Freakonomics in The Times Magazine: Hoop Data Dreams

Levitt and I have a column in this Sunday’s Times Magazine about the attempt to bring to the sport of basketball the intense statistical analysis that Bill James has made popular throughout baseball.

The column centers on the Boston Celtics, who have just completed the best-ever turnaround in N.B.A. history, winning 66 games this year after winning just 24 last year. The Celtics are one of a handful of N.B.A. teams that have recently become very data-centric (including the Rockets, whose general manager, Daryl Morey, came to Houston from the Celtics), and the Celtics’ stat man is a very colorful young guy named Mike Zarren. Here’s a bit about Zarren from the column:

[He] seems to know every data point about every N.B.A. player, past and present. Garnett calls him Numbers, the Celtics Dancers call him Stats and Paul Pierce, the team’s longtime standout, calls him M.I.T. even though Zarren never went there. He did, however, lead a University of Chicago quiz-bowl team to four national tournament victories and later graduated from Harvard Law. (Disclosure: Steven Levitt taught Zarren while the latter was an economics undergrad at Chicago.) …

Zarren also happens to be the team’s associate counsel, although this would be hard to believe if you came across him at a game, way up in the cheap seats, wearing his green satin Celtics jacket and shouting himself hoarse: ”He pushed! He pushed! … You got ’em, K.G.!” To describe his Celtics fandom as rabid would be a gross understatement. This is his third season on the Celtics’ payroll — he worked two years without pay as a law student and while clerking for a judge — but his family has had season tickets since 1974. He began regularly attending games at age 5, and since moving back to Boston after college, he has missed only five home games. ”Three of those,” he says, ”were due to illness.”

Zarren and Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ general manager, were way too smart to tell us much about their own and opposing players’ tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. They are, after all, trying to win a championship, and even the lowly Hawks are proving pretty pesky in the first round of playoffs. Nevertheless, I hope you all find the piece as interesting to read as we found it interesting to write.

It was particularly worthwhile talking to Ainge, who was a great three-sport athlete and whose basketball intelligence is very keen. He said one thing during our interview that didn’t make it into the piece because it’s really off-topic, but it’s related to the talent/practice question we’ve written about before (most recently in regards to A-Rod).

When we asked Ainge about the relationship between talent, practice, and athletic excellence, here’s what he had to say:

My experience tells me that people like to do what they’re really good at. And so, in my life and the players I’ve been around, it’s unbelievable how I look out there on the court and I watch Eddie House and Ray Allen shooting jump shots in practice. I’ll look in there and I’ll see Kendrick Perkins and Big Baby lifting weights. It should be the other way around, but it’s been that way all the time.

The guys that are great at getting stronger and have great bodies are in there lifting weights and the shooters are shooting because that’s what they like to do. So that’s what my experience tells me. I was really good as an athlete as a child, so I gravitated toward it because from age five, I was really good, and I knew I was good. And I had older brothers that knew I was good and I got a lot of attention for being good and so that’s what I did.

Note: This will be our last Times Magazine column for a while. We are taking a break until we finish writing SuperFreakonomics. We started out writing one column a month, then switched to every other month. But even that is too much of a load, at least for us, when you’re trying to write a book.

This blog, however, isn’t going anywhere.

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  1. FrankTheTank says:

    Jose Costa (aka David Stern), thanks for writing in.

    p.s. you gave yourself away by using that lame NBA tagline “Where Amazing Happens” no REAL NBA fan actually likes that slogan…

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  2. Ethan says:

    To Matoli and others,

    You are allowed to post whatever you want in the comments section of a blog. But, that doesn’t mean you need to abuse the privilege. Your personal distaste for basketball is neither interesting nor noteworthy. Therefore, you have nothing to contribute to this discussion and should just move on and comment on stories that actually interest you. And for what it’s worth, this article wasn’t even really about basketball, per se, it was about personal growth.

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  3. Shan says:

    You mentioned that the Celtics went from 24 wins to 66 in one year. Although I’m sure the number-crunching had something to do with it, I think the offseason acquisition of two superstars had a bigger impact.

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  4. Sean says:


    Mike Zarren said the corner 3-pointer was the most efficient shot BESIDES the layup. I’ll use your numbers and some assumptions here:

    Layup = (80%)*(2 pts) = 1.6 expected points
    Corner 3 = (42%)*(3 pts) = 1.26 expected pts
    Elbow jumper = (assumed 50%)*(2 pts) = 1.0 expected pts

    Maybe the story could have explained this a bit more, but the editors might think most readers don’t want to see the details. I’d agree with them, although I like the details.

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  5. Andrew says:

    Very interesting read

    and Frank, are you serious? Actually, every REAL NBA fan loves the “where amazing happens” slogan. I have not met one single NBA fan who doesn’t love that slogan. This slogan is having a huge success and fans are loving it and are coming out with a lot of different “where amazing happens” videos..just check out you tube for more proof.

    Why people are so negative everytime? I don’t get it.

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  6. Michael says:

    I suppose statistics might give you some small edge concerning the game but Basketball (more so than any other US team sport IMO) is the sport most dependent on team chemistry – which is difficult for anyone to measure.

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  7. Ray G says:

    The great thing about statistics in this kind of scenario is that even if the stats are not done entirely correctly, looking this closely at each player and the various scenarios of player interaction in differing settings will bring about all kinds of discoveries.

    One kind of offense working better in a certain setting, et cetera.

    It is also very useful come contract negotiation time.

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  8. T says:

    Many comments about how the Celtic’s two big trade made more of a difference than stat analysis. However, stat analysis may have helped to decide what players to give away (ie how much the Celtics can afford to lose ) for the 2 players, or whether they can fit with the other players. In fairness, though, any trade for Garnett seems like a no-brainer, even without hindsight on how big an impact he would be.

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