Statistics, Uncertainty and Boogie

Published: February 20, 2017

It’s always been curious to me that the NBA writers, bloggers and fans that describe themselves as “stats heads” are the ones who are the least willing to accept uncertainty. This player is bad. This system is outdated. This coach or GM is dumb. Those are very certain statements made by people who claim to live and think in an uncertain world. How are they so certain? “Statistics” told them so. Statistics and box scores.

As far as I can tell, mathematics is a ball of collective human knowledge that ranges from the practical to the wholly abstract. It is a field that relies on understanding each of the parts to understand the whole, and almost no one, myself included, understands the whole. To teach people math, we break it up in to discrete segments and parts (Calculus I, II, III, advanced calculus and so on). Observant students realize that they are only getting a part of the story, and the part they are getting is intimately connected to other parts that a 15 week class likely doesn’t have on the syllabus.

Statistics, as a branch of mathematics, is essentially concerned with uncertainty, as best I can tell, which is by definition the absence of knowledge. The simplest statistical idea is that you have a variable or parameter, x, and you’ve observed its various values some number of times. But how do we estimate it’s true underlying value or values? In other words, what techniques can we use to erase uncertainty and find some mathematical truth. How the hell can we know what x is? And why the hell are you surprised or upset when you can’t know it?

Ever since the Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis the goal has been getting a second player. At the time, Austin Rivers was seen as having that potential. Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans were all supposed to headline a major trade at some point. For reasons beyond the teams control, those trades never happened. The Pelicans got unlucky time and time again, and it was interpreted by many as a moral or intellectual failing of the team’s decision makers. It was unfair then to give them the burden of bad luck. It’s probably unfair now to given them the benefit of creating the inverse, I.e the good fortune that brings us DeMarcus Cousins.

The most basic explanation of building an NBA team to a championship level is that you have some players and you turn them into better players by development, trades or free agency. There is no way to deny that’s what Dell Demps just did, but it took uncertainty, good luck and perhaps a bad decision from another team. It didn’t come together like a clearly laid out plan. It was a thousand little good and bad things happening and coming to this.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing Dell or anyone else for making the biggest move and second most significant trade in the franchise’s history. I’m simply repeating what we should have said all along. Stuff happens. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. You try and control some the factors that make that stuff happen, but usually, it comes down to preparation and good luck.

The Pelicans have finally accomplished their primary goal after drafting AD. They have their second guy. The next goal will be retaining these guys. Keeping them here, adding in little pieces and building something. Along the way some writers, bloggers and self-proclaimed “stats” guys will claim that the Pelicans or Gentry or Dell is “doing it wrong” or maybe even that they are right, but the lesson learned from the time spent after drafting AD and before trading for Boogie is that statistics isn’t dividing two numbers together. Statistics is building a model, some way to understand the world, and using it to try and control uncertain, often unknowable variables. Taking the Pelicans from a middling NBA team to a contender hasn’t been easy, clear or perfect so far, and it won’t be going forward.

I, personally, have no idea if the Pelicans will make the playoffs this year, but I think they are in a better position to. I don’t know if they will retain Cousins, but I think they have a better shot than most teams would. NBA life is uncertain. Still, one thing is finally clear, the Pelicans are in their best position to become a championship contender since they drafted Anthony Davis. Ignoring all the math, the tweets and noise, that’s worth celebrating.


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