Numbers Game; 'Moneyball'-Style Statistical Analysis Comes to the NBA

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

Numbers Game; 'Moneyball'-Style Statistical Analysis Comes to the NBA


Byline: Patrick Hruby, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Everyone else has it wrong. The fans. The press. Even the league. They're blinded by box scores. Hamstrung by hype. Of this and more, Wayne Winston is certain. A single mouse click tells him so.

"Nobody should be talking about LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony," he says. "They should be talking about Dwyane Wade. It's a crime."

For Winston, Wade's superiority is not a matter of opinion. It's a fact, cold and hard, like an icicle. You can argue politics, and you can argue the best "Godfather" flick (well, excluding part III). But when it comes to the NBA Rookie of the Year race, you can't argue the data. At least not with Winston, a former "Jeopardy" champ who's good with math the way Eric Clapton is good with chords.

"James rates as an average NBA player," says Winston, a professor of decision sciences at Indiana University. "That's good since very few rookies rate that high. But Wade's a real impact player for Miami. He ranks 21st best in the league in terms of changing the chances of your team winning a game."

Like any MIT graduate worth his sodium chloride, Winston has the numbers to prove his point. More than 5,000 pages' worth, to be exact. Only you won't find his statistics in a newspaper. Together with fellow sports math guru Jeff Sagarin - the brain behind USA Today's computer rankings - Winston has created Winval, a sophisticated program that rates and ranks the value of every NBA player from Tariq Abdul-Wahad to Lorenzen Wright.

Used by the Dallas Mavericks, the system ignores traditional measures like assists and rebounds to answer a more basic question: Namely, does a team play better or worse when a particular player is on the floor?

"We don't care if you never score a point," Winston says. "If you make plays and help your team win, you don't have to score."

If it sounds a bit like the stats-centric, counterintuitive "Moneyball" revolution sweeping through baseball, that's no coincidence. The idea is the same: use the mathematical tools of quantitative analysis to go beyond the box score and discover the hidden factors that contribute to victory.

On the diamond, that means dumping sexy batting averages for dowdy on-base percentages; on the hardwood, it means focusing less on points per game and more on exotic measurements like the aforementioned "impact" rating.

"You couldn't run a team completely on statistics," Indiana Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh says. "But anybody from the old school who doesn't pay attention to them is probably in the wrong. Everyone's looking for an edge. And this kind of information can give you one."

Can it ever. In a recent Dallas-Miami contest, the Mavericks were outscored by a total of 17 points during the times a particular Mavericks player - who won't be named here - was on the floor. During the times that same player sat on the bench, the Mavericks were a cumulative plus-16.

The Heat won the game by a point.

"That's important information, but you wouldn't know it because the guy came in and out eight or nine times," Winston says. "The game moves so fast that unless you have somebody tabulating this and analyzing it properly, you're just not going to know. A lot of coaches think they know more than they do."

Four years ago, Winston took his son on a spring break trip to Dallas. Sitting in some choice seats at a Pacers-Mavericks game, they ran into Dallas owner Mark Cuban, a former student in Winston's statistics class.

"We shook hands," Winston says. "He asked me, 'Do you have any way to make the Mavs better?'"

As he unwound in a hotel pool the next day, Winston had an epiphany: If entire teams could be rated and compared, then why not individual NBA players?

Winston ran the concept by Sagarin, a close friend since their days as fellow MIT undergraduate math majors. …

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