Keith Olbermann essentially built his sportscasting career -- and helped build the ESPN SportsCenter empire -- by taking a page from the Revenge storyline: nerdy ethnic oddball uses his wit and verbal acuity to
But ESPN didn't retire the "nerds outsmart the dumb jocks" schtick (or at least the "clever non-athlete outsmarts the big dumb ex-jock" schtick) when Mr. Olbermann was shown the door in 1997. ESPN radio -- and other sports talk stations from coast to coast -- regularly employ the oft-drawn-upon formula that pairs a quick-witted and sardonic "smart guy" with a big, "dumb" former professional athlete (or at least one who plays "dumb"). The joke is that the smart guy who never played sports actually knows a lot more about sports than the dumb buffoon who played the game!
These days, the "nerds know sports better than jocks" narrative has become the conventional wisdom, thanks in large part to the runaway success of Moneyball.
The 2011 film Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, is based on Michael Lewis' 2003 bestselling book on baseball economics, Moneyball. Both book and film tell the story of Oakland Athletics' General Manager Billy Beane, a former major league player who turned to advanced statistical analysis -- known as sabermetrics -- to evaluate players when he found himself saddled with a limited budget upon taking over as the Athletics' GM.
Beane's early A's teams won on the cheap. So he was touted as a genius and his abandonment of traditional methods of player evaluation in favor of advanced numbers crunching became the order of the day in Major League Baseball. In practically no time, all the other teams revamped their player evaluation processes to incorporate Beane's statistical models.
That Mr. Beane was no nerd before he turned to statistics -- a former major league player and scout can hardly be called a nerd -- is irrelevant. So, apparently, is the fact that the A's haven't returned to the playoffs since 2006. We're living in the Moneyball era. Statistics rule and number crunching nerds are ascendant: the pencil-necked pencil pushers and their equations have once-and-for-all triumphed over the wisdom of the dumb jocks (or so the smart people say).
Now it seems like every nerd and numbers guy under the sun is citing statistics to show that they know more than the dumb jocks. And it's not just baseball: everybody from the former star University of Chicago and Harvard Law professor and current Obama administration Regulatory Czar who (allegedly) debunked the concept of the "hot hand" in basketball (multiple academic studies exist which purport to debunk the myth of the hot hand) to the FedEx deliveryman and basketball statistics enthusiast who predicted that Jeremy Lin would be a star NBA point guard back in 2010 is seemingly in the game.
So it makes sense that the lefty political nerds at Salon would get into the game too: "What Geography Can Teach Us About Basketball":
The annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, created in 2006, has become something like Bonnaroo for sports nerds. And if there was a breakout star at this year's gathering, held at MIT this past weekend, it may have been Kirk Goldsberry, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State (and currently a visiting scholar at Harvard). At Sloan, Goldsberry—whose dissertation "investigated real-time traffic maps" and who has also used geography to examine "access to nutritious foods in urban areas"—considered the ways that sophisticated statistical mapping can illuminate the game of basketball, in a paper called "Court Vision: New Visual and Spatial Analytics for the NBA."
You only have to glance at the maps Goldsberry produced to know that stat-friendly teams will pounce on these things. As the New York Times basketball blog Off the Dribble noted over the weekend, "about a third of the league’s arenas have recently installed camera systems that capture and log the position of every player on the court 25 times a second." As a result, many teams now have incredible amounts of data they can visualize in some of the ways Goldsberry suggests.
For the map above, for instance, Goldsberry divided roughly half an NBA court (from the baseline to just past the 3-point line) into 1,284 "shooting cells." Then he plotted every shot taken in an NBA game from 2006 to 2011, and color-coded the results. The areas which yielded the most points per shot appear near the red end of the color spectrum; those that yielded the fewest are at the blue end.
If you've read anything about scoring efficiency in basketball, the resulting image will not surprise you (though its elegance is striking). But it conveys far more quickly and powerfully than a set of numbers can what kind of shot distribution an NBA team should be going for, generally speaking.
The takeaway: If you ever needed confirmation that the mid-range game is a relic of the past, you've got it now. Most shots taken in the NBA from 2006 to 2011 were either layups, dunks or three pointers. The baseline jump shot no longer exists.
Gone are the days when post players like Adrian Dantley, Kevin McHale and Mark Aguirre would beat you with post moves inside, and then beat you with post-up turn around jumpers when you tried to push them off the block. Gone too is Karl Malone's 15-20 foot jumper that forced opposing big men leave the lane and chase him out into no (big) man's land.
Scottie Pippen's bank shots from between the elbow and the baseline? Yeah, they're gone too. But if you've been paying attention to the NBA over the last few years, you probably already knew as much.
Kevin Garnett is one player who still takes a lot of mid-range shots (Garnett idolized Dantley and McHale while growing up), but he's a definite outlier. Kobe Bryant takes a lot of mid-range fade aways, but since he shoots whenever he has the ball (regardless of where he is on the court), it doesn't count for much against the larger statistical pattern.
The NBA has gone the same way that college basketball has gone over the last 15 years: nobody wants to take a shot that's not a layup, a three pointer or a dunk.
Rick Pitino changed college basketball when he was coaching at Kentucky in the early and mid 1990s. Pitino decided that shots outside of the lane, but inside of the three point line were a waste of time. He figured that if you're going to take an outside shot (any shot taken from beyond 5-10 feet from the basket), you might as well take one that's worth three points if it goes in, rather than two.
So that's what Pitino's Kentucky teams did. And after they made back-to-back Final Fours in 1996 and 1997 (which included a National Championship in '96), other teams around college basketball started adopting a similar style.
The mid-range game disappeared from college basketball in the late 90s. It took a little while longer for it to disappear from the NBA, but the disappearing act is all but complete now.