Jalen Rose Has a Problem with Basketball Analytics
Jalen Rose, who became famous as a member of the University of Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team, in the nineteen-nineties, is now one of the most recognizable figures in sports media. At Michigan, Rose was part of a team that included Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and came infamously close to winning the N.C.A.A. championship. He went on to have a successful career in the N.B.A., playing most notably with the Indiana Pacers, the Chicago Bulls, and the Toronto Raptors. Since retiring, in 2007, he has been a regular presence at ESPN and ABC, starring on ESPN’s morning show, a radio show, and the pregame and halftime show for this year’s N.B.A. Finals, in which the Raptors are playing against the Golden State Warriors. Outside of sports, Rose is known for co-founding a charter school, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, in his home town of Detroit.
I spoke to Rose on Wednesday, before Game 3 of the Finals, which he was covering from Oakland. I had been interested in talking about his basketball and media career, but I started by asking him about the analytics movement, which has revolutionized most major sports, and Rose and I spent most of our conversation discussing it. During the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the racial dynamics that he sees underlying various sports debates, the good and the bad of the so-called “player-empowerment era,” and whether he was kidding when he recently went on television and cast doubt on the moon landing.
It seems to me that a lot of ex-players don’t like the increasing focus on analytics and advanced stats in the conversation around sports. Do you think that is fair as a generalization, and if so, why do you think that is?
Oh, wow, you are going to start off with a don’t-get-fired topic that I am going to pull you behind the curtain on, if you really want to know the impetus behind the backlash.
I’m all ears.
No. 1, there are many people that feel like it has a cultural overtone to it that basically suggests that, even though I may not have played and you did, I am smarter than you, and I know some things that you don’t know, and the numbers support me, not you. Two, you notice that, when it is a powerful job in sports—whether it is an owner, whether it is a president, whether it is a general manager, whether it is a coach—usually in football and basketball, sports that are primarily dominated by black Americans, it’s also an opportunity to funnel jobs to people by saying that, “I am smarter than you because the numbers back up what I say, and I am more read. I study more. I am able to take these numbers and manipulate my point.” It’s almost like when you hear that a player doesn’t have experience at doing X job. People that normally get the jobs you are describing don’t, either. They didn’t play at most levels, but that suffices as their “experience” and validates their opportunity for power.
Just to be clear, when you say “cultural overtones,” you mean racial overtones?
Correct. And one other point I want to make with that: it is laughable to me when playing experience gets equated to any other type of experience, including coaching. When you play—for example, somebody like me, who has been playing my entire life—for some strange reason that experience gets diminished when it’s time to talk about powerful positions in sports—like, He doesn’t have experience. There is no bigger experience than being in the foxhole, in the huddles, and out on the floor—being a part of the game plan and being game-planned against. But also all the people you learn from: your teammates, the coaches, how to navigate with the media, how to navigate with the fans. Instead of it being, He doesn’t have experience, it really should be, He has more experience than almost anybody walking the earth.
When you say “manipulate,” do you think that analytics people are doing something dishonest for their own ends, or do you just think they don’t have the experience? “Manipulate” is a loaded word.
I am saying it becomes an entry point, a validation.
And let me say this: I give myself a forehead slap like the Three Stooges when I hear players and ex-players say that somebody can’t cover the game that didn’t actually play the game. That is also extremely incorrect. Just because you played the game, that doesn’t mean that you are best at analyzing the game, or coaching the game, or working in the front office. It’s the totality of the individual that allows special people to be able to juggle and be successful at both.
For many years, political reporters would go out to some diner in Pennsylvania, and they were really experienced at travelling and meeting people and reporting their opinions. More recently, statistics experts and polling experts came in—like Nate Silver, who works at your company—and they basically said that, rather than going to diners, we can learn a lot about the American electorate and voting patterns by analyzing data in a complex way. Even though a lot of these people have no experience reporting, they have incredible insight into the American electorate. I wonder if you think that is a fair comparison.
I think what you say does make sense. I appreciate the example. It’s a great one. However, numbers can be manipulated. Look no further than our current election and how it played out. If you were paying attention to all the polls, we would not have thought that the result would end up being [what it was], if you are going only by the numbers. Numbers can be manipulated. Statistics for me are things you can count: points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals. Analytics are things that you quantify: player-efficiency rating (P.E.R.), usage, net whatever. I think analytics should be a tool in the box, not the actual toolbox.
Right, but everything except points, such as rebounds, assists, blocks, steals—all these things are ways of analyzing the goal of the game, which is scoring more points than your opponent. So even if it is a more complex formula like P.E.R., it’s still the same thing. It’s just a more complex and accurate version of what people have been doing forever, which is looking at box scores.
The stats that I just described, for example, for me, they physically take place. I can physically watch a game and see them. By the way, I am not a big stats guy. I am an impact person.
I know just because you had five steals doesn’t mean you are a great defensive player.
You better not be talking about James Harden.
Good example. He led the league in steals. [Harden ranked fourth in steals per game.]
I’m a Rockets fan. I was just trolling you a little bit.
O.K. But with those stats—points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals—I can still take that information, watch the players perform, and see how they got those numbers.
It seems to me that if you go back ten years, a lot of former players were really skeptical about the increasing reliance on the three-point shot. And now we are in a place where basically everyone thinks shooting lots of threes is good. There may be some debate about whether you want to shoot as many as the Rockets or the Bucks do, but basically everyone thinks you should take threes. And if you can take a shot from twenty-three feet that is worth the points, that is better than a shot from nineteen feet worth two points. Why do you think that people were so slow to adopt this idea?
So, you ready for this?
I don’t agree with that either.
And by the way, I love [the Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey, for example. I have had this conversation with him. I have gone to [Morey’s] Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. I am not anti-information at all. As a founder of a charter high school, I understand that young people are judged by their G.P.A. and I understand that should represent their will. They are also judged by their SAT and ACT scores, which should represent their skills. When John Thompson was walking off of games protesting things like Prop. 48, people felt like he was overstating that the test was culturally biased—but now we are coming full circle to realizing that there was some truth there. [In 1989, Thompson, the head basketball coach at Georgetown, walked off of the court to protest an N.C.A.A. rule that tied athletic scholarships to a formula that included standardized-test scores.]
It’s the same with analytics and the three-point shot. I remember watching your Houston Rockets play and you guys had—and please help me with their roster—you had Corey Brewer, you had J.R. Smith—
Josh Smith. You had a bunch of guys surrounding the three-point line, but that clearly wasn’t the strength of their game. But they had to adjust to the system, not the other way around. And so to answer your question, basketball has become homogenous because people follow, not because it is the right thing to do. Other than the Splash Brothers [Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, of the Warriors], I haven’t seen a team win a championship that primarily shot threes, and, in the Rockets case, shoot more threes than twos.
O.K., we can argue about that, but it doesn’t seem—
Whoa, whoa, let’s argue about it. Who has?
The Cavs shot a fair amount of threes when they won. And this has only happened in the last decade, really, and the Warriors have won three of the last four titles.
That’s what I mean by the tool and the toolbox. When you were watching Game 2 [against the Raptors], and things got really close, and Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Iguodala were standing around the three-point line, were they even thinking about shooting?
No! That’s why they were playing a box-and-one against. The Splash Brothers make volume threes. That’s unique to them.
But it doesn’t seem that controversial—and correct me if I am wrong, because I am not an expert—but you are not going to shoot that much better from nineteen feet than from twenty-three feet, and you get one and a half times as many points for taking one and a half steps back. That’s common sense, no?
And you could be a basketball expert. Don’t dis yourself. You could be running a team, you could be running your magazine. I want to give you credit. But here is what you are missing. What you are not taking into account is the flow of the game. What about taking a contested three versus pump-faking, going in and getting an uncontested two, or driving to the basket and getting fouled?
Fouls and drives are good; I don’t think anyone is arguing against that.
The reason to me why the Rockets can’t get over the top is that when you play against them in the playoffs, all you have to do is suffocate the three-point line and contest at the rim.
Aw, c’mon, Jalen.
I am trying to tell you.
They lost in seven games last year to one of the best teams ever. I don’t know that there is a lot of shame in that.
That’s different. I didn’t say there was any shame. Here is what happens: the further you get—high school, college, pro regular season, pro postseason—the tougher the scouting gets, the tougher the defense gets, the harder it is to get a high-quality shot against the best minds in the game that are coaching and the best athletes to ever do it. If I only have to guard you in two places, this is what gives me an opportunity to actually succeed versus if I have to guard you in five places. And, by the way, this is a healthy debate. Don’t feel any hesitancy to come back at me. I love this. The other thing you don’t do when you are shooting all threes is get the other team in foul trouble. That is part of the game, too.
Before we drop this, do you think the people who are doing this advanced-stats work are doing anything consciously nefarious, or you just think it disregards history and racial dynamics that you think are at play?
I don’t want to diminish what they do. I love and respect the game and want all of the information possible. I don’t want to just see the grade on the report card. I want to see all the tests that were taken, all the exams. I want all of the information. But this idea that I am so smart because I know the stats and this now elevates me and puts me in a position of power and/or puts me in a position to get a job solely for that reason, that is where the blowback has come from. This is what all players know: numbers can be manipulated. If you are going to judge me on my assist-turnover ratio—I think it was Moe Harkless who had to shoot thirty-five per cent from three to get a bonus. I am watching the game with a remote in my hand saying he isn’t going to shoot it unless he is wide open. [If Harkless had shot and missed a three in his final game of the season, he would not have received a five-hundred-thousand-dollar bonus.] Players are smart enough. If you are going to judge me by the numbers, let me flip it on you and manipulate the numbers.
You remember what happened when they gave players some of the All-Star voting? There were all kinds of crazy votes.
Stupid votes. They didn’t take it seriously. I agree. And, by the way, I am not anti-information or anti-analytics, or anti-giving really smart people who study numbers opportunities. I am just saying that that should be a wrench, that should be a hammer, but it shouldn’t be the toolbox.
What do you make of the “player-empowerment era,” which is the phrase that has been used for guys taking their careers more into their own hands, perhaps changing teams more, signing shorter contracts, requesting trades more than in the past. Do you see it as basically a good thing?
Oh, that’s easy, as somebody who was born in 1973 and remembers pre-cell phones and remembers how the narrative was only controlled by the media. One, you get paid more money. LeBron James or Kevin Durant, the kind of money they make away from the floor is greater because they play in a sport with a salary cap. And I am someone who has been outspoken about that, too. It has been head-scratching to me that the sports that have salary caps, that punish for marijuana, that you can’t enter the draft right out of high school, just so happen to be basketball and football. You don’t see that in other sports.
Two sports with overwhelmingly black athletes is what you mean, correct?
Correct. And now all of a sudden it’s, like, I am getting more money, so therefore I have more power now, so I feel more comfortable being happy, so if I have to take a one-year deal to be where I want to be, I am able to do that. And the second part of my answer is, now I can go to social media and control the narrative.
I agree, except for when players have already signed the contract and then want to get out of it, like with Anthony Davis.
I don’t like that, either. We agree there. But we are taking about the N.B.A., with guaranteed contracts. What about the N.F.L., with non-guaranteed contracts? Those deals might as well be written on toilet paper.
Do I need to ask you about the moon landing?
[Laughs.] I’m ready for whatever. This is what we do. You know how this works.
I made air quotes when I said “moon landing,” out of respect.
The anniversary was yesterday or the day before, right? [It is next month.]
Wait, so you are acknowledging it happened?
When I said that on the show, I was just being tongue-n-cheek. People who watch our show every time understand it was just talk. [Laughs.]