Jeff Ma has been a consultant to the Portland Trail Blazers for years, bringing an analytical focus to a team that has been by and large led by general managers following their gut. And, as most analytics-based consultants in this league have found, most teams are often loath to follow the work of these consultants closely, unless it cleanly matches up with what the general manager's long-held beliefs have already told him.
Like this exchange, as relayed by Ma in his new book, "The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win in Big Business." Ma was in the midst of his first meeting with then-new Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard, when the charismatic Portland boss stopped the back and forth to ask Ma, "how do we get your rankings to look more like ours?"
Well, no, Kevin. It doesn't really work like that. Yes, even in your mid-30s and after a lifetime of working in this game, you might have to learn something new.
Ma, who has learned himself real good on the ins and outs of this game, also might have a bit of learning to do in the on-record vs. off-record department. Earlier today, he spoke with Ben Golliver from BlazersEdge (in an absolute must-read), and had this to say about his hopes for the Trail Blazers as they entered the 2007 draft with the top overall pick, and a chance at either Greg Oden(notes), or Kevin Durant(notes):
If people that use analytics to predict player performance in the NBA, using performance analytics, meaning what they did in college, and they tell you they had Oden ranked higher than Durant, they are full of crap. There are very few statistical measures that would have rated Oden's system in college better than Durant's. Oden was injured his entire career, that one season at Ohio State. He had to shoot free throws left handed, was not efficient, didn't have a great statistical season.
Our numbers absolutely said they should pick Durant. It wasn't even close.
You realize that Oden's still on your team, correct? And that you shouldn't come off as someone still stewing from a three-year old grudge about how nobody listened to you, right?
If you look my book, and this is a good point to bring back, this is a perfect example of using the numbers to make an unconventional or difficult decision. Conventional wisdom would tell you to take the big man. It wouldn't tell you to take Durant. It's the old thing about no one gets fired for buying IBM. No one ever gets fired for drafting a big man. If things had flipflopped and Oden had been amazing and Durant had just been a high-volume shooter and high-volume scorer, everyone would second-guess that just as much, if not more.
My disappointment was that, in a lot of ways, [the Blazers] made the safe choice versus what I thought was the right choice.
Oh boy, still going.
We love transparency, here, because we can handle it. Most other media outlets? Not so much. You know why, Jeff? Because they'll pull the quotes I just pulled, and decline on running the rest. Things like this:
But that kind of decision is never that cut and dry. I would never want the Blazers to make the decision so cut and dry. The thinking they had was that this elite center is very rare and the ability to get that guy was staring them in the face and that's what they went after. The sad thing is that when you ignore the numbers, the numbers often tell you something regardless of what you're ignoring. The numbers in this case were ignored because Oden was hurt but what have we seen in Oden's career? A propensity to get hurt.
I felt like they should have drafted Durant and said they should have drafted Durant but I think it's really easy to look at this with hindsight. If you had polled NBA executives and even statheads at that time, who they should pick, I think at least 2/3 of them would have said Oden.
I think Kevin always made decisions that he thought were the right decisions. He could do some unconventional things. But I think a lot GMs would have made that same decision and a lot of them would have made it because they thought it was the safe decision.
Which tells you a few things:
*Ma knows that comparing Oden and Durant's stats in their lone NCAA season is a joke, because Oden was hurt, and sometimes these things (potential, age, ability, acclimation to the NBA-styled game) go beyond stats. Kind of why I'm guessing Blake Griffin(notes) has a better year this year than Taj Gibson(notes), despite Taj's superior stats last season.
*Ma understands that most other GMs would have made the same move in Pritchard's case.
What I'd like to impress upon Ma are a few notes.
First, taking Oden was the unconventional move. Picking up a guy who had been injured over a player you and several other outlets had decided (using advanced metrics, mind you) was going to be an all-out killer? This was the unorthodox move. It was just an ironic twist that the unconventional hire was the typical, orthodox, NBA center.
Secondly, "a propensity to get hurt?" What does breaking your wrist have to do with future leg injuries? People were able to deduce that Andrew Bynum(notes) would hold Oden to the ground in November of 2008, or that he would land awkwardly in a December of 2009 game against the Houston Rockets, because he broke his wrist as a freshman in college? A guy on my dorm floor broke his wrist during freshman year, I hope he's not walking with a cane by now.
Last, while all of this is fine off the record, this might not be the smartest way to go. Questioning the drafting of a player Portland is still banking to put them over the top isn't really what Oden and the Blazers need. See, I'm cool with it, because I'm a scribe and I like to know what smart people were thinking, when they were thinking it, and why they were thinking it. So I appreciate your candor.
Vulcan? Probably not as much.
This is a fascinating post, though, and many thanks to Ben Golliver for doing the dirty work to bring this news to our laptops.