A Comeuppance Comment

Posted on April 19, 2010 by


The 2010 True Hoop Stat Geek Smackdown has begun.  In introducing this year’s line-up, Henry Abbott made the following statement: “….2009 champion David Berri is all over the Web promoting his book about the foolish mistakes of professional sports executives. I’ve had a few e-mails from NBA front-office people eager to see him get his comeuppance.”

Upon reading this words I thought… “are teams going to lose in the playoffs just to see me lose this contest?” 

Okay, seriously (or as serious as we get here)… here are a few thought on this reaction.  Much of what we say about human decision-making in Stumbling on Wins can be found elsewhere in the behavioral economics literature.  Much of the behavioral economics literature, though, is based on laboratory experiments.  And although such experiments reveal that people do not always behave rationally, subjects in experiments conducted by researchers like Dan Ariely (see Predictably Irrational) are anonymous.  So these subjects probably do not bear any ill-feelings towards Ariely or other researchers.

The criticism of experiments, though, is that real-life is not a laboratory. In the real world – so the story goes – people do a much better job of understanding costs and benefits.  And thus, in the real world, people should be rational.

As we note Stumbling on Wins, we are not sympathetic to this critique.  And what happens in sports serves as a very effective rebuttal.  What happens in the world of sports is extremely real to the decision-makers employed in this industry.  Furthermore, such decision-makers – relative to what we see elsewhere – are given an abundance of information and clear motivation to get the decisions right.  But as published study after published study indicates, this is not happening.  Hence the need for our book.

So we believe our book is an important contribution (okay, how about just “a contribution”?) to the behavioral economics literature.  However, there is a downside to research in sports.  The people we talk about are very real people. And naturally, when real people see their decisions questioned, some hostility results.

Oddly enough, though, many people in sports appear to agree with our basic conclusion (and I am not just referring to the sports executives I have personally talked with who seem quite happy with our research).  Sports teams are increasingly reaching out to statistical consultants.  Turning to such people is an admission that the traditional methods are not working.  In other words, teams are admitting that in the past, they were indeed stumbling on wins. 

As G.I. Joe would say, though, knowing is only half the battle.   Teams now know that statistical analysis is necessary.  But which analysis should be employed is the other half of the problem.  As I have noted in the past, some models teams have employed are not as helpful as advertised.

Of course, saying that means another group of people are rooting against me.  And I sense they are all likely to be made happy by the playoffs.  When it comes to analyzing teams, most analysts take the same approach.  The better teams have the highest efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  Homecourt advantage also helps.  With these two pieces of information, every person in the TrueHoop contest reached the same conclusion on six out of eight opening round series. The lone exceptions – Denver vs. Utah and Dallas and San Antonio – are series where differential and homecourt advantage tell a different story.  In these series, I think we all took an educated guess (with the emphasis on guessing). 

The winner of this contest will be the person who guesses on series like these the best. Yes, that could be me again.  But it seems unlikely. 

So if you are rooting against me, it seems likely that a bit of happiness will come into your life in the future.  But if you are an NBA executive ignoring statistical analysis, such brief periods of happiness are going to be followed by unhappiness.   In other words, a comeuppance is coming if you keep ignoring statistical evidence in making decisions.

– DJ

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