Numbers are the next big thing in sports. Numbers have always been a part of sports, particularly baseball. But technology and computers are helping produce numbers that are changing our games.
Statistical analytics, sabermetrics – or whatever you want to call it – is changing sports. For the uninitiated, analytics is the advanced use of statistics to determine a player’s value. In sports with salary caps (all but baseball), analytics is an attempt to determine a player’s value with regard to expenditures under the salary cap.
Expenditures. Differential. Risk assessment. These are terms that seem better-suited for Wall Street than sports. But these terms are creeping into the sports world as analytics becomes more popular.
The 76ers are the latest franchise to join the analytics craze. With Josh Harris, a Wharton School graduate who was the senior managing director at Apollo Global Management, a New York-based investment firm, as the 76ers’ principal owner, perhaps it was inevitable that the franchise would be run more like a business.
The most recent step was the hiring of Sam Hinkie, an analytics whiz who has been with the Houston Rockets for eight years, as president and general manager. Harris considered hiring Hinkie as general manager last year, but decided to stick with in-house option Tony DiLeo when Rod Thorn began his transition toward retirement.
News stories mentioned that Hinkie graduated summa cum laude from the University of Oklahoma and earned an MBA from Stanford. When did academic honors become relevant when a team hires a new general manager? Do you know Ruben Amaro Jr.’s GPA? Paul Holmgren’s hockey education seems based as much on his experience with the Minnesota Fighting Saints as his brief time at the University of Minnesota.
But Hinkie is part of the new breed of sports executive. He’s more Howie Roseman and Joe Banner than Holmgren or Amaro.
It wasn’t Hinkie’s jump shot or crossover dribble that caused Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, a bond trader, to hire the 27-year-old Hinkie as special assistant to the general manager in 2005. Like Alexander, Harris’ main business is business. Not surprisingly, he also hired Hinkie.
Hinkie & Harris. It almost sounds like an investment firm. If you listened to Hinkie and Harris during their news conferences, both Tuesday’s official announcement of Hinkie’s hiring and Harris’ end-of-the-season news conference, you could almost forget they were talking about a basketball team.
There spoke of “investing” in players, Andrew Bynum as a “needle mover” and becoming a “steward” of the franchise.
But the language barrier between Sixers management and the fans won’t matter if the Sixers win. That’s a truth everyone involved understands.
So will analytics, the extensive use of data to help people make decisions, help the Sixers win? That depends on how the data is put together and how it is interpreted.
Flyers head coach Roger Neilson, who used video to create some new hockey statistics, was the first one I heard utter a version of a common observation about statistics, saying, “Most people use statistics the same way a drunk uses a light pole. It’s more for support than illumination.”
In other words, the use of tiny webcams in the rafters of Houston’s home arena to record each player’s coordinates 72,000 times per game – a system based on, I kid you not, Israeli missile-tracking technology (Sports Illustrated, Dec. 3, 2012) – doesn’t mean a darn thing if the data the system is gathering isn’t worthwhile or isn’t used properly.
It’s much too early to tell whether Hinkie will use statistics more to illuminate and enlighten or as a crutch to justify decisions. But it was a bad omen when Hinkie said he was impressed that Harris said he would make the decision to trade for Bynum again. “That means a lot to someone like me,” Hinkie said.
Hinkie is impressed that, even though the Bynum trade turned out to be a disaster, Harris respects the process. I would be more impressed if Harris and Hinkie recognized that the Bynum trade was a mistake and, if they had the chance to go back in time, would not make the same mistake again.
Analytics couldn’t reveal that Bynum’s attitude was suspect. Analytics couldn’t reveal that Bynum didn’t always put full effort into rehabilitation from injuries. Analytics couldn’t reveal that Bynum didn’t seem overly committed to playing basketball.
Those are human observations made by human beings. But even if we stick strictly to data, it’s only as good as the people plugging in the numbers and interpreting them.
As I said at the beginning of this column, numbers don’t kill NBA franchises. People kill NBA franchises.
Speaking of numbers, here are some to consider: 34-48. 52-30. 55-27. 53-29. 42-40. 43-39. 34-32. 45-37. These are the records for the Houston Rockets since Hinkie joined their front office.
I have one more number for you: 1. That’s how many playoff series the Rockets won during Hinkie’s eight seasons in Houston. By the way, that’s the same number of playoff series won the Sixers during the same eight-year span.
Sam Hinkie shouldn’t need analytics to know that winning one playoff series in eight years won’t be good enough to keep his job with the 76ers.