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The Moneyball Of Basketball


Time now for our weekly sports chat with NPR's Mike Pesca. He's up in New York. Hey, Mike.


MARTIN: So, baseball is over. Time to move indoors where it's warm to the wonderful world of the NBA, which is way more fun for me. It's a much more comfortable space for me to be a fan.

PESCA: Is it because of the halftime shows with guys on trampolines dunking? No trampolines in baseball? Is that a different...

MARTIN: Pretty much you called it. Also because I can be a fair-weather fan. Basically, baseball requires far too much of me. I got to know things like RBI, something average. And basketball doesn't have that. I can just cheer for the team that I like.

PESCA: Well, actually, basketball does have that. Everyone knows, you know, Michael Jordan led the league in scoring - and that's points per game - so that's a statistic. But there's a statistical revolution. It's taking place in all sports. Baseball, pretty famously because they made a movie about it and put Brad Pitt in a starring role, so people paid attention...

MARTIN: "Moneyball," yeah.

PESCA: Yeah, exactly. But that idea, what they're doing in baseball with "Moneyball," taking these advanced stats and really helping them win, the same thing's going on in basketball. I think it's a little more fascinating in basketball because in baseball, a man stands alone at the plate. His stats are basically his stats. His teammates play into it a little bit. But in basketball, you have inter-moving parts. So, it's chess. I don't know if it's three-dimensional chess, as the cliche goes, but it's a little hard. And I think it's pretty interesting.

MARTIN: But how do you even go about measuring that since it's a team sport?

PESCA: Right. So, there are ways of breaking it down. And some of the ways are looking to see when one guy is on the court, how does his team do offensively, defensively. There are little minor stats. So, I was just reading about Rajon Rondo, who's the point guard of the Celtics. And Rondo's a great player, but he actually commits too many assists. And this seems like a weird thing if you watch basketball games and every time an assist was made, they'll say it was an unselfish play. But Rondo brings up the idea of a selfish assist. He's looking to assist so much that he's maybe not taking easy shots to get some points for his team. And this is something through use of a stat of usage that really comes into focus. And then there are bigger stats that kind of give you an overall view of the game that you wouldn't get without guys like basketball prospectus and Dean Oliver and John Hollinger. And these are, like, the stat geeks of basketball, who I think are revolutionizing how smart people look at the sport.

MARTIN: So, all this is supposed to help have bigger insights about basketball?

PESCA: Yeah, well, I mean, one really big insight that they point out is most basketball stats are based on a per-game average - you know, rebounds per game, points per game. They say throw that out; look at per possession. Because some teams race the ball up and down the court and all their players will probably score more. And some teams slow it down. And if they get even 20 points a game but you have fewer possessions, you're more valuable to your team. So, that one thing - and there's a lot that's based on it - but if you just reconfigure watching and conceptualizing basketball on a per-possession basis, you'll probably become a little bit smarter fan. You're more likely to be named the GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers.


MARTIN: I mean, I want to know if there are style points. Is this going to be - is someone going to get stats for making really awesome lay-ups or doing awesome dunks?

PESCA: No. See, that's the stuff that will keep basketball popular. Even if the stats take off, basketball is graceful and athletic and balletic, and so you don't have to know anything about stats to know that when LeBron James comes down the lane and slams it home, it's an impressive thing. But the way I look at it - and some people say, you know, why even bother with the stats? You're just taking away the grace and beauty of the game. I mean, some people want to watch "Star Wars" and don't want to know how the special effects were made. It's just cool when the Death Star blows up. And some people want to watch painting or look at a painting and say, hey, I know I like it. But if I gave you - and I wouldn't be the one to give you this - but if a knowledgeable person gave you an art appreciation course, right, and he said, look, Giotto painted 200 years before some of the masters that you know and you might not be that impressed, but I'm going to tell you a little bit about perspective. I'm going to tell you about vanishing lines. You may have more appreciation of Giotto, and I think that's kind of what the stats in basketball do.

MARTIN: I can't believe we just went there. Love it. OK. So, you got a curveball this week?

PESCA: I do. You know, if you look at college football, just look at the scores. They're crazy. The three highest-scoring games between ranked teams in the history of college football have all occurred this year. Baylor lost to West Virginia 70-63, and Texas A&M beat Louisiana Tech 59-57. Couple of weeks ago, Oregon beat USC 62-51. Scores are exploding. And I have a theory as to why. Very quickly.

MARTIN: Do tell - quickly.

PESCA: The manager of USC was caught deflating the balls. And deflated balls makes them easier to throw and easier to catch. I have to say, it totally backfired. They got him after the first half and USC did a lot worse with those deflated balls. But it's got to be that, and it doesn't have to be the complexity of the offense.

MARTIN: Deflated balls, OK. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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