Do the quants need to strike back?


I had a lot of fun at this year’s Sloan. Sadly, Kevin Draper (@theDissNBA) from The Diss NBA couldn’t be there. That didn’t keep him from coming out swinging in his piece:  Monday Media: The Doldrums of Sloan. Kevin opens with authority.

I paid close attention to the coverage of the conference across Twitter and a variety of websites. The following statement isn’t meant to demean any particular writer or organization, as there were many interesting individual pieces about Sloan that I found enlightening. In aggregate though, the coverage was uninspiring, derivative and just plain boring.

One of  the things Kevin addresses is the “just communicate better” issue that comes up frequently when we talk quants vs. traditional sports people.

I also take issue with this narrative because it places the full burden of reaching a better understanding of basketball on the shoulders of the communicator and none on the listener. It especially irks me that most practitioners of advanced statistics refuse to challenge this expectation, meekly adopting it to ward off the anti-stats pitchforks.

Kevin recounts Aaron Barzilai’s interaction with 76er’s coach Doug Collins and ends with this great point:

Of course Barzilai (or anybody else) should present the information in an easily understood way, but no amount of improved communication skills can penetrate an impossibly thick skull and closed mind. It sounds like Barzilai has to tip-toe around the coach submissively, furthering a league-wide perception that the 76ers organization doesn’t value analytics.

And I can’t disagree with this claim. The panel “Beyond Crunching Numbers: How to Have Influence” had this feel. It didn’t seem like the quants that worked with teams were trying to communicate better. Rather, it seemed like they had been driven into admitting their way of thinking was wrong, or at the very least, not entirely right. I talked a little to Kevin about this piece, and he had a great followup quote:

[It seems] like the quants are afraid to stand out front and say “some of the stuff you think is wrong, some of the stuff teams are doing is bad, and we can mathematically prove it”

Finally, Kevin points out is that some of the excitement over “new data” may be unfounded.  We’re very prone to think that new and exciting data will change everything and as soon as we can explain it, the sport will have a revolution! As Kevin notes though, some of these insights have been around for years and even the great papers at Sloan are still, admittedly, works in progress. The key point is that for us to progress, we need everyone to move forward. And this may require the quants to stop trying so hard to make everyone happy and push some of the stragglers to catch up.


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