Sports, spec-fic, Rockets-Warriors, and the double edge of advanced metrics: a rant

by Paul West

Sports fans, allow me a bit of a tangent.

Two of the things I enjoy most are sports and speculative fiction. In both, you can learn a lot about the humans involved–but only through a variety of devices and approaches; and in both cases, this lends to their virtue.

As you watch Warriors-Rockets, enjoy both the forest and the trees–you’ve only got 5 games.

As science and technology advance, we are better equipped to deepen our understanding of these media, and the humans which play out their drama; but we must remember not to let metrics and numbers make us trade one form of intellectual laziness for another. Metrics have allowed us to see beyond myopic, outdated forms of conventional wisdom which allowed the so-called ‘eye test’ to be polluted by stereotyping, extreme confirmation bias, and other types of lazy thinking; metrics have pushed the evolution of scouting, drafting, scoring, defending, coaching, and separating. But if you think that a game, athlete, or team can be fully synthesized by staring at numbers and graphs, I would kindly refer you to cautionary tales such as Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica (2004), The MaddAdam Trilogy, or Westworld (2016)–or, farther back, to the philosophical concept of the ‘ghost in the machine.’

I did warn you that I might digress.

The point is this: advanced metrics are necessary but not not sufficient to truly understand a player, team, or matchup. Intangibles and immeasurables create tangible results, momentum can be both real and imagined, and misapplication of metrics and numbers can lead to the same intellectual laziness as the analytically challenged approaches they evolved to counter. This is true in baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and other sports.

This is why computer models are only predictive to a point. This is why there’s a saying, ‘that’s why they play the games.’ This is why there will always be superstars from unheralded beginnings, who weren’t destined ‘on paper’ to succeed, and there will always be ‘Clockwork Orange,’ this-is-how-you’d-build-em phenoms who flame out.

This is the beauty of it. This is why we watch the games, and not computer simulations. This is why, though we’re obliged to deepen our structural and mechanical observations, they must still be tempered by that which confounds measurement. Why it’s equally misguided to rely solely on ‘eye test’ or metrics.

Now, go enjoy Rockets vs. Warriors, and remember–to borrow from an old expression–to see both the forest and the trees. You’ll only have five games to enjoy it (hint, hint).


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