Last Saturday, I had a meeting with one of the heads of the company responsible for the collection and distribution of box score statistics in the UAAP. It was a productive meeting that tackled everything from the strengths and weaknesses of their system, to possible improvements and some other topics.
That meeting had me thinking – how can an amateur league be better at providing a better experience, not just for their viewers but also to their media, to teams and to fans by continuously trying to re-invent the way they track statistics than their professional counterpart?
Now, I won’t speculate as to why the other league is not doing anything to improve (or their improvements are coming so slowly) that part of their coverage. Instead, as someone who appreciates the uses of this approach (and also knows its limitations), the burden is partially on me to explain what their importance is. Maybe in understanding the why, they might get to the answer the how.
Living in the Stone Age
Box score statistics are a misunderstood but highly used story teller for a game.
Team A won the game by winning the rebounding battle and attacking the break constantly. They grabbed X rebounds compared to Y by Team B and also won the break by Z points.
You hear this often during broadcasts. It doesn’t matter whether you’re listening to a seasoned broadcaster or a new one, they almost always rely on box score statistics to help them tell the story they saw. In essence, box scores aren’t really diaries where the stories are written. Rather, they are pens and papers that help tell the story. Red, Blue, Black. Highlighters. Glossy paper, cutouts and erasers. All of them fulfilling an important role in shaping not just the story of the diary entry but the diary itself (which in this analogy, is the team itself rather than just the game).
Some people think the pens and papers, the adjectives and pronouns that help make a story compelling are intangibles: thoughts and motion, soul and body, will and spirit.
Most of the coaches think like this. Most of the players think like this. Most of the executives think like this.
Gather a bunch of quotes from different coaches, players and executives regarding a game and you’ll be treated to a steady stream of puso and tiwala.
And yet, you’ll often find them rewarding these players, these executives, these coaches on things not as ambiguous. The UAAP rewards its players based on statistical points (SP). We celebrate players who score a lot of points, grab a lot of rebounds, get a lot of assists and hits a lot of treys. All of which are clearly defined basketball lingo not some amorphous lingo that no one clearly understands.
What is puso? Is it a person’s ability to find it within himself/herself to overachieve? Is it a person’s ability to stand up when he’s down? Is it the ability of the heart to pump blood? Kidding.
What is tiwala? Directly translated, it’s “belief” or maybe “faith”. But the usage of the word isn’t limited to that scope. Tiwala overlaps with puso. When a team is down, some people say “tiwala lang bro!” while others say “Puso lang!”.
Is it all of the above? Or none of them? Or did I miss the definition?
Same Story, Different Perspective
I’m not saying those are wrong. Clearly, a person’s ability to push through adversities and to push himself beyond his normal, perceived ability matters. But the game of basketball is not a zero-sum game. Those basketball PhD men (as Tom Ziller puts them) that think quantitative statistical analysis doesn’t matter are wrong. They think the proverbial “eye” test and the complex analysis are two different things . In reality, they aren’t. They are telling the same story told in a different manner.
In high school, as part of my Values Education subject, I learned a very important concept that somehow resonated with me through the years: Johari window. Put simply, a person has four parts:
- Open or Arena – this is the part of a person that everyone knows.
- Hidden or Facade – this is the part of a person that only the subject knows, but others don’t really know.
- Blind – the part of a person that others know but the subject is blind to.
- Unknown – other things that both the person and subject don’t know.
This is one of the things that shaped how I understand the world in relation to others – everyone knows everything, something and nothing about someone. They may be all different things, but it’s still the same person.
This is true even for basketball – it’s easy to know which aspect of basketball falls where. What’s surprising is how everyone thinks quants don’t have a place in completing basketball’s own Johari window. Rather than thinking of them as partners, they think they are either “inferior” players who “do not understand basketball” or they are “competitors” who want to make life a living hell for these basketball PhD holders.
What are its uses?
For managers and coaches, the answer is pretty simple: it gives you a competitive advantage. Whether it’s understanding which lineups work best and how to maximize their talent together (which is some form of operations research) or which players are undervalued.
For media personnel, it allows them to report quantitatively. To say player A is the best without presenting facts would be like to say the earth is not round but actually flat and not presenting a picture of the “end of the world”.
For fans, it heightens their appreciation for the sport and allows them to engage in more logical, intellectual discussions. When I say “logical and intellectual”, it doesn’t have to be a discussion that merely focuses on the numerical aspect but rather to take the learning from these numerical aspects to heighten our experience of the sport to a greater height. 3-pointers are no longer just impressive long range bombs over defenders, but rather the art of singular motion: from feet, to knee to hips to arms, to elbow, to wrist, to the hand and finally to the fingertips. Basketball is no longer just a ball and 10 players.
Are teams doing this? Maybe. Are they doing enough? Not really.
Do fans know this? Maybe. Do they want it enough to work on it? Probably no.
The importance of analysis is not in making someone wrong and proving the other is right, it’s about proving something that was presumed to be right as right beyond “stating the obvious.”
We all know shots coming off passes are much better and that passing the ball around helps the offense. But with research, we can finally say it’s true to a degree.
We all know shots that are open are much more likely to go in. But we’ve never actually gotten to knowing by how much.
We all know certain players play well together but we never really know how or why or who.
You get the point. But this is not just the end. We’re not concerned with just simply answering questions that people already know the answer to. We’re concerned with answering questions people are too afraid to ask or that are too complicated to answer. Venturing into the unknown and the hidden.
Does shooting a lot of corner threes actually help? Does putting two good rebounders actually make them better? Is offense more important than defense?
All of this are questions that quants and advanced statistics can help with. You just have to understand that analysis is not an enemy but a friend.