With the Clippers’ season careening toward another demoralizing end, there is one crucial difference this year. For the first time in seven seasons, the organization will be moving forward without the steadying (or corrosive) influence of Mike Dunleavy at the helm. However, the organization has some financial flexibility as it enters this critical off-season with important decisions on free agents, the draft and the vacant coaching chair. Looming behind these decisions is the philosophy which governs the franchise from owner Donald Sterling and his right hand man, Andy Roeser. The Clippers have stated that the team is committed to winning right away, with a “full commitment to dedicate unlimited resources” to achieve that objective. Trying to divine the intents of Donald Sterling has always been a perilous task. In the twilight of his years, Mr. Sterling has spent more money the last ten years building up his team than he did in the previous twenty. So there is hope that this public pledge to dedicate unlimited resources in the pursuit of winning is genuine, that it is possible for a man to find redemption in the final act.
To his credit, Mr. Sterling has never behaved like the new breed of highly leveraged commercial developers who bought and sold properties at the height of our recently collapsed property boom. Operating very much in the vein of the old families that dominated New York’s real estate for much of the 20th century, Mr. Sterling bought properties in cash and held on to them for the long haul. When it comes to acquiring real estate, it seems, Mr. Sterling has an uncanny intuition that transcends the reams of data which his competitors crunched in order to justify the exorbitant price they paid for a building, whose value have since cratered. It would be unfair to say that Mr. Sterling is unaware or disregards the crucial numbers on both sides of the accounting ledger that determines the long-term viability of any investment. No one can get to the level that he has, can acquire the wealth that he has amassed, without an appreciation for the ruthlessness of numbers.
But there is a crucial difference between Mr. Sterling and a new breed of entrepreneurs like Mark Cuban, who are fascinated by advanced statistical models and the belief in their potential to reveal hidden values. In his real estate dealings, Mr. Sterling resembles the old movie moguls who once ruled their studios by guts, intimidation, and instincts — men like David O. Selznick or Louis B Meyer–rather than modern movie studio executives who green light projects by market research data and statistical pattern of box office returns in any given month. It might be for this reason that when Kevin Arnovitz interviewed Neil Olshey after his ascendancy, Mr. Olshey stressed that the Clippers front office is not beholden to the “great software program.” While Mr. Olshey went on to say that he recognizes that advanced analytics is no longer a luxury but a necessity, and that the Clippers will take into consideration basketball statistics when making crucial decisions on players, it is clear that the Clippers’ overarching philosophy diverges from the likes of Dallas, Houston, Portland and Denver. And more importantly, it suggests that the Clippers claim to “dedicate unlimited resources” might not extend to building an advanced analytics team, whose value to an organization is still in doubt by the organization’s brass.
Just as Moore’s Law has exponentially increased raw computing power every two years, which in turn spurred the growth of statistical models and intelligent database across multiple disciplines — from the securitization of complex derivatives in the financial sector, to the reams of consumer shopping data that retailers carefully scrutinizes — the promise of an empirical model that can accurately predict risks and rewards have made their way into professional sports. As Michael Lewis outlined in his landmark book, Moneyball, which chronicled the travails of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane as he assembled a roster of undervalued players who were overlooked by bigger market teams, the faith in statistics and the ability of arcane numbers to reveal the hidden potential of players have pitted the new breed of statistical oriented general managers against the traditional cadre of scouts and older baseball people. The battle between the traditionalists who came up from the farm system, who have spent years watching players in playgrounds and high schools, and the bright new statisticians with fresh minted PHDs who relied heavily upon arcane data and computer models have caused less of a stir in the NBA, because men like Billy Beane have blazed the trail in other sports. Moreover, new NBA owners like Mark Cuban and general managers like Houston’s Daryl Morey came to the NBA from a computer science/statistical background and quickly fielded perennial winners, which cause their competitors to take notice and follow suit.
If there is a gold standard for a traditionalist general manager in the modern NBA, it would be Jerry West, the taciturn, shy, and brooding architect of the Lakers dynasties, whose profile is immortalized upon the league’s logo. As beloved as he was by his peers, as great as he was in his prime, Jerry West has a long, enviable track record of divining talent in young athletes. Rarely do his picks become busts, and more often than not, he has been able to select the right role players to complement his superstars. Though Elgin Baylor was more than his equal on the basketball court, Baylor’s many years as the Clippers General Manager proved one thing; that being a legendary basketball player does not necessarily give you an insight into whatever it is that elevates young athletes into the Hall of Fame. Recognizing talent and drive in a young player out of college or high school requires some deeper recognition of ambition and burgeoning athleticism. Perhaps there is something in Jerry West’s insecurity — whatever it was that drove him played the game as if he were the twelfth man on the team, punishing his body for every loose ball, even when he was the league’s MVP. Perhaps it is this envy in the raw physical abilities of others and the relentless drive for perfection within himself that he recognized in certain young athletes, and spurred him to take chances on players that other general managers failed to see. It is one of Jerry West’s endearing grace — that his flaws and various neuroses have elevated him as a player and are inexorably bound to his best qualities.
It is interesting to note that one of Jerry West’s draft pick with the Memphis Grizzlies, Shane Battier, would be one of the first players that Daryl Morey targeted when he joined the Houston Rockets organization. More than most players in the NBA, Battier’s effectiveness on the floor defies traditional basketball metrics. Casual fans who read the box score after a game would incredulously wonder on how someone who has contributed so few rebounds, points, and assists can play so many minutes. For a sport that rewards a degree of selfishness and assertiveness, Shane Battier plays an usually selfless game that helps his team win. Battier does a hundred little things that is beyond the scope of traditional statistic–putting his hands over the shooter’s eyes, jamming an opposing big in the lane during a rebound–that Daryl Morey tries to track with plus/minus numbers, that makes his teammates more effective when he is on the floor. Though he was a leader on the Duke squad that won the championship in 2001, Battier’s reputation as a glue guy, as a defensive specialist in the NBA is what makes him so valuable to a roster. Jerry West reluctantly parted with Battier in 2006 when Houston offered him Stromile Swift and their first round draft pick, the raw and incandescent Rudy Gay, whom West coveted.
Rudy Gay might be the last significant acquisition of Jerry West’s long illustrious career, and the fact that he is increasingly mentioned as a potential Clippers free agent signing this summer is somehow fitting, as the franchise had struck with Jerry West’s former running mate, Elgin Baylor, for over twenty years with little success. Whatever it was that Jerry West had as a talent evaluator, it was not something that other Hall of Fame players were able to replicate in the modern era. The draft selections and personnel decisions of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Elgin Baylor are lengthy testimonies to their futility. As Henry Abbott pointed out in his Q&A with Dean Oliver prior to this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the teams that have aggressively utilize advanced statistical tools are growing with each passing year, almost all them have winning records, and many have uncovered All-Star caliber talent late in the draft which other teams have missed. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that teams which are willing to invest in new strategies, such as advanced statistical analysis, are precisely the organizations which are better run and managed.
Sports analytics have become a seductive field for certain owners and general managers because it promises to reveal hidden insights into player’s effectiveness that mere mortals cannot perceive with the naked eye. And for the true believers in the empirical method and mathematical models — the people who are obsessed with artificial neural network, back propagation algorithm and intelligent databases — it promises something greater; it promises to reveal the hidden structure which underlies the visible world, the hope that even the desires and actions of man can be determined by the immutable laws of God. This is an old dream, the dream of man since the age of antiquity to the Renaissance; when Greeks architects imbued their built environment with the celestial harmony of their known universe, so that the earthly kingdom of man and the heavenly Kingdom of God were unified by the harmonic proportions. But in our modern world, where numbers have lost most of their spiritual connotations, where the value of probability models lie in its ability to predict the worth of certain investments or the behavior of certain subatomic particles, there can be a blind devotion to the logic of the mathematical model which can also be detrimental.
Since the collapse of the real estate bubble and the devastating losses suffered by most major banks, we have heard their beleaguered executives testify time and time again, that they did not fully comprehend the risks that their derivative trading divisions were engaged in. The investment banks had attracted some of the brightest mathematicians from the nation’s best schools, and with the aid of sophisticated computer models, they were able to engineer bundles of new securities with varying risks of defaults, essentially minimizing overall risk, they had believed. No one, not one mathematical model, they say, had predicted such a cataclysmic collapse in real estate value, such a devastating fall in household finances, even though the gap between people’s income and the amount they spent on housing had been rising to unsustainable levels for years. Somewhere along the way, it seems, the most sophisticated risk models have lost track of the most basic link between an asset’s market value and its true value, as determined by life.
Across all disciplines, the over-reliance on market data and statistical models can plague poorly run organizations as much as it can benefit their well-managed competitors. In floundering companies, risk-averse executives will cling to market research data and mathematical models to justify their strategies and protect their careers. Movie executives in publicly traded entertainment conglomerates now keep their eye firmly fixed on weekly box office return numbers and quarterly profits. It is safer, for their career, their division, and their shareholders, to rely upon market data to determine which type of movies get made, which demographic to target, and when to release them. There is a semblance of science, even as the art of producing relevant movies is lost and the number of memorable, enduring films diminishes with each passing year.
In and of themselves, hard numerical data and statistics tend to benefit executives by giving them another vantage point to evaluate risks and rewards, as long as they’re able to see the forest for the trees, and are able to navigate through the ever-growing cacophony of data to grasp the essential truth. It requires people in the executive ranks who are imaginative; who can evaluate statistical data for what they are, and who are able to walk the fine line between trusting their gut instinct, experience, and conclusions as revealed by statistics if and when they diverge. It requires brilliance from a front office that the Clippers organization have not been known for in the past. And it requires some faith in the empirical method to reveal a hidden truth — that within a set of seemingly unrelated data lies an invisible foundation that links the visible world together and which can shed light on the mysteries of human potential, fate, and immortality (if only in the record books). One cannot pursue such an endeavor with cynicism, or build a competent statistical team without such faith after all.
Seven years ago, Mike Dunleavy made it a condition of his hiring, that the Clippers build a state-of-the-art training facility, so that the organization can prove to potential free agents, its players, and its fans that the franchise is serious about winning. Dunleavy is now gone, but the training facility he advocated for remains, a gleaming reminder that the franchise has made concrete steps toward legitimacy. But the critical hour for the franchise is about to arrive. Can a promising coaching candidate, like Dwane Casey, be enticed to sign on with the Clippers if the organization do not have a solid advanced analytics team in place? Casey has enjoyed the benefits of working with teams who were at the forefront of the advanced analytics movement; with Dean Oliver (one of basketball’s most prominent statisticians) in Seattle and now as an assistant with Dallas. We can only hope that recent history will repeat itself; that the new coach can convince Sterling to invest in advanced analytics, that doing so will benefit the franchise in the long run. The organization has made steps in the right direction, in this regards. The Clippers’ team operations and scouting coordinator, Jason Piombetti, worked under Paul DePodesta with the Dodgers. DePodesta, in turn, was a protégé of Billy Beane.
But even more important than the accumulated data and its seductive revelations, will be the working relationship between Olshey and the new coach as they analyze potential players and tries to assemble a new Clippers team. It was the peculiar genius of Jerry West, after all, that he was able to visualize a championship team and had the audacity to pursue his vision, even though he couldn’t bear to watch the fruits of his labor with his own eyes. It took some guts to trade an All-Star player on the level of Norm Nixon for a draft pick like Byron Scott. It also took something else — a deeper understanding of talent, character, frailty, fear and ambition of players who might not be aware of those conflicting impulses within themselves, but which will come to define their careers. It is beyond the realm of science and statistics, unless science can finally penetrate the veil which separates the visible world from the invisible one, can finally find that elusive unifying theory which have fragmented our modern cosmology. It is said that Garry Kasparov can sit down at a difficult chess game and within a few seconds, sense the right move, even though he can’t be certain how he came to that conclusion. And nine times out of ten, the supercomputers would crunch through all the possible combinations, hundreds of millions of moves until it concludes that Kasparov was correct, that it was, indeed, the right move, the only move to make. Somewhere at the intersection of science, logic, experience, emotion, and intuition, lies the genius of the human mind. It will require some small sprinkling of that to turn this franchise around.