Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Arbitrarian Manifesto

Hardwood Paroxysm is proud to introduce our newest statistics writer. He's the author of a very popular and forward thinking basketball metrics-centric blog, and we're ecstatic to have him on board. His work is considered on the cutting edge of new statistical analysis, and has been featured by many of the top NBA blogs. His column will be appearing every Thursday here at Hardwood Paroxysm. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...

One can argue that essentially all human dialogue centers around making judgments of one type or another. Some may be absolute: "Yup, it's gon' be a hot one today," while others are of a comparative nature: "Hotter'n yest'day, reckon." The vast majority of the observations and claims we make are qualitative in nature, having to do more with a subjective assessment of the nature of a thing--this is something at which humans are skilled--sensory information along with a memory filled with previous experiences permits us to rapidly analyze almost anything. The only possible downsides to such qualitative judgments are that they may be colored by irrational factors, such as affect, emotion, and "common wisdom," they may be superficial, and they are often inconsistent.

Though we like to think of ourselves as rational actors, when making assessments or decisions, almost all humans satisfice (identify an adequate, non-optimal solution to save costs) and make use of heuristics (informal problem-solving shortcuts used to rapidly identify a satisfactory solution). Further, we are susceptible to numerous other irrationalities, such as risk-aversion, framing effects, confirmation bias, and groupthink, among many others. (I highly recommend you at least glance through some of those articles. You may also be interested in this Science article [PDF] by Kahneman and Tversky, as an example of framing effects.)

For these reasons, and due to a natural predisposition, I have developed a habit of thinking I call "Arbitrarianism." It's just a name I've chosen for the desire to have rational, theoretically or empirically based reasons for doing anything. In fact, an Arbitrarian desires to be anything but arbitrary.

This doesn't mean that feelings, impressions, hunches, intuition, and subjectivity are bad; it just means that I tend to prefer an approach that may begin with exactly those qualitative impressions, but that concludes with a sound theoretical or valid empirical conclusion. Something along the lines of the scientific method is the ideal here, but even just using carefully reasoned measures, or logically cohesive argumentation (backed up with date) is typically sufficient for me.

The above discussion applies in general, but does so perhaps even to a greater extent in the realm of sports. Fans are often passionate enough about their favorite teams and players that strict adherence to reason is not, shall we say, a priority. Millions of words are spoken and written each day by fans and the media alike, each offering up their own take on any number of situations. Media outlets like ESPN, which must produce enough content to sustain several 24-hour television channels, a biweekly magazine, and one of the world's most-trafficked websites, have a limited supply of news and highlights, but a vast amount of time to fill. As such, they have a set of incentives that has lead to the development of the six-man football halftime show, a talking-heads yell-off featuring four pundits and a host, and a morning show which drags out for several hours the meager set of talking points that will be hashed and rehashed, ad nauseam, for the duration of the 24-hour new cycle. But, we are all culpable--if we didn't buy it, they wouldn't produce it.

All this is just a digression away from my primary point, which is that there exists a glut of opinion, and due to any number of reasons, a vast portion of it is inaccurate, sometimes deliberately so. I am not a relativist--I believe there are two sides to every issue, but only one correct answer. The first step toward finding that answer is a studious avoidance of cheap talk, and the second step is becoming a little more Arbitrarian.

The end of æsthetics?

Perhaps this diatribe comes across as unappreciative of the beauty and elegance of sport--the aesthetic appeal. Personally, nothing could be further from the truth. The fundamental draw of athletic competition is the spectacle, and the uncertainty over what might happen next. Few human endeavors are more impressive than Allen Iverson, at a relatively advanced age, sprinting down the court, darting through a forest of men much taller than he, and somehow finding a way to put the ball in the basket while taking physical abuse that would cripple any ordinary man. Rarely do we get to witness, and even participate in as fans, such emotional catharsis as comes with capturing a championship--the resolution of the of hopes, dreams and efforts of not only a small collection of players, but a contagion of support staff, a supportive city, and even many sympathetic casual observers around the world.

Analysis is not the opposite beauty, methodological rigor is not the opposite of casual observation--rather each is a necessary part of a whole. For a fuller sense of enjoyment and understanding of any game, we look to statistics to confirm the impressions we have from just watching; just as sometimes, we look to the court to confirm what the numbers seem to be telling us. There is no right or wrong way to approach the appreciation or assessment of sports, and arguably, a perspective that ignored some aspect--be it gut reaction or regression analysis--would be substantially incomplete. All I know is that there is no dearth of subjective opinion available for your consumption, and all I can do is offer something a little different, and a little less arbitrary.

The plan

In the coming days and months, I hope to develop, with your help and insight, a comprehensive approach to basketball analysis from the ground up. A substantial body of work has already been done in this realm, and I will spend some time talking about the work of others. For the most part, though, I hope that as a community we can develop a standard of analysis which we feel confident can give us insight into the game we know and love, adding yet one more dimension to our enjoyment of the game. I look forward to hearing your comments, ideas, suggestions, and questions.

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