Is LeBron James secretly involved in the marketing of the Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt book, Stumbling on Wins? Only a week after Forbes showcases the book in an article entitled, Is LeBron Really the Best?, the NBA mega-star/marketing firm seemed to confirm the answer of the book (no) with his performance against the Celtics on Tuesday night.
While the Forbes headline tries to capture attention with its focus on James, the Berri-Schmidt book looks broadly at decision-making across many sports settings — evaluating whether decision making or received wisdom matches with systematic statistical analysis. (See TSE in March 2010 for related post). The Amazon plug for the book
The next quantum leap beyond Moneyball, this book offers powerful new insights into all human decision-making. Because if multimillion dollar sports teams are getting it wrong this badly, how do you know you’re not?
The Forbes summary pulls out a few glossy results including:
- NBA scoring gets overvalued
- Goalies are overvalued (goal-tending matters but variation across goalies is small)
- Phil Jackson really does improve teams
- NFL coaches are too conservative (for all those Belichick bashers)
- Fumbling is a rare event in the NFL and doesn’t deserve managerial backlash
LeBron’s performance Tuesday night actually points toward a limitation of many sports stats, that is, the lack of distinguishing post-season and regular season performance. The latter certainly matters for getting into the former, but the processes generating outcomes do change (effort, refereeing, …). This isn’t a criticism of Berri-Schmidt, after all, you can only do so much in one book, but a recognition that digging into decisions and performance is a big subject.
Just like Moneyball, I suspect that Stumbling on Wins, while stimulating and fun, also makes economists (including me) a bit uncomfortable. It’s an exercise in “managerial economics” and analysis. Ultimately, its prescriptive or can be used that way. By and large, the economics profession is “positive” or descriptive in its efforts — illustrating and examining how decision makers work things out in ways that are optimal (or very close to it). Some econ criticism of Moneyball raised the issue of why would MLB general managers and managers systematically commit errors when much if not all of the underlying data sat right under their noses — a topic I addressed in 2005 in Moneball and Efficiency. There has always been an uneasy relationship between these two areas of economic analysis without the outright hostility that sometimes surfaces “behavioral economics” and mainstream methods. Yet, managerial econ perspectives raises some of these same issues and tensions between “what is” and “what is optimal.” I’ve had a long term interest in trying to reconcile these divergent approaches in a professional piece; maybe one day I will get it done. Whether or not that ever happens, I tip my hat to Dave and Martin.