Ever since Billy Bean fired up the VORP machine back in the day, advanced metrics in sports have been all the rage. In basketball, it’s never more present than at last week’s MIT Sloan conference, an event in which a large group of NBA people gather to cover a variety of nerdgasmic statistical trends. It’s all very interesting in a Big Bang Theory kind of way, but it also highlights a key shortcoming in relying primarily on statistical analysis.
Now I admit, I’m not much of a numbers guy. Mostly because I’m shitty at math, but also because I prefer the more unquantifiable parts of sports. So last year, when I sat down for a Bucks/Sixers game and saw a player who I had never heard of fiercely attacking the rim, bouncing up for rebounds like he was on a trampoline, and in general, displaying a rare mix of size and athleticism, my one thought was,
“I don’t know who this guy is or what the stats say, but he looks like he could be pretty damn good.”
That player was Tobias Harris.
And the Bucks traded him two weeks ago. Not being privy to the Bucks locker room or front office, I can only hope Harris sucked in practice or brought a gatling gun into the locker room or something. Anything that would make trading a guy who has shown more raw potential than any other player on the roster more palatable.
But more than likely, he was traded because the advanced metrics said to.
Which is really the comically sad part about what the Bucks are doing. Like a number of teams throughout sports, they’ve gotten so drunk on what the stats say a player shoots when he eats pancakes for breakfast that they’ve overlooked perhaps the most important test of all – the eye test.
It might not be as conclusive or reliable as what the stats say a player does, but that’s just the thing. Numbers always come after the fact. In forecasting how a player might perform in the future, there is no PER or WAR. There’s only that twinge you get. I remember seeing Kevin Garnett his rookie year and for the most part, he played like you’d expect a 6’11, 18-year old kid to play – unaware of where he was supposed to be and with a coordination that looked a lot like a fawn trying to walk five minutes after birth. Then sometime around the third quarter, Bucks guard Eric Mayberry got into the lane and arched a high, soft running floater that seemed destined for an easy two.
Only it never made it there. Garnett, perched in between the free throw line and the basket, sprang up and destroyed Mayberry’s shot at what seemed to be an unreachable apex. I don’t remember what Garnett finished the game with stats-wise. Likely it was nothing special given that he was still coming off the bench. But I’ll never forget the gasp from the Bradley Center crowd following that block. To the people of Milwaukee, Kevin Garnett had arrived that evening. He passed the eye test.
Will Harris be the next KG? Who knows. But compared with the rest of the players on their roster, when Tobias Harris was on the floor – you noticed.
Instead, the Bucks are building a team based almost entirely on calculations.
Rather than take the chance on Harris becoming great, the Bucks went with someone they knew was merely good in trading for the already established (albeit limited-ceiling) JJ Redick. And when I asked Grantland’s Zach Lowe via Twitter earlier this year why Harris wasn’t getting more playing time, his answer was, “Dunleavy’s plus/minus is off the charts.”
Basically, the Bucks want to know exactly what they’re going to get from their players. And while that’s fine when you’re an efficient shooter away from being a contender, it’s a problem for the Bucks. Not because they want players with a track record they can easily translate into predictable results. But because they traded a player with real promise in exchange for the 4-5 wins (and playoff security) a guy like Redick brings you. When you’re the Spurs and think a sure thing like Redick will help you lock up the #1 spot in the playoffs, that’s one thing. But when you’re the Bucks and haven’t won a playoff series in more than a decade, the question has to be asked:
What’s the goddamn point?
This isn’t the Brewers who were absent from the postseason for more than 25 years. This is the NBA. Where all you have to do to make the playoffs is not be incredibly bad at playing basketball. And unlike March Madness where cinderella teams only need to play great for one game to pull off an upset, the disparity in talent between the NBA’s haves and have-nots makes it virtually impossible that a bottom-tier team could accomplish a similar feat over the course of 7 games.
For a team so obsessed with the numbers, the Bucks seem to have completely miscalculated just how much fans still care about being a low seed in the playoffs. And while management and owner Herb Kohl can point to teams in the cellar of each conference as evidence of the Bucks “success”, the reality is that they occupy a space far worse – apathy in the minds of fans.
Before Andrew Bogut mangled his arm in 2009/2010, ‘Fear the Deer’ became the team’s rallying cry in the midst of an impressive winning streak. It looked like a sign of things to come. It ended with another first round playoff lost. Back then, Fear the Deer was exciting. Now it’s just sad.
Sure, the addition of Redick has the Bucks reasonably fun to watch these days (they’re 6-2 since the trade) but most likely, they’re still not anything more than a sparring partner for Miami or Indiana.
Through nine games with the Magic, Tobias Harris is averaging 15.6 points, 6 rebounds and shooting over 50% from the field. Whether your metrics are basic or advanced, those are pretty impressive numbers for a 20-year old kid. And if it’s the eye test you’re using to judge him, consider that he’s 6’8, 225 lbs. and in just a handful of games with the Magic, has done stuff like this.
Could Harris have been to Milwaukee what Kevin Durant was to OKC? We’ll never know. The Bucks, in trying to minimize their risk went with a more sure thing in JJ Redick. But when you’re the Bucks, what’s more risky? Not knowing what you have?
Or not knowing would could have been?