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May 11 2013

Sam Hinkie in “The No-Stats All-Star”

I’m assuming you have at some point read The No-Stats All-Star,” Michael Lewis’ New York Times Magazine story from 2009 about “Moneyball” hitting the NBA. But in case you haven’t, set aside 15 minutes and read it now. Or check out the excerpt below where Sam Hinkie, the Sixers brand new GM, says some intelligent things about basketball. Enjoy.

Via NYT Magazine:

I spent the second half with Sam Hinkie, the vice president of basketball operations and the head of basketball analytics in the Rockets’ front office. The game went back and forth. Bryant kept missing more shots than he made. Neither team got much of a lead. More remarkable than the game were Hinkie’s reactions — and it soon became clear that while he obviously wanted the Rockets to win, he was responding to different events on the court than the typical Rockets (or N.B.A.) fan was.

“I care a lot more about what ought to have happened than what actually happens,” said Hinkie, who has an M.B.A. from Stanford. The routine N.B.A. game, he explained, is decided by a tiny percentage of the total points scored. A team scores on average about 100 points a game, but two out of three N.B.A. games are decided by fewer than 6 points — two or three possessions. The effect of this, in his mind, was to raise significantly the importance of every little thing that happened. The Lakers’ Trevor Ariza, who makes 29 percent of his 3-point shots, hit a crazy 3-pointer, and as the crowd moaned, Hinkie was almost distraught. “That Ariza shot, that is really painful,” he said. “Because it’s a near-random event. And it’s a 3-point swing.” When Bryant drove to the basket, instead of being forced to take a jump shot, he said: “That’s three-eighths of a point. These things accumulate.”

In this probabilistic spirit we watched the battle between Battier and Bryant. From Hinkie’s standpoint, it was going extremely well: “With most guys, Shane can kick them from their good zone to bad zone, but with Kobe you’re just picking your poison. It’s the epitome of, Which way do you want to die?” Only the Rockets weren’t dying. Battier had once again turned Bryant into a less-efficient machine of death. Even when the shots dropped, they came from the places on the court where the Rockets’ front office didn’t mind seeing them drop. “That’s all you can do,” Hinkie said, after Bryant sank an 18-footer. “Get him to an inefficient spot and contest.” And then all of a sudden it was 97-95, Lakers, with a bit more than three minutes to play, and someone called timeout. “We’re in it,” Hinkie said, happily. “And some of what happens from here on will be randomness.”

The team with the N.B.A.’s best record was being taken to the wire by Yao Ming and a collection of widely unesteemed players. Moments later, I looked up at the scoreboard:

Bryant: 30.

Battier: 0.

Hinkie followed my gaze and smiled. “I know that doesn’t look good,” he said, referring to the players’ respective point totals. But if Battier wasn’t in there, he went on to say: “we lose by 12. No matter what happens now, none of our coaches will say, ‘If only we could have gotten a little more out of Battier.’ ”