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"The Stat Movement Goes Establishment": What advantages might stats bring WNBA teams?

As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus and the Seattle Storm wrote citing Dean Oliver in his summary of the 2010 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend, "Individuals see a basketball game better than the numbers...but the numbers see all the games."

However, in reading the flood of reports and tweets from the Dorkapalooza and thinking about how they might apply to the WNBA, one comment in particular from a new friend of the WNBA stood out: "I'd like to congratulate everyone here for breaking the record for most dudes in one room."

Of course, the comment doesn't necessarily mean that the stat movement is "male only", but it did lead me to wonder, to what extent are WNBA decision-makers influenced by statistics? What is the state of basketball analytics in the WNBA?

Coincidentally, during an interview with Swish Appeal yesterday morning, I was struck by Washington Mystics General Manager Angela Taylor's use of statistics -- she referred to statistics far more frequently and fluidly without my prompting than other coaches and executives I've spoken with. During our conversation, she referred at various times to offensive rebounding percentage, free throw rates, plus/minus and assessed player development by referencing statistical trends. Granted, she might be predisposed to thinking quantitatively -- she has a degree in Economics from Stanford University and was previously the Minnesota Lynx's Vice President of Business Operations. Nevertheless, her answer

"I think numbers don't lie," said Taylor. "So for both coach [Julie] Plank and I you have to look at the numbers. I think trends to look at plus/minuses after games. You can look at different rotations and lineups that play well together in certain circumstances and scenarios. It probably kind of distracts me from the nerves I have so I'll dig deeply into the numbers. But I do - I think it's important not to go overboard with the numbers, but I think it's important to be aware of different areas statistically where you can get better because I think that does paint the picture a lot of times when you're just looking anecdotally and kinda let your emotions make more decisions. So it's nice to dig into the numbers."

Therefore, the question becomes not whether WNBA executives are using statistics -- it would seem unlikely that Taylor is the only one who actively uses statistics in her decision making.

Looking at the progression of the "stat movement" in the NBA, the question for the WNBA is who will take advantage of statistics first?

To be clear, this is not some watered down argument for gender equity in sports.

It's much simpler than that.

As described in a recent Sports Illustrated article about the Seattle Mariners use of "run prevention" to make the biggest improvement in baseball last season despite scoring the league's fewest runs, baseball is arguably in phase two of its statistics movement. While "Moneyball" is a particular way of thinking about the use of statistics to exploit market inefficiencies -- identifying and acquiring assets undervalued by the market -- there is an underlying principle at work.

Statistics help people make sports decisions.

As such, the reason for the growing momentum of the "stat movement" in the NBA is simply that it helps teams win -- those that have resisted are falling behind.

The state of basketball analysis - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN
It’s an interesting time. Just a couple of weeks ago, I looked at teams that have stats people integrated into the decision process. (Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Oklahoma City, Portland and I may have included Orlando -- I’m not certain what they do exactly.) It was seven or eight teams. They had won 60% of their games, and that’s counting Houston, which has only won half their games because they’re missing Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady wasn’t playing.

The teams that don’t have quants won 40-some percent. And it was pretty linear … the more or less they had someone integrated into their decision making, the more or less they were at the extremes of winning and losing.

It's not that the dorks are are sitting at their computers and dictating decisions for general managers -- as Taylor commented, the stats help to paint the big picture by making teams aware of both areas where they can get better in addition to potential solutions to filling needs. The stats are simply one more source of information and with more information teams thus have an advantage over those who choose to ignore that information.

The stat movement goes establishment - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN
Abbott: The real answer here is going to make me sound the nerd who picks a fight the jocks, which is a bad position to be in. But I think this might be case of the real truth being that people who understood the power of geekery were always right. It was always the right direction, and teams that took advantage early were on to something that is helping win games, and now everybody else is going to have to run to catch up. I'm not saying everything every stat geek has ever said is gold. But I am saying that smart analysis, even from laptops, over the long haul, matters in the way that a good pair of running shoes matters in winning marathons. It's not going to run the race for you, but at the same time, you can't come to the starting line in penny loafers.

So if statistics so clearly help NBA teams, why not the WNBA?

Some people might immediately suggest that statistics designed for men's basketball don't fit the women's game without significant adjustments. But that's not necessarily true -- in playing with statistics for the last two WNBA seasons and reading what scant women's basketball research exists, advanced statistics do have some WNBA value even without major adjustments for differences in style of play.

Obviously, Pelton works for the Storm and Paul Swanson hosts the most comprehensive WNBA statistics site for the Minnesota Lynx so you have to imagine that those two franchises -- in addition to the Mystics -- are at least aware of statistics. Stats both illuminate things that we might not see and give us a means by which to compare the players we do see to those we cannot, due to either an inability to watch every game or our own subjectivities.

However, I'm going to go a step further -- with both roster and salary cap reductions in a league whose goal is clearly to create a quality product, investing in "quants" might be more important simply because resources and roster sports are even more scarce in the WNBA. With less room for error in terms of how teams are constructed and constant shifts (improvement) in the talent pool, managing resources more efficiently will actually be vital to team success this year. As the quality of play in the league gets better, strategies shift, and players keep getting better, statistics will help executives monitor the trends and make the right decisions.

The fluidity of basketball makes it such that statistical analysis might not have the same affect as they do on baseball (or hockey, for that matter). But it would be interesting to know if the WNBA is seeing as strong an association between winning and the extent to which statistics are used in decision making.

Transition Points:

  • One thing Taylor mentioned is that the Mystics were near the bottom in blocks last year (9th of 13) and that she would like to address that. The value of shot blocking is apparently something that was discussed at the SSAC.

    The value of a blocked shot - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN
    Is blocking a layup more valuable than blocking a jump shot? Mr. Huizinga’s data says yes. In his presentation, he said that it all comes down to expected value.

    I have sometimes wondered if strong position defense and simply forcing teams to take shots outside of their range is just as effective as blocking shots, if not more. In any event, something interesting to think about.