Everyone who’s read the book or seen the movie Moneyball probably catches the title’s reference.
If you haven’t, you should because it’s an interesting take on how the Oakland A’s became the poster franchise for statistical analysis.
Statistical analysis is what is happening with the Grizzlies right now. In theory, the plan is that you discover players that are undervalued because of perceived defects in their game which are in reality not pertinent to the goal of winning games. For the Oakland A’s, it has meant a consistently competitive team for years despite running the smallest payroll in baseball.
In the story, Billy Beane hires a statistical guru named Peter Brand to restructure the way the team valued players to help them get an edge on the competition since they weren’t fighting on level financial field.
Statistical analysis is also the reason Jason Levien hired John Hollinger to become Vice President of Basketball Operations. Formerly, John was the stat guru at ESPN who came up with his “Player Efficiency Rating” or PER. This system attempts to equalize all factors to determine the players actually contributing to a team’s success on the court. There are problems with the system of course. By John’s own words it doesn’t do a good job of factoring in defense for instance. It is not a complete measure by any means.
But it is something the new Grizzlies brain trust believes is a helpful tool.
Yet, I digress.
Art Howe was the manager of the Oakland A’s that season. In the movie, he approaches Billy Beane and demands a new contract because “I can’t manage a team on a one-year contract…There isn’t a lot of faith there which is strange after a 102 win season last year.” Beane retorts “if you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a s*^t.”
I don’t know how accurate that is, but it does help set the tone for a cool relationship between Howe and Beane in the story. The lack of communication and buy-in to what the front office is attempting to do is shown repeatedly including Howe refusing to play Scott Hatteberg over Carlos Pena until finally Beane informs he’s going to play Hatteburg because he traded Pena. In a very real sense, the front office forced the manager’s hands.
Lionel Hollins is coaching with a one-year contract. As Art Howe said “it doesn’t show a lot of faith” for the coach that led the team to a 4th place Western Conference finish without Zach Randolph for most of the season. As far as any fan can tell, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about giving him a new contract either.
In the last few weeks Hollins has come out publicly and criticized the front office for their belief in statistical analysis. “I just think we get caught up in the stats” said Hollins. “There are some guys that contribute so much that the stats don’t even talk about. A guy running the court, filling the lane 100% of the time is better than having a guy that’s a little more talented that fills the lane 40 percent of the time. That guy filling the lane 100 percent of the time is going to create a shot for somebody else.”
Hollins also clearly stated his strong desire to keep the team together. On January 12th he said “I like our team. I like the way we’ve grown the last few years, our maturity, and I would certainly as a coach like to keep our team together and see where we go this year. If management decides after the season is over that they want to move somebody for whatever reason, we’ll deal with that. But in the middle of a season, as successful as we are, it would be a big letdown.”
Well, welcome to the world of disappointments, Coach Hollins. For the second time since those comments were made on January 11th, the Grizzlies front office made a blockbuster trade that is believed to be both cost-cutting and statistically basketball intelligent.
The parallels are too striking to ignore. Two leaders of major league teams, working on one year deals with no promise of a new contract, fighting with management over the use of statistics to dictate game decisions culminating in big trades of players the coach wanted on the team.
It worked out fairly well in the end for Oakland. The team won an MB record number of games in a row but came up just short in the playoffs. Something not lost on Hollins. “Analytics has a place. It can’t be the be-all, end-all. I’m still trying to figure out when the Oakland Athletics won a championship with all the analytics they have. It takes talent.“
I should add that Art Howe was released after the season by the Oakland A’s despite winning 103 games that season.
I wonder what that portends for the most successful coach in Grizzlies franchise history?