The most important annual statistical moment in America: the start of March Madness

When do statistics matter the most for the average American? The week of the opening weekend of March Madness – the period between the revealing of the 68 team field to the final games of the Round of 32 – may just be that point. All the numbers are hard to resist; win-loss records, various other metrics of team performance (strength of schedule, RPI, systems attached to particular analysts, advanced basketball statistics, etc.), comparing seed numbers and their historic performance, seeing who the rest of America has picked (see the percentages for the millions of brackets at ESPN), and betting lines and pools.

Considering the suggestions that Americans are fairly innumerate, perhaps this would be a good period for public statistics education. How does one sift through all these numbers, thinking about how they are measured and making decisions based on the figures? Sadly, I usually teach Statistics in the fall so I can’t put any of my own ideas into practice…

John Starks’ 1993 dunk and New York exceptionalism

John Starks had a memorable dunk against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Playoffs and one writer argues this illustrates the city’s belief in its own exceptionalism:

New York exceptionalism — the belief that, as Joey Litman once wrote at FreeDarko, “everything must be the best because it is of New York, and, naturally, it is of New York because it is the best” — isn’t just something people here feel; it is literally the name of an e-seminar produced by Columbia University, one where “Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique,” and argues that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place.” (Columbia sits at 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Naturally.)

This exceptionalism extends to local sports fandom. There’s long been a sense among New Yorkers that New York’s teams are just supposed to be good because they’re New York’s teams. And when they’re not, which is often, the anger gets as big as the payrolls: “How can a team that makes that much, that spends that much, that charges that much, and that is from New York be that bad?” (The answer is typically “mismanagement.” New York sports teams, especially the one that employed Starks, often have that in spades.)…

Yes, Starks would eventually become an All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year, but he was never a Jordan- or Reggie Miller-esque star; he always had to punch up when it mattered. And yes, he was a gunner making six (and eventually seven) figures to jack jumpers and occasionally boil over, but he always seemed to be doing stuff like kissing the Knicks logo at center court or saying “someone would have to tear the No. 3 jersey from his chest before he was traded to another team.” Starks treated New York like the exceptional thing New Yorkers believe it to be, and in so doing gave the forever-bigging-itself-up big city a little-guy underdog to rally behind.

As the article goes on to note, this memorable moment came at the end of Game 2 of a series that the Bulls won by beating the Knicks in the next four games. So, even though New York City can lay claim to being the number one global city, the sports teams can’t exactly make that claim. It takes a scrappy player like John Starks to rally the fans even as the teams themselves fall short. Yet, in the 1994 NBA Finals, Starks was blocked at the buzzer of Game 6 as the Knicks lost and then Starks shot 2-16 in Game 7 as the Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets.

It would be interesting to ask residents of the top global cities about whether they consider their city to be the best. Is this a unique property of New York, a city that can back up its claims with a powerful finance sector, lots of celebrity, and a big population? Going back to the e-seminar mentioned above, here is the course description for New York Exceptionalism:

Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique, laying down the essential arguments for what one might call “New York exceptionalism.” His thesis for the e-seminar, indeed for the whole series of e-seminars, is that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place, and in some ways [New York City] is certainly unique in the United States and in many ways [New York City] is unique around the world.” How is it unique? Professor Jackson begins with geography, discussing how New York City is a good port and a natural transportation break, in other words, a place where you switch modes of transport. He describes the founding of the city by the Dutch West India Company and explains how the commercial focus of the company, and of the Dutch in general, made New Amsterdam different from Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia. People came to New York to succeed. Finally, Professor Jackson discusses how all these factors (commerce, geography, and religion) produced a greater willingness to accept those who are different, a tolerance for diversity that makes New York exceptional.

It is one thing to say a city is unique – which all cities are –  and another to say it is exceptional.

Lorde observes NBA game as an objective observer

Music star Lorde attended a recent Chicago Bulls game and sent these tweets while at the game:

i am at a bulls game this is so intense how does everyone in this room not have a stress ulcer

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

i am such an outsider to the world of sport but i feel very proud of all playing

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

the cheerleaders are doing synchronized movements to small pieces of drum-based instrumental music

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

in the break they rolled out a red carpet on the court and a man did some tricks with his dog

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

This presents an intriguing opportunity to compare how the average American sports fan would view things opposed to an outsider. For sports fans, it is easy to think of all they see as “natural:” the players just do what they do, the fans respond in certain ways, and the stadium experience is fairly similar across the United States. However, it is easy to forget that all of this “natural” behavior or knowledge is all learned. The whole American sports/entertainment package has a fairly set course from sports talk radio to how it is presented on television to how it is experienced live.

In her first experience at a NBA game, Lorde was simply describing what she saw. None of it is wrong and she is making “common sense” observations that might make little sense to non-fans. Why would there be a man with a dog doing tricks during the break? Why are stadium experiences in the US so intense (loud, constant videos)? Why do cheerleaders do what they do? The average sports fan may not even have good answers to these questions; those things happen because that is the way it has always happened. Of course, that is not true: sports experiences can differ widely based on contexts and history.

In this way, an outsider can bring needed perspective to a social norm many of us just take for granted. Is Lorde’s view of the NBA game more objective than those who have lots of basketball knowledge and experience?

Long tail: 17% of the seven foot tall men between ages 20 and 40 in the US play in the NBA

As part of dissecting whether Shaq can really fit in a Buick Lacrosse (I’ve asked this myself when watching the commercial), Car & Driver drops in this little statistic about men in the United States who are seven feet tall:

The population of seven-footers is infinitesimal. In 2011, Sports Illustrated estimated that there are fewer than 70 men between the ages of 20 and 40 in the United States who stand seven feet or taller. A shocking 17 percent of them play in the NBA.

In the distribution of heights in the United States, being at least seven feet tall is quite unusual and at the far right side of a fairly normal distribution. But, being that tall increases the odds of playing in the NBA by quite a lot. As a Forbes post suggests, “Being 7 Feet Tall [may be] the Fastest Way To Get Rich in America“:

Drawing on Centers for Disease Control data, Sports Illustrated‘s Pablo Torre estimated that no more than 70 American men are between the ages of 20 and 40 and at least 7 feet tall. “While the probability of, say, an American between 6’6? and 6’8? being an NBA player today stands at a mere 0.07%, it’s a staggering 17% for someone 7 feet or taller,” Torre writes.

(While that claim might seem like a tall tale, more than 42 U.S.-born players listed at 7 feet did debut in NBA games between 1993 and 2013. Even accounting for the typical 1-inch inflation in players’ listed heights would still mean that 15 “true” 7-footers made it to the NBA, out of Torre’s hypothetical pool of about 70 men.)…

And given the market need for players who can protect the rim, there are extra rewards for this extra height. The league’s median player last season was 6 feet 7 inches tall, and paid about $2.5 million for his service. But consider the rarified air of the 7-footer-and-up club. The average salary of those 35 NBA players: $6.1 million.

(How much does one more inch matter? The 39 players listed at 6 feet 11 inches were paid an average of $4.9 million, or about 20% less than the 7 footers.)

Standing as an outlier at the far end of the distribution seems to pay off in this case.

Discussing why a professional sports team would adopt the name the Pelicans

It appears the New Orleans Hornets will adopt a new name: the Pelicans. Here is some discussion on TrueHoop about the meaning of the name and other names that were in the running:

And yet, if you put a gun to my head and said: Come up with a funny name for a minor league baseball team I’d say “Pelicans” and I’d worry that it wasn’t realistic. Like, what owner would name his team for an unathletic bird noted for how much marine life it can carry in its big mouth?

In terms of specifically dissecting the Pelican and noting its awkwardness, I think that is fair, but I think the qualities of the bird do not necessarily translate into the perception of the team. Magic is not the “sportiest” of names. It’s either weak in some sense or cheating (is there a rule against sorcery?), right?

Not to pick on the Magic, of course. The Celtics aren’t meant to be pagans. The Knickerbockers don’t have people’s unsundry parts in them. Those names are “made” by their legacies. It is the duty of every franchise to build that legacy to overcome all of these, at first, imperfect names. And upon the fanbase. They have to “own it,” to use the parlance of our time.

People in New Orleans dislike change, but they love New Orleans. There’s nothing like some hate from north of I-10 to get some New Orleanians to love what those “Yankees” hate.

It’ll work.

And a quick look at three other possible names:

The colors were purple, red and black primarily, they had the voodoo dolls, the graveyard, bones and mojo for mascots, and more. It was fantastic, local, recognizable, edgy. Voodoo is currently owned by the new AFL, as Benson folded his team prior the older AFL folding. The Shreveport-Bossier City Battlewings (north Louisiana for those playing the home game) moved here, donning Voodoo garb. This was at least one obstruction to this…

Krewe was another good choice. “Krewe of X” is used to describe the people in parades in many cases (I was Krewe of Endymion after the Super Bowl, for instance). This has clear cultural relevance and built-in mascots, branding, etc. It would be a beacon for those three people who’ve never heard of Mardi Gras. Krewe of New Orleans … the party has arrived.

Brass was another good name. It’s evocative of Jazz, and was the name of an ECHL team (minor league hockey) here in New Orleans (yes, really) that folded shortly after the Hornets relocation. You can write the branding for it quite easily.

I suspect this analysis is right: local fans could get used to all sorts of names over time. I would assume that winning more would make a sports team name more permanent. While there may have been other reasons for these switches, think of the Charlotte Bobcats and the Washington Wizards. Perhaps some cities are even better suited than others to adopt stranger or more local names. And yes, a number of professional pro sports team names don’t make a lot of sense given their current context and era. For people who like local color, it is almost too bad sports teams aren’t required to have names that match their current community. Finding the best local names could be a fascinating exercise…

But I wonder if this is part of a larger shift in the names of sports teams away from fierce animals or creatures. Just as first names in the United States can change (here is a sociologist talking about the decline of the name Mary but the resurgence of the name Emma), the names of sports teams can change. Think of the new team names in the four major sports in the last two decades and it is an odd collection of old-style and new names. This may have to do with branding: new kinds of names offer new opportunities. Take the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their name is not shared by another team in the four major sports and is not found too frequently elsewhere. It could lead to all sorts of new marketing opportunities though it might be difficult to come up with appropriate mascots and train copy editors to use the name correctly.

Of course, one innovation of the future could be that more American sports team adopt corporate names. This could be a lucrative revenue stream.

A new statistic to measure chemistry in basketball

Team chemistry is an elusive concept to measure but three “quantitative traders in the financial world” have developed a new statistic they say tackles the subject:

We introduce a novel Skills Plus Minus (“SPM”) framework to measure on-court chemistry in basketball. First, we evaluate each player’s offense and defense in the SPM framework based on three basic categories of skills: scoring, rebounding, and ball-handling. We then simulate games using the skill ratings of the ten players on the court. The results of the simulations measure the effectiveness of individual players as well as the 5-player lineup, so we can then calculate the synergies of each NBA team by comparing their 5-player lineup’s effectiveness to the “sum-of-the-parts.” We find that these synergies can be large and meaningful. Because skills have different synergies with other skills, our framework predicts that a player’s value is dependent on the other nine players on the court. Therefore, the desirability of a free agent depends on the players currently on the roster. Indeed, our framework is able to generate mutually beneficial trades between teams…

The research team pored over a ton of data, ran countless simulations and looked at how many points certain combinations of skills created…

One pattern that emerged was that “rare events” (like steals/defensive ball-handling) tended to produce positive synergies, while “common events” (like defensive rebounds) produce negative synergies. How come? Because increasing a team’s rebounding rate from 70 percent of defensive rebounds (which would be lousy) to, say, 75 percent (very good) represents only a 7 percent increase. But upping offensive rebounds, which aren’t nearly as common as defensive rebounds, from a rate of 30 percent to 35 percent represents a robust 17 percent gain…

Figuring out the component parts of what we know as chemistry or synergy is one of the next great frontiers of this movement. It’s not enough to put an exceptional distributor on the floor. To maximize that point guard’s gifts, a team must surround him with the right combination of players — and that combination might not always be the sexiest free agents on the market.

Sports has so much data to pore over that researchers could be occupied with for a long time.

This particular question is fascinating because one could get a lot of answers to why certain five player units are successful from different actors such as coaches, players, commentators, and fans. Players might be easier to assess (ha – look at all the issues with drafting) but looking at units requires sharp analytical skills and an overall view of a team.

Which team(s) will be the first to utilize this statistic and really build team units rather than cobble together a number of good players and then try to squeeze the best out of them? Certain players who might be considered “busts” may simply be in the wrong systems and be the “missing piece” for another team.

How technology may lessen a team’s chemistry

Technology receives a lot of attention but I haven’t seen this brought up before: technology may be making it more difficult to athletic teams to bond.

Ask many coaches, general managers and older players and you’ll hear a common gripe: chemistry on teams has been altered because of modern technology, and not for the better. The rise of smartphones, with all their instant-communication and entertainment options, have created insular worlds into which distracted players too often retreat instead of bonding with teammates.

Coaches and managers are particularly frustrated at the paradox of players fraternizing less with their own teammates, and more with the “enemy.” Players from opposing teams, they say, too often get each other’s cellphone numbers and start calling or texting back and forth, often griping about playing time and occassionally giving up little secrets about their teams…

Major League Baseball is one sport where the chemistry effects of smartphones, iPads, iPods and other handheld devices might be thought to be minimal, because of the longer workdays and more enclosed environs (dugouts, bullpens, clubhouses). Not necessarily so, according to Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy. When the game is over, he says, players quickly rejoin their private, smartphone worlds…

Some NFL teams are said to be contemplating outright bans on smartphones during any “team time” activities, and some coaches have spoken with exasperation at competing with phones for players’ attention. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, for instance, told ESPN 101 radio in St. Louis the difficulties of dealing with phone-obsessed players such as former Washington tackle Albert Haynesworth.

I’m tempted to argue that this is simply the outcome of having multiple generations in the clubhouse or locker room: an older generation, particularly coaches and managers, had a particular experience in the past and younger players have a different way of going about things. Perhaps it would be more interesting to talk to younger coaches who are more into technology themselves and ask how they try to build team chemistry. Of course, the topic of team chemistry is open for debate. To me, it seems like it is only really an issue when a team is losing and people are looking for reasons why.

The article does suggest that at least a few veteran athletes have adopted informal/player-directed guidelines for technology use in the clubhouse. I wonder if they have encountered some resistance or whether the spirit of such actions, to “help the team,” is reason enough for other players to comply.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. This could also be interpreted as an indicator of the professionalization of athletes. While athletes in the past might have enjoyed the camaraderie of interacting before and after games, today’s athletes have more personal leeway as most work all-year round and make big money. What matters most (or at all) is their performance on the field/court/ice.

2. The article also hints at how technology has changed how players prepare for games. It is now easy and common for athletes to be able to watch lots of video on their own, theoretically giving them some advantages.