Last March at the Sloan Conference in Boston, I was told a near-perfect parable on the traditionally and deeply yet needlessly antagonistic relationship between the “talent” and “analytic” schools of basketball interpretation.
In the immediate aftermath of a dismal 2013-14 season, an NBA general manager ordered a top-to-bottom review of what had gone wrong with the team that year. By that time every front office was fully equipped with bright young minds who could apply the latest analytic tools and even brandish some proprietary and closely-held statistical methods of their own. But the GM had allotted just 48 hours for the task while also imposing a draconian two-page limit on the final report. As a result the analytics team worked in a frenzy to summarize every last data point, shot chart, and pick-and-roll efficiency in just a couple of pages.
At the end of the ordeal the exhausted head of the analytics group yanked the final draft from the printer and thrust the two-page encyclical into the waiting hands of his boss. Whereupon the GM took the report and, smiling genially and never so much as glancing down at the printout, wadded up the two pages while taking aim at the nearest waste basket. As the GM let fly with his shot, he uttered one word:
After a decade of watching college basketball in the one-and-done era, I’ve come to the conclusion that in one crucial respect the GM is exactly right. In fact the more I ponder the question the more I think I’ve become something of a talent essentialist in spite of myself.
I wonder whether there might be rare instances where we can remove college performance from the equation more or less entirely and just look at the roster of players. Forget efficiency or shooting accuracy. Tell me how many minutes the returning players recorded, how many possessions they used, and how highly the freshman class is rated, and in these very rare instances this may be all we need to know.
In such cases I think we may be able to just look at a college basketball roster before the season even starts and say that if precedent’s any guide this team has virtually a 100 percent likelihood of earning an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed, a 60 percent probability of reaching the Final Four, and a two-in-five shot at winning a national title. I’m going to call such instances category 5 rosters, and, though I (and others) didn’t know it ahead of time, it turns out that Duke’s in 2015 was one such roster. Continue reading