For my print column today, I wrote about tempo-free statistics and the people who believe staunchly in them. John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus, who wrote about Alex Fanaroff’s column last week, offered a crash course in tempo-free statistics in our phone conversation, parts of which are excerpted below.
What is your general philosophy on tempo-free statistics, and why is all of this worth examining?
The important thing to remember is that by using this tempo-free thing, we’re not being terribly advanced or strange. We’re just trying to get to a point where other major sports have long been and taken for granted, and that is being able to point to a team and say, empirically, that they have a good offense, or this team over here has a good defense. It’s strange that in basketball — not just college, but basketball period — we haven’t been able to do that, widely, as fans until the past few years.
And I realize that I’m taking my life in my hands saying this to a Dukie, but the key pioneer here was Dean Smith. He was the guy who said, well, wait a minute, what we really should be doing is keeping track of how well we do on each opportunity in the game. He did that as an assistant 50 years ago in the late 1950s, and everybody that anybody else, up to and especially me, has been doing ever since is just following along in his path.
So it’s not new by any means. It’s very old. But what is new is that people are paying attention to it and using it. It’s an accurate way of putting teams next to each other that are very, very different in terms of pace or style and saying, well, this is how well they really did.
With all the talk of tempo-free stats, how many coaches are actually using them?
The list of head coaches is relatively small. But the list of assistants is huge. One guy that I think of, in no particular order, is Buzz Williams at Marquette. You know, I came pretty close to posting something once that if you were born after January 1, 1979, there’s a lot better chance that you’re going to use this stuff, and if you’re born before then, you’ll say, I don’t need it! But at the other end of the age spectrum is Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. In the ACC, obviously Roy Williams uses it, because he got his start charting possessions for UNC. Dino Gaudio, for sure. And Coach K knows it’s out there, because he’s had my friend Ken Pomeroy on his XM radio show.
Coincidentally, last week, I helped Kyle Whelliston and guest-hosted at The Mid Majority, and I offered up myself for free to the first mid-major that would contact me. I said I would give free tempo-free stats, and I got a lot of responses — all from assistant coaches. I get this a lot, where sometimes it’ll be an assistant coach, or sometimes it’ll be a beat writer, saying the head coach doesn’t really believe in this stuff, but we know better. And oh, by the way, can you tell me about this opponent? It’s growing every year, and it’s becoming something that’s more acceptable for even successful head coaches.
Seems to me that this type of progressive thought would suit a fan base like Duke’s — intelligent fans with a successful program — really well. Are you aware of any fan bases that are particularly attuned to it?
Well, it’s more anecdotal, and it’s drawing a distinction between bloggers and actual fans who I hear from. But obviously, I hear a lot from Duke and North Carolina, both because those are great combinations of A. successful programs and B. smart fan bases. I definitely hear a lot from that region of North Carolina. I think the key might be smart and impassioned fan bases, even more than successful programs, because I would also point to a community like Michigan, which has had next to nothing in the way of recent success. I hear a lot from Michigan fans — however improbably, they definitely are hip to this stuff.
A few years ago, something of a statistical revolution swept baseball and now, we’re all familiar with the ideas behind Moneyball. Are we close to something like that in basketball?
The one similarity that I would draw is that as general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane benefited from the fact that he was doing this and nearly none of the other teams were. That’s how he was able to get into the playoffs of the AL West every year, even though he had no payroll. In the same sense, it’s true that there are lots of teams that either the assistant isn’t speaking up successfully or they just really don’t know of it or use it at all. So there’s a knowledge imbalance that still exists, that you can say is like baseball in 2002. That would be one similarity.
The difference is that baseball is very different from basketball. It’s one thing for Billy Beane to say, well, this batter is kind of pudgy and fat and so my scouts don’t like him, but he’s really good at drawing walks and he has an excellent OBP. It’s another thing to say, well, this was a fast-moving team game based on motion and collaboration. It’s not just a series of one-on-one experiences between hitters and pitchers. People who are waiting for the baseball moment to arrive in basketball — that hope is a little misplaced.