"Analytics haven't won a ballgame." It's exactly the type of cantankerous, old-man-yells-at-cloud statement we've come to expect from Randy Wittman, a coach who's been dragged, kicking and screaming, into this new-fangled analytical basketball revolution. The issue of analytics has dogged Wittman for nearly his entirety of his tenure with the Wizards, ESPN the Magazine ranked the the team 26th, or fourth worst, in last year's "Great Analytics Rankings", and his penchant for long-twos has become a familiar punchline for bloggers and commenters alike.
Its easy then to understand why Wittman's appearance on Kevin Sheehan's ESPN 980 radioshow was met with the usual groans by Wizards fans and the basketball words at large. If you missed it, here's what Randy had to say about the team's use of advanced stats. From The Washington Post's Dan Steinberg:
"I’ve got to coach the team," Wittman went on. "Analytics haven’t won a ballgame. You’ve got to take what you have and put guys in position that they can best succeed at. And there are some things with numbers that help that, but if you see some of the number sheets that we have, it would drive you crazy. But you know what, that’s the world we live in. You can fight that, but that does you no good. Listen, I’ve been in the business 32 years now. We had analytics back in the ’80s, alright? We had numbers. Plus-minus, and guys playing with certain guys, and that’s never changed. It’s just now, for whatever reason … Hey, it’s good for some people. Because guys have gotten a lot of jobs because that of word."
That some of the league's most successful organizations embrace advanced statistics is not up for debate. The Golden State Warriors have taken the league by storm by playing the game to its analytical ideal, eschewing mid-range jumpers for three-pointers and layups. But as the Warriors have moneyballed their way to the league's best record, a pervasive strain of logic has taken hold amongst fans of the league.
This logic, to borrow a phrase from Aaron Carter, goes a little something like this: If winning organizations win because they use advanced statistics, then the inverse must be true as well; and disappointing teams like the Wizards lose because they aren't embracing advanced stats tightly enough. If only they adhered to the analytical script, they'd be contenders just like the Warriors.
This is a misdiagnosis of the Wizards' issues plain and simple, and it's this misdiagnosis, not the analytics movement as a whole that Randy is pushing back against when he says "Analytics haven't won a ballgame." The Wizards have embraced the movement more so than ever this season -- they play fast, space the floor, and turned Kris Humphries into a spot-up shooter, yet despite how dedicated they are to pulling off a convincing Warriors impression, they still find themselves at .500 with 22 games left to play.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis echoed these sentiments on Thursday, pointing out that despite the team's new style of play, they still lead the league in man games lost and have also played one of the toughest schedules to date.
Man games lost. Wiz still no. 1, But as we get healthier, a consistent rotation is being established. Analytics this https://t.co/9GMRdCU8Ty— Ted Leonsis (@TedLeonsis) March 3, 2016
Analytics this.. on strength of schedule. Getting healthy while schedule balances out - all publicly available infohttps://t.co/CIwaMsCr0L— Ted Leonsis (@TedLeonsis) March 3, 2016
There are plenty of things to critique about the Wizards organization, but their embrace of analytics isn't one of them. An analytical approach alone isn't enough to push an organization to contention, they have to have a coach who can implement the goals they outline, players who fit the system, and even then they still need to catch breaks and avoid the injury bug to become one of the league's top teams. Analytics aren't the only deciding factor between teams that win and teams that don't, just ask the Rockets.