Can an NBA Team Win a Title Using a Moneyball Approach?

Roy BurtonContributor IDecember 14, 2012

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Columbia TriStar Marketing Group
Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Columbia TriStar Marketing Group

With every NBA general manager desperately searching for an advantage over his counterparts, a new wave of thought is quickly gaining traction in the world of professional basketball.

Sabermetrics—commonly referred to as "Moneyball"—is a quantitative approach used to evaluate baseball players with the help of advanced statistics. Moneyball was pioneered by legendary historian Bill James, but it quickly gained popularity once Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane—after taking a cue from former A's GM Sandy Alderson—used analytics to build wildly successful teams in the early 2000s despite severe payroll constraints.

In short, sabermetrics focuses on particular measurements (OPS, WAR and VORP, among others) to evaluate a player's true worth on a baseball field. Using these figures, a team's front office can make more educated decisions regarding existing personnel, predict which players have the potential to be stars, and discover unknown, previously undervalued talents.

For years, scouts and general managers in all major sports relied largely on their gut and the numbers found in the box score to guide their decisions. The introduction of advanced statistics to MLB was akin to a major paradigm shift, and a similar movement is well underway in the NBA.

This seismic change in thought is led by two members of the Houston Rockets front office: general manager Daryl Morey and executive VP of basketball operations Sam Hinkie.

The alphabet soup is a bit less confusing in the world of basketball, but there are a handful of non-traditional statistics—usage rate, true shooting percentage and offensive/defensive win shares, to name a few—that are prime indicators of performance.

Of course, quantitative analysis isn't necessary to realize that LeBron James is a fantastic player. But no one man can win a title by himself, and with the help of sabermetric principles, teams can surround their superstars with a supporting cast best equipped to make a deep run in the postseason.

There are those—including John N. Mitchell of the Philadelphia Inquirer—who completely dismiss the use of such qualitative analysis in the NBA. Detractors of the approach liken proponents of basketball analytics to soulless, socially inept individuals who spend every waking hour crunching numbers in a dark room.

The tired crutch of an argument is that the A's never won a title while utilizing a "Moneyball" approach. And while that's true, a number of baseball teams have flourished after hiring full-time sabermetricians (Arizona, St. Louis, Washington), and former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein used quantitative metrics to bring two championships to Boston (2004, 2007).

So can this same type of analysis work in the NBA? Absolutely.

Coaches, general managers, scouts and player personnel directors would be foolish not to use advanced statistics while making important decisions. The Memphis Grizzlies obviously value analytics—otherwise, they wouldn't have hired John Hollinger (inventor of the immensely popular Player Efficiency Rating) away from ESPN. In fact, the majority of NBA teams have at least one statistical analyst on their payroll.

In basketball—just like in every other professional sport—one of the keys to winning is having a roster full of players who are worth more to the team than they are actually being paid. This tenet is even more important in the NBA due to the league's salary cap and luxury tax provisions.

And as Morey and Hinkie wrote last year in response to the movie Moneyball, there's nothing preventing teams from adopting a sabermetric-like approach while still retaining some of the same talent-evaluation principles from years past.

Unfortunately for the Rockets, objective analysis won't work out well for them—at least not in their present configuration. James Harden is a star player and a fantastic scorer, and Houston has surrounded him with some nice complementary pieces (Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons). But as a whole, the roster just isn't good enough to lead the Rockets to a title.

At the end of the day, a team needs a superstar to win a championship (the 2004 Detroit Pistons are nothing more than an outlier), and Houston simply doesn't have one. That said, it's obvious that other NBA franchises have been successful using a sabermetric approach in the construction of their respective clubs.

Although they may be loath to admit it, the San Antonio Spurs are clearly advocates of the "Moneyball" philosophy. Gary Neal, Danny Green and DeJuan Blair are perfect examples of guys who may have fell through the cracks under normal circumstances, yet all are qualitatively efficient (and relatively cheap) talents, and the Spurs have molded them into extremely valuable rotation players.

As the NBA has evolved over the past few decades, so too must the evaluation of those on the court. It's not enough to merely rely on points, rebounds and assists to determine who the best and most efficient players in the league are, and every edge is vital in the pursuit of success.

Having more data with which to make a decision is rarely a bad thing, though there are still those in basketball circles who consider the term "Moneyball" to be a four-letter word.