as Dean Oliver has, to issues like team fit, but any good statistician will also be the first to explain to a decision maker the limits on the analysis. Are their people that take their analysis too far and draw conclusions that are not supported by their own work? Of course, their are irresponsible people in every profession. That does not mean, however that the tool is being over used or is in any way shifting a decision maker's focus away from the important variables.
Let us not have this debate any longer. Live and let live. Statisticians, scouts, fans, coaches and general managers can choose how much stock they put into various types of analysis, but lets not dismiss an entire field that is, honestly, still in its infancy.