Thursday, June 14, 2012

Van Gundy and Intangibles

There was an exchange on Tuesday night between Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, the excellent commentators who are doing the NBA championship series. The exchange was related to "intangibles." Van Gundy was commenting that some player "intangible" was really tangible.

It's common to hear broadcasters and pundits of all media stripes talk about an athlete's intangible abilities. Typically, they are referring to abilities that are not regularly quantified.  You can count someone's rebounds per game, assists, foul shooting percentage, three pointers, and steals.  Those who speak of intangibles refer to non quantifiable capabilities.  For example, ability to bring about team cohesion.

I can understand how the label got its traction, but I believe that many of the factors that are called "intangibles" may well be as tangible as those that have been quantified. Moreover, these so called intangibles are likely to be more significant than the tangibles.

There is a new statistic that has emerged, the plus/minus.  The plus minus refers to the "score" while you were on the court.  So if you played 27 minutes of a basketball game, and your team scored four more points during these 27 minutes than the opponent you would be a +4.  Because of this statistic something that once was an "intangible" has become quantifiable.  How does a player contribute to the overall goal of winning a game?  Maybe what the player does is set screens well, dive for loose balls, help on defense thwarting a drive that forces the opponent to pass the ball away.  These are all tangible. It depends on what you decide to count and determining a reliable way to do the counting.  Even if you cannot find a reliable way, it does not make the action intangible, just not statistically quantifiable.

In general, I believe that assessors of team sports do not do a good job of deconstructing success into its likely elements.  If I look at how many baskets a player scores and how many rebounds, and do not look at the plus/minus maybe I am looking the wrong way.  Some examples of factors that were or are not quantified but can affect success:

When Paul Silas played for the Celtics I am not sure the statisticians counted offensive vs defensive rebounds.  Silas was the best offensive rebounder I ever saw, better than Rodman.  An offensive rebound provides your team with an extra possession. If you score on a certain percentage of possessions, and you get more possessions because you have a Paul Silas on your team, then that is a very important statistic to consider.

Carmelo Anthony is a terrific player, but if everyone else on the court stands around playing jacks while he does his one on one moves, then the players who are stagnating will not force the defenders to move much, which may tire them less, which may allow for a shooter on the opposing team to have more legs in the fourth quarter to elevate for the jump shot.  So Anthony scores 40, but it is possible that his one on one style results in a deficit.

In team sports what are called intangibles are really those components to success that have not been identified clearly yet.  We don't know what we don't know and it is arrogant to think that what we do know and what we can count is all that there is.

Love is different. In South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein write about love, "Who can explain it, who can tell you why. Fools give you reasons. Wise men never try."  In sports, you can explain it, but you can't assume that what has been counted or can be easily counted will be wholly explanatory. There are likely other tangibles.

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