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Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Mike Zarren: The Growing Importance of Statistical Analysis in the NBA

Great piece by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt on the NY Times' Freakonomics on my good friend and former law school classmate Mike Zarren, who is the Boston Celtics' associate counsel and also, more significantly, the team's statistical expert.

Here is an excerpt from their piece, which highlights the growing importance of "Moneyball" - type thinking in basketball:

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But the team also employs what the general manager, Danny Ainge, calls his “secret weapon,” a 32-year-old named Mike Zarren, who seems to know every data point about every N.B.A. player, past and present. Garnett calls him Numbers, the Celtics Dancers call him Stats and Paul Pierce, the team’s longtime standout, calls him M.I.T. even though Zarren never went there. . . .

Ainge hired Zarren simply because he wants any advantage worth having, and Zarren’s insights are “more information on every decision we make,” Ainge says. “Mike is a much smarter guy than I am. I’m open to smarter people than me. It still comes down to my instincts. I have to make the choice, no matter what my scouts say, no matter what the models say. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that a statistical model will ever be foolproof in basketball because there are so many variables, but I do think it can help us.”

There are two channels through which Zarren can help the Celtics. The first is by assessing potential deals and draft picks, which means bouncing information off of Ainge. The second channel is strategic advice, which means going to Coach Doc Rivers, whom Ainge says is “skeptically receptive” to Zarren’s insights. You sense that Zarren has gained credibility within the Celtics not because the basketball people adore his regression analyses but because he adores the sport. “Most geeks are not basketball guys,” Zarren says, “and most basketball guys are not geeks. You have to be both to be successful in this developing field.”

What’s the most efficient shot to take besides a layup? Easy, says Zarren: a three-pointer from the corner. What’s one of the most misused, misinterpreted statistics? “Turnovers are way more expensive than people think,” Zarren says. That’s because most teams focus on the points a defense scores from the turnover but don’t correctly value the offense’s opportunity cost — that is, the points it might have scored had the turnover not occurred.

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For the rest of the piece, click here. For ESPN's Henry Abbott's take, click here. And for previous Sports Law Blog coverage on statistical analysis and the NBA, check out our post on Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey.

For my sports law students at BC Law in the fall and Vermont Law in the spring, I hope to get Mike to speak to the class.


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