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. Buzz Lightyear says:

    Michael’s comment about team chemistry is extremely prescient.

    Let’s look at 3 mid-season trades made in the Western Conference this year:

    1) The Mavs trade for Jason Kidd…and go about .500 for the rest of the year, then get *schooled* by the Hornets in the playoffs. Plus they’ve given up an up-and-coming defensive stud PG (Devin Harris) for an old/slow Kidd and his monster contract.

    2) The Suns trade Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal…and go into the tank. They ‘right the ship’ and look pretty good going into the playoffs…where the Spurs take them apart. Only the Suns completely revamping their offense to center around Boris Diaw extends their first-round series.

    3) The Lakers steal…er, trade for Pau Gasol…and go something like 17-3 with him in the lineup. They fairly easily sweep Denver in the first round and will probably dispatch the Jazz in 5 or 6 games.

    One can argue that Shaq, Kidd and Gasol are all NBA players of comparable statistical worth (Shaq’s declining stats are somewhat compensated by the premium placed on true low-post players in the NBA).

    Yet we had 3 very different outcomes. In the case of Kidd/Mavs, Kidd’s rebounding, passing and fast-break skills didn’t complement what the Mavs already had, and his declining defense increase their vulnerability to the lightning-bug Chris Paul-type players.

    In the case of Shaq, his size and low-post presence improved their rebounding and interior defense, but losing Marion cost them a *lot* of versatility and compromised the Suns perimeter defense (Shaq, Stoudemire and Nash are all poor defenders).

    In the case of the Lakers, Pau Gasol’s shooting/passing skills and his basketball IQ were *perfect* fits for the Lakers’ triangle offense. Teams having to account for Gasol defensively (unlike hands-of-stone Kwame Brown) means easier shots for the rest of the Lakers…or an endless procession of dunks as seen in Game 1 of the Lakers/Nuggets playoff series.

    I’m sure stat geeks can measure these effects, but I’m not sure that the can predict them ahead of time.

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  2. Kevin says:

    (Long time reader first time commenter)

    Being that this is my first comment, I’m glad its on my favorite sport basketball, which I’ve been following for four fifths of my entire life, so I consider myself an expert. The one thing I know about basketball is that it is not the statistical endeavor that some like to make it out to be.

    If you want evidence on how poorly one can create, review, or even explore the statistical field of basketball, look know further than John Hollinger of ESPN who repeatedly has Kobe Bryant low on his Player Efficiency Ratings, and this year made an argument using his PER stat that Kobe Bryant should be fourth in the MVP race. Just read the comments on any one of his articles and you would read the utter disgust from basketball purest such as myself.

    Simply put, the best stats in bball are the most basic ones you can think of. Why?

    1.) Bball is played by 5 guys versus 5 guys in direct competition with each other where the same 5 guys plays both offense and defense.

    2.) There are an infinite number of offenses and defenses a team can play against each other, thus ruining the constant playing environment used to judge performances.

    3.) Injuries, kill chemistry and can cause chaos on a team.

    4.) Teams peak at different times of year. The Cavs for example always peak at playoff time when James dominates the ball.

    5.) Piggybacking on that, certain superstar players (Lebron & Kobe) elevate in the playoffs and others (see Dirk) don’t.

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  3. JJ says:

    You could hire John Nash and Steven Hawkings to break it down for you, but I’ll take my chances with Steve Nash and Connie Hawkins any day!

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  4. Peter Shulman says:


    Pretty silly and terribly East Coast-biased to start out with the Red Sox. The approach was applied for years by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s with great success before the Red Sox took notice. Had they not, the A’s would have swiped a barely noticed Kevin Youklis from the minors. Perhaps we can do a “Freakonomics” article on the likelihood of an East Coast entity being overvalued?

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  5. the Gooch says:

    Superstars don’t elevate their games in the playoffs, they just get the benefit of the doubt on every single drive to the lane from the refs and get to shoot free throws (see Dwyane (yes, I spelled that right) Wade against the Mavs 2 years ago). When refs don’t pander to superstars, you get what the USA has gotten in international competition the last decade.

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  6. Tracy McGrady says:

    I wish someone would give me and Yao…Elton Brand or something. Shawn Marion works too. Hey we’ll even take Corey Maggette.

    Stat analysis is overrated. If you get not one, but two HOF worthy players in a summer, as well as a crapload of underrated veteran FAs that suddenly think Boston is instant rock…


    …Stat analysis is overrated.

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  7. egl says:

    Wages of Wins has an interesting model for basketball players and is a good read for fans of regression analysis or students of the NFL, NBA, or MLB.

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  8. rbblum says:

    Would it be possible to put words to paper (an article or research piece) regarding political economics on the national level as it relates to the citizens of Main Street, the taxpayer, the constituent. ie how politicians are beholden to lobbyists, how and why campaign promises are presented but ignored or watered down in committee, how the citizens of Main Street have no leverage in implementing common sense and control of the political class.

    There has to be rational explanations in economic (freakinomic) terms of all the games politicians play at the expense of the taxpayers/constituents. Your written effort would go a long way in advancing the cause of understanding and raising the bar of political gamemanship.

    Thanks in advance.

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