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Sports

Melo as an Example of Why Data Should Trump Your Lying Eyeballs

I’m a professed stat nerd when it comes to sports…especially when it comes to certain sports, like baseball and the advent of sabremetrics.  It can get confusing, somewhat esoteric, and even go so far sometimes, but using statistics to explain past performance and predict future performance has become increasingly popular and you’ll see most of the successful franchises being innovative in the area of using statistical analysis.  This includes the Moneyball craze now implemented by teams such as the Red Sox, Yankees and a host of others.

Basketball has traditionally trailed in the franchises’ ability to use statistics in building their teams, largely due to many of the same biases that plagued baseball before sabremetrics took off.  Namely that there are traditional biases that have no discernible way to be clarified (i.e., “he’s immensely talented” or “he’s not afraid of taking the big shot”), are way overvalued (i.e., scoring vs. defending a high pick and roll), or are too confusing for non-stat heads to understand and therefore utilize (i.e., what is PER and what does it actually measure?  How does it connect to “Usage” metrics).

And so we enter Carmelo Anthony.  He’s been knighted a star in the NBA since he first entered the league.  Last year, the Knicks gave up half their roster for him in a trade because he was a “difference-maker” (whatever that means), and centered their team around him.  And it has turned into an unmitigated disaster.  The coach was dismissed (or resigned, or mutually departed depending on who you ask), the team is reeling and Melo is finally getting the scrutiny that he has deserved for a long time.  As the Knicks reeled off 10 straight wins on the back of Linsanity, Melo sat with an injury.  When he returned, the offense slowed, the energy disappeared, the team lost and, by all statistical measures, the team played worse than before.  But as any statistician will tell you, it is important to avoid being seduced by “trends” that occur in small sample sizes.  Yet, even before last year’s trade with the Nuggets, I teased my friends that are NY Knicks fans that, in Melo, they were being blessed by one of the most overrated superstars in the league.  Sure he could drop 25 per and at times was unguardable, but his flaws (defense, passing, team play, leadership) have been glaring for years.  This was clearly reflected in many of his advanced stats, including his PER, as well as his +/- stats.

Since 2007, when the stat became widely tracked, Melo actually has a negative +/-.  That is to say that his teams perform better when he is off the court, then when he is on the court.  There are reasons to be skeptical of +/-, and admittedly, Melo’s PER ranks him as the 3rd or 4th SF consistently (though tellingly, this year, he’s essentially equal to Danilo Gallinari, one of the players he was traded for last year).  But there is something to be learned from the fact that Melo has never posted a positive defensive +/- in his career, and this year, for the three lineup combinations that have played significant minutes together with Anthony in the lineup, two of them are net negative.

Critics of +/- will say that this may reflect more on the team than it does Melo.  But using that logic would require avoiding the unfortunate fact that his +/- has been negative over the course of several seasons since 2007.  It would also require the blind faith that all of the teams he’s been on have been littered with subpar teammates.  And, addtionally, it would require turning one’s eyes away from the fact that the team he left (the Nuggets) got significantly better without him there (even as key players have missed significant time), while the Knicks actually got worse.

Furthermore, and this is more to the point, superstars, who get paid max money, are not supposed to preside over lineups with negative impact.  They are supposed to make their teammates better.  They don’t depend on systems to maximize their talents, or for other players to make them better.  That’s actually what being a difference maker means and that’s why, Lebron, Wade, Durant, Pierce (and even Gallinari) have positive plus minuses.

This is not to say that Carmelo Anthony is the worst player in the league.  Clearly he is not.  It is just meant to show that his value is inflated, largely due to biases.  So, as with many other things, be it evaluating employees in your own company, or even voting for elected officials, it could be helpful to recognize how biases may be affecting all of us, lest we end up like the NY Knicks, paying homage to a “superstar” in name only…

Interested to hear your thoughts: Is Melo overrated?  Other Melo-like scenarios you may have experienced?

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