I recently came across an interview that Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach gave for a 1987 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
While the focus of the article, mysteriously titled “Red Auerbach on Management,” was not basketball, Auerbach’s insights on management provide an intriguing look at his team building strategy.
In particular, a few quotations on assembling a winning squad seemed relevant today. The greatest talent evaluator and recruiter ever, Auerbach acquired three Hall of Famers– K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn and G.O.A.T. candidate Bill Russell– in a single draft. Clearly he could spot a great player, but back then Auerbach had to do it on instinct as much as metrics. Like a wayward explorer, Red survived the backwoods of the NBA’s early years using only the smells wafting on the breeze and a spear fashioned from a grizzly’s femur. Today, we have cell phones and Synergy Sports. “I had no scouts,” he says, “We had no movies, no video. Today we have six guys doing what I used to do.”
Now those six (more likely 15) guys are also spending time compiling statistics and crunching numbers. These advanced (accurate) metrics are the primary evaluating tool in today’s NBA, but here’s what Red said about the role of statistics in his 1987 front office:
Well, it started way back, when Walter Brown owned the team. I had this theory, which we still use. And that is, a player’s salary is determined by what the coaches see and what I see. What determines a player’s salary is his contribution to winning—not his statistical accomplishments.
I don’t believe in statistics. There are too many factors that can’t be measured. You can’t measure a ballplayer’s heart, his ability to perform in the clutch, his willingness to sacrifice his offense or to play strong defense.
See, if you play strong defense and concentrate and work hard, it’s got to affect your offense. But a lot of players on a lot of teams, all they point at is offense. Like in baseball they say, “I hit .300 so I should get so much money.”
I’ve always eliminated the statistic of how many points a guy scores. Where did he score them? Did he score them during garbage time? Did he score them when the game was on the line? Did he score them against good opponents? There are so many factors.
Red died four years ago, so we can’t ask him what he thinks about the advanced metrics commonly used today. The stereotype that stat experts are“nerds in their parents’ basements”—long attached to stat-heads by lazy commentators who were terrified by evidence proving they really don’t know the back of their hands—has eroded significantly.
Every NBA team employs a group of interns and analysts who crunch numbers to determine what a player’s productivity means. And every writer risks being flayed, seasoned, skewered and flame-broiled by Deadspin if he/she doesn’t properly support punditry with points-per-possession.
But from this interview alone one can imagine Auerbach being a few years ahead of the trend. His beef with statistics is not that they are the “indoor kids” of Understanding Basketball Summer Camp, but that the statistics available were not representative of a player’s worth: “what determines a player’s salary is his contribution to winning—not his statistical accomplishments.”
Today, we can and do measure a player’s ability to perform in the clutch, and we can adjust for weaker competition.
On defense, we can see how well players defend in isolation situations and we can track how well a player closes out shooters. Interpreting these numbers will always leave some wiggle room, but we can prove Mo Williams is essentially a poor defender because he gave up 1.03 points-per-possession in isolation situations, good for 305th in the league. But we also know that the Cavs had a solid defensive scheme, and that Williams understood his role in it, because his rank skyrocketed to 87th when it came to defending pick and roll ball handlers (per Synergy Sports).
As these kind of metrics became available, would Red have used them to determine that Carmelo Anthony isn’t even worth a single Joakim Noah?
Also interesting is that points scored, the metric most often idiotically cited as the definition of a player’s greatness, was valueless in Red’s eyes. As Dave Berri points out convincingly in The Wages of Wins (and on his blog), scoring like Monta Ellis will get you real paid, and maybe even an MVP vote or two, but it won’t necessarily get you deep into the playoffs.
As statistical analysis has increasingly found ways to quantify the once unquantifiable, I wonder if Auerbach, in the end of his career, would have taken the plunge into a field that may have contradicted his own understanding of the game he loved for some 40 years? Would he stare warily at Ray Allen’s usage rate like so many octogenarians trying to decipher MyBook or FaceSpace? After all, Red’s best player, Bill Russell, never had a single block recorded. Hundreds of shots simply tipped, deflected, and downright swatted away from the hoop and off of the record books. Red didn’t need those stats to tell him Russell was the greatest he’d ever seen, he just knew…or maybe the banners in the rafters had something to do with this conclusion.
We may never discover a suitable metric for “heart” (which is whether fans believe a player is courageous) or how much a player’s interpersonal battle with a coach affects his teammates’ production. Yet team chemistry and pride are the kind of ideas that have always been attached to champions, and Red’s instincts often proved to be the best tool for measuring a player’s capacity for both.
Perhaps this is where Red’s true genius lay, in knowing what mattered and what didn’t. Our modern formulas and computations seek to make plain what he always understood.
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