Sports stats done wrong | Bleader

Sports stats done wrong


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Forbes just released its brand new Best General Managers in Sports rankings. (Even serious business publications are not immune to dumb content.) I'll spoil Forbes's fun and get to the winner: you might remember him as the GM who was forced to give up three consecutive first-round picks for an illegal handshake deal with one of the most average #1 draft selections in recent history, condemning his team to years of playoff failure despite having perhaps the best player in the sport.

Survey says: Kevin McHale.

While we're talking about perennial also-rans with once-in-a-generation stars, the 76ers' Billy King comes in #3.

Before I point out how stupid this is, I should mention that it reveals an interesting bias. Sports doesn't value reliable success so much as total victory. If fans and athletes cared about mere playoff berths and regular-season winning percentage, people would talk about the genius of Brian Cashman and his propensity for relying on proven (if expensive) talent to ensure high winning percentages, media interest, freakish apparel sales, and large crowds year in and year out. Recent champs the Cardinals and Colts would impress with their consistent above-averageness. And Kevin McHale would deserve measured praise for, as Forbes puts it, "eight playoff berths and a .539 regular season winning percentage--more than double his predecessor’s .244."

But a sports fan will tell you that McHale was given the rare gift of Kevin Garnett in his second year as GM and has never been able to assemble a truly complementary team around the star. Sports fans, rightly or not, value championships over consistency (and, for that matter, profits).

Forbes doesn't. But Forbes didn't develop a compelling metric of its own--one that, say, takes into account the irony that Billy King's 76ers are meat until the next decade but, despite their implosion, aren't so thoroughly terrible that they're in the catbird seat in the all-important Kevin Durant-Greg Oden sweepstakes.

At one point, Forbes notes a crippling statistical flaw in its rankings. "Interestingly, most of MLB's GMs fall in the middle of the pack. One possible explanation is that baseball's relatively long season and greater yearly payroll fluctuations due to free agency create an unintended balancing effect." Interesting, perhaps. I submit that the survey would be more interesting if they'd corrected for baseball's structure and economic system instead of explaining it away in the manner of an undergrad writing about a botched lab experiment.

As a math washout about to get poleaxed in his fantasy baseball league, far be it for me to tell you to run screaming from any actual business or investing advice you receive from Forbes. I think they've pretty well killed their Minnesota market, however.

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