Mac Engel

Charles Barkley is spot-on in attacking sports analytics

TNT analyst Charles Barkley, on the Inside the NBA set in 2010, said he has “always believed analytics was crap.”
TNT analyst Charles Barkley, on the Inside the NBA set in 2010, said he has “always believed analytics was crap.” Star-Telegram archives

Charles Barkley, you go girl.

Our greatest modern-day sports philosopher dangerously ripped into a crew of people slightly more sensitive than Trekkies, Stars Wars geeks and coffee-house hipsters when he took aim at the world of sports analytics.

“I’ve always believed analytics was crap,” Barkley said this week on TNT’s Inside the NBA. “It’s just some crap that people made up to try to get into the game because they had no talent.”

Amen. These people belong in the same sentence as referees, sports journalists (guilty as charged) and agents. About 98 percent of us were not good enough to play, so we talk about it, write about it, theorize about it and now offer mathematical formulas that these self-important people really do believe affect the outcome of a game.

“What analytics did the Miami Heat have? What analytics did the Chicago Bulls have?” Barkley said in an epic rant. “What analytics do the Spurs have? They have the best players and coaching staffs who make players better.”

Beware, Chuck. These nerds have memories longer than a jilted lover, and they know how to use a Google Docs spreadsheet to prove that not only are you incorrect, but that your Hall of Fame career was nothing, and that you are a failure. But Barkley is only slightly wrong when it comes to his scathing indictment on the growth industry that is analytics. A lot of smart people believe it has some use. It undeniably has had an impact in matchups, and it has helped grow a new sector of the sports economy.

My deep annoyance at this influx of numbers and situational stats has been met with scorn and criticism because this batch of nerds refuses to admit that, at its core, sport is simple. That’s why we love it in the first place. See ball, hit ball. Ball go in hoop. Ball go across line.

The other irritation is the claim by these myopic dorks that there is no other way around the math. Meanwhile, they dismiss the most obvious points, including:

▪ Few human beings can hit a 99 mph fastball that cuts.

▪ Other than time, no one could stop Michael Jordan.

▪ One of the bigger reasons the Stars’ season stinks is not because of a failure of analytics, but rather their second-highest paid player is a goalie who has not been stopping many pucks.

▪ Dez Bryant caught that ball (sorry — can’t let that one go).

Analytics has existed for decades. It just didn’t have a cute name with an office, a title and a bloated salary. It was called “The Ted Williams Shift.” It was forcing a guy to his weak hand. It was “the quarterback must go down, and he must go down hard.”

Now, in an effort to get better, teams employ fleets of analytic “experts” that allow them to remain in denial about sports’ inescapable truth: It’s about talent, not spreadsheets.

As smart as Mark Cuban is, his stacks of analytics didn’t compute until Dirk Nowitzki became the best player in the world and an unstoppable fourth-quarter player in the 2011 NBA playoffs.

“This analytics stuff has gotten in the way. Most of these owners are really bright, bright businessmen, and they got a lot of their success on information. I don’t think basketball is about information,” SMU basketball coach Larry Brown told our Drew Davison on Wednesday. “It’s about teaching and putting people in position to be successful. I also think both college and pro have suffered because there’s not enough teaching going on.”

But what does Larry Brown know? He only won an NCAA title. An NBA title. He has more than 1,000 victories and is regarded as one of the finest coaches alive. To the analytics crowd, he’s an old-timer who refuses to modernize.

Analytics in baseball has unearthed a few gems, and it has exposed some flaws in scouting, but that’s about it.

In the film Moneyball, Brad Pitt played Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane, who fired his assistant because they didn’t agree about philosophy in scouting. In real life, Beane never fired Grady Fuson, who left the A’s for a giant check handed to him by the Rangers. In real life, Beane rehired Fuson when he became available.

What analytics has done is improve scouting a bit and find a few more players, but more than anything else, it created a new sector of fans and employees who are convinced everyone else is stupid. They have their points, and some of the numbers can be fun, but the sad truth is they are wasting their lives on this stuff like the rest of us.

It’s just sports.

It’s simple.

It’s see ball, hit ball.

No calculation can ever change that.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7697

Twitter: @macengelprof and The Big Mac Blog

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