The rise of statistical analysis in NBA life has many loud proponents and detractors. Some herald the increasing prevalence of advanced metrics in NBA decision-making and writing as a sign that the league and those who cover it are developing a more nuanced view of what makes certain players and activities valuable. Others consider the onset of math-heavy models a bummer, reducing NBA action to stacks of spreadsheets that strip away so much — the spontaneity, the fluidity, the awe-inspiring athleticism — of what makes basketball so fun.
That push-and-pull argument's been playing out in the City of Brotherly Love over the past few months, kickstarted by Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins saying he'd "blow [his] brains out" if he had to read through advanced stat printouts. Months later, Sixers legend Julius Erving scoffed at analytics as "turning basketball into rocket science, right?" Dr. J's comments came weeks after the 76ers decided they wanted to be in the rocket science business, hiring former Houston Rockets assistant general manager Sam Hinkie to become their new GM and chart a new direction for a franchise fresh off a disastrous 2012-13.
Hinkie didn't waste much time in reshaping the franchise, pulling the trigger on a draft-night deal that sent All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for highly touted but injured 2013 draft pick Nerlens Noel and a top-six-protected first-round choice in next summer's draft, then drafting somewhat divisive Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Then, following months of speculation on who would lead the rebuilding effort after Collins "stepped away," Hinkie hired longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Brett Brown; despite Brown's bona fides, there was some agita (among Philly media, at least) about how Hinkie conducted the coaching search, how little he said and how he chose to operate.
One national media member very familiar to Sixers fans — Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley — shares some of that agita. In a recent visit with WIP-FM to share his take on all things Philly sports, Barkley took issue with the way Hinkie has steered the Sixers' ship since taking the helm, even firing a shot across the bow of Hinkie's analytical bent. As transcribed by CBS Philly:
[...] I had a problem with — if I’m a coach, I would want to have some say in the draft, I would want to have some say in the draft. These are all Sam Hinkle's people who they drafted this year. He traded one of the better point guards in the NBA; yeah, I have a problem with the way the Sixers are running their organization right now. Listen, Howard, you know I don’t believe in that analytical crap. If LeBron James couldn’t spell cat, I want him on my team. I always tell people, give me a dumb guy that can really play. Don’t give me no smart guy.
The guy, he came from Houston. When did Houston get good? When they went out [and] paid James Harden all that money and [Omer] Asik, and now they went out [and] got Dwight Howard. That’s got nothing to do with analytics, that’s got to do with paying really good players to come to town.
OK. A few things about that, from little quibbles to larger ones:
• It's "Hinkie," not "Hinkle." This could help you remember: "Sam thinks analytics are the key to winning!"
• LeBron (whom, to be fair, Barkley probably used just as a stand-in for "really good basketball player") seems an ill-fitting example, considering the four-time MVP's been praised by noted smart guy/Miami Heat teammate Shane Battier for having "a quasi-photographic memory that allows him to process data very quickly" that the Duke grad says is "a little like 'A Beautiful Mind.'" While James' remarkable physical gifts are evident to anyone who's ever watched him play, it also seems clear that LeBron wouldn't be LeBron — the Magic-reminiscent passing wizard, the all-court force, the league's preeminent strategic advantage — if he wasn't also a very smart player.
• Anyway, I'm not sure what an individual player's IQ has to do with whether or not you should want to have a smart GM who's good at building teams. This might be a controversial take, but I am pro-having a smart GM who's good at building teams.
• Of course, whether Hinkie will turn out to be successful in constructing a winning, contending Sixers roster remains to be seen. But Barkley's anti-Hinkie argument — that the Rockets' rise had nothing to do with smarts and analytics, and everything to do with writing big checks — ignores the years of work that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and his lieutenants (including Hinkie) put into turning a capped-out, going-nowhere roster topped by aging, injury-plagued stars into arguably the NBA's most exciting collection of young talent. That multi-year teardown — marked by stockpiling draft picks, finding contributors on rookie deals, flipping older/higher-priced players for younger/more cost-effective replacements and steering clear of long-term deals — was heavily informed by a thoughtful and, yes, analytics-driven approach to team-building.
Using all the tools at their disposal, from statistical models to a heavy reliance on eyeball scouting, helped the Rockets identify undervalued young pieces like Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith. Sharp focus on offensive efficiency numbers helped highlight skill sets worth targeting (pick-and-roll proficiency, ability to finish at the rim, 3-point marksmanship), helping determine the Rockets' preferred offensive identity and amplifying the effectiveness of short-money contributors like Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Carlos Delfino and Francisco Garcia. Getting outsized contributions from reasonably priced players allowed the Rockets to remain (relatively) competitive while retaining the financial flexibility to be able to target high-priced talent, provided they could craft intriguing-enough packages of picks and players to take shots at top-shelf stars.
While the plan seemed doomed to go nowhere but annual eighth-seed contention after swings and misses on the likes of Chris Bosh, Howard (the first time around) and Pau Gasol (although that one wasn't the Rockets' fault), it kept Houston in position to keep taking swings. That, as we know, eventually led to the home-run deal for James Harden, the establishment of a steadier course, and the return to relevance that led Howard to change his reported tune, all of which has Houston looking poised to become a major player in the West for a handful of seasons to come, with a clean-enough cap sheet and enough movable pieces to be able to continue tweaking and augmenting in search of a title.
Yes, Houston paid Asik and Jeremy Lin on restricted free-agent deals that raised eyebrows, but that's because Morey and company A) had smartly managed the Rockets' salary structure and B) understood how to use the collective bargaining agreement to craft offer sheets that would put the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls over a luxury-tax barrel if they matched. Advanced metrics also certainly played a role in the Rockets' evaluations of and decisions to go after Lin and Asik, two players with a combined 30 starts and less than 3,500 total NBA minutes under their belts before last season; Lin struggled at times, but showed flashes and still wound up averaging about 15 points and seven assists per 36 minutes in his first run as a full-time starter, while Asik earned praise as one of the NBA's best defensive centers.
Yes, Houston gave Harden a five-year maximum contract, but the front office had to package the proper mix of players and picks to complete the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder before doing so. And Harden's particular set of offensive skills — peerless pick-and-roll facilitation, a life lived almost entirely at the rim and behind the 3-point arc — is basically an offensive efficiency nut's dream, making him a perfect fit for the style of offense the Rockets wanted to run. Yes, the Rockets gave Howard a four-year maximum contract in unrestricted free agency, but they were able to carve out the cap space to do so by shipping out young players acquired through the draft and in trade (in exchange for future draft picks and the rights to recent draftees stashed in Europe, naturally). So much had to happen for the Rockets to find themselves in position to "pay really good players to come to town," and while Morey himself freely acknowledges how much luck went into it all happening, in situations like this, Branch Rickey's thoughts on luck seem worth remembering.
Some of Barkley's critiques of the 76ers — namely, surrounding the organization's treatment of assistant coaches Michael Curry, Jeff Capel and Aaron McKie, who were kept around for months after Collins' departure but fired following Brown's hiring, after "all the good jobs are gone" — resonate. (Those assistants will still get paid, but still, it wasn't the smoothest scenario.) And there are legitimate discussions to be had about the path Hinkie's taking with the 76ers — about whether trading away a 23-year-old All-Star point guard is a wise decision, whether Noel and Carter-Williams will be major contributors on NBA teams of consequence, whether bottoming out in search of a franchise-changing talent at the top of the 2014 draft is a higher-percentage play than Morey's water-treading, and so on. (It's also worth mentioning, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller noted, that Hinkie's taking a completely different rebuilding tack than Morey did.)
But in an ever-smarter league governed by a CBA that makes simply outspending the opposition a dangerous and unsustainable road to titles, it's not just about backing up Brink's trucks; it's also about establishing the infrastructure and drawing up the map that allows the trucks to get to the right doors when the time comes. All the "analytical crap" helped Morey, Hinkie, Gersson Rosas and the rest of the Rockets' braintrust do that. Ignoring that in the service of denigrating a 76ers front office that's been in place for about 3 1/2 months and hasn't yet tipped off its first NBA game just seems silly.
Hat-tip to TrueHoop's Ethan Sherwood Strauss.