March 10, 2010

The Warriors and Truthiness

This weekend saw the largest edition yet of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference, an annual gathering of the nerds that provides a rare high-profile moment for APBRmetricians. Many of the people whose work we've linked to -- Hollinger, Simmons, Pelton, Paine, Sill -- were in attendance, as were former Dub Avery Johnson and noted Barry son Brent. Not in attendance? Anyone currently affiliated with the Warriors. Some attendees estimated that as many as 16 of the 30 NBA teams (including most of the best teams) sent representatives to the conference; no one saw any sign of an envoy from Oakland.

This is not surprising, but it is nevertheless dispiriting. Given the wealth of geek talent in the Bay Area and the storied successes of Billy Beane's analytic work just down the road, there is no team that should have cottoned to advanced statistics more quickly than the Warriors. Instead, they continue to languish in ignorance; while most intelligent front offices were keeping an eye on Cambridge, Larry Riley and his comrades twiddled their thumbs. And so, on the day that BP's Kevin Pelton announced he was now working as a consultant for the Pacers, the Warriors lost their third game in a row. On the day that the conference itself took place, the Warriors lost their fourth in a row. And on Monday, while the basketball cognoscenti buzzed over the statistical insights of the weekend, the Warriors lost number five.

This goes beyond the little on-court efficiencies that statheadedness can add. For a franchise as rudderless as this one, a refusal to reckon with the realities of the statistical record is a refusal to deal with reality itself. And indeed, we have seen some decision-making and signaling from Oakland that evokes all the intelligence and clearheadedness of the previous presidential administration. Every day, this team drives home the lesson that you can't spell "Warriors" without "W".

Let's take a trip down Memory Lane here in Worrierville and revisit some of the team's more harmful '09-'10 delusions:

1) That Stephen Curry is a great point guard. This is not a debate about what he will become... this is a debate about what he currently is. Right now, Stephen Curry is a guy whose 1.80 assist/turnover ratio is tied for 45th-best among the 49 NBA point guards who've played significant minutes, and worse than the ratios of Anthony Tolliver and Devean George. On a good-shooting team that features a host of players with above-average passing numbers for their positions, Stephen Curry's numbers are flat-out bad. You'd think that'd merit the occasional "he's got a ways to go" or "he's still getting the hang of things", but no. Both Nellie and Riley repeatedly claim that Curry is already a great point guard, when even a token awareness of statistical realities suggests otherwise.

2) That Monta Ellis has played at an All-Star level. Even the most Monta-friendly metrics like PER don't feature him among the 80 best players in the league. By Win Shares, Monta has been no better than the eighth-most helpful Warrior, this despite his massive amount of playing time. By both raw plus-minus and its adjusted variants, Monta has been one of the most ineffective players in the entire league. And yet the front office is tickled pink about him.

3) That smallball is effective. Through March 5th, the Warriors had spent 12% of their minutes featuring a three-guard lineup (indicated by Monta's being listed as a small forward). That alignment has been outscored by 10.8 points per 48 minutes, comfortably south of Nets territory. Does anybody actually believe we've seen the last of that alignment?

4) That Mikki Moore was useful. The Dubs, avec Mikki, were outscored by 15.4 points per 48. Only injury pulled him from the starting lineup.

5) That Raja Bell is a big part of the team's future. At least they got the player right -- Raja was a very effective two a couple years ago. Since then, he has gotten 1) worse, 2) injured, and 3) about halfway into the 34th year of his life. This is not a guy on whom you should affix a two-year deal, let alone your hopes and dreams. (That's not even getting into the Warriors' more basic statistical mistake -- an inability to count how many swingmen they already have.)

A greater understanding of and reliance on statistics will not magically fix the Warriors; analytical ignorance is not the only thing even the main thing afflicting this team. But it is an affliction, and a harmful one at that. For the numbers tell a story that can not be spun or denied or papered over. You can not stare the advanced metrics of this team in the face and claim that injuries are the only problem here... you can not Fitzgerald your way past the ugliness of the Warriors' dysfunction.

There is truth in numbers. It is a limited, partial truth, but it is truth nonetheless. And this franchise will not be able to handle the rigors of an NBA season until it again learns how to handle the truth.

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