May 2, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey reacts during the fourth quarter of game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. The Nets defeated the Raptors 97-83. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Blue Raptors? Different sport, same concepts

Apr 19, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Amir Johnson (left) and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle (right) share a laugh after the first pitch against the New York Yankees at the Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

While this author has enjoyed the work of many sportswriters over the years (Dick Beddoes, Jim Coleman, Bill Simmons, to name a few), the one scribbler I return to most often is Bill James. For those who don’t recognize the name, Bill James pioneered the compilation and analyis of statistics to understand baseball better. Without Bill James, there’s no SABRmetrics and no “Moneyball”. My regard for James may seem counter-intuitive, as I write about the Toronto Raptors, and James is (A) a baseball guy and (B) the original stats geek. I like baseball, but don’t feel the compulsion to write about it, and I’m certainly not an advanced analytics person.  I appreciate the value of statistics, and how they can enhance our understanding of the games we enjoy, but I’m nobody’s idea of a mathematician or statistician.

James is too often regarded as nothing more than a stats guy, with no insight into the human aspects of his game. That’s an erroneous view. Let’s consider some thoughts of his as he discusses how a manager [20-second timeout: baseball is weird in many ways; what every other sport calls a coach, it calls a manager] contemplates his roster.

  1. Never have anyone you won’t use.
  2. When a player loses his aggressiveness, he loses his value.
  3. If a player doesn’t want to do the job you need him to do, get rid of him.
  4. Everybody has to play defense.

Those certainly seem like workable concepts for our game, don’t they? Let’s keep going – what characterizes a great manager?

  1. Game-level decision making (pulling the pitcher, using pinch hitters, calling for stolen bases or defensive shifts,etc.)
  2. Team-level decision making (willingness to use a young player, whether to emphasize offense or defense in selecting the starters, decisiveness)
  3. Personnel management & instruction (do his players develop, and do they hustle?)

I’m synopsizing a lengthy article from James’ 1988 Baseball Abstract, in which he discusses why most managers are fired. James concludes it’s because they fail at one or more of the above 3 characteristics. I think this is true in basketball as well. If I were GM Masai Ujiri scoring my coach, I’d mark him a C-, A-, A. The Raps don’t win enough close games, and our team isn’t particularly strong coming back from timeouts. However, Dwane Casey doesn’t hide from difficult roster decisions (he’s the one who put his career on the line by deciding to start two sophomores), and his players clearly respect him. The Raps play hard. So Dwane earns a bare pass, and two strong marks, and keeps his job.

It has been noted over the years that the quality of sports writing is in inverse relationship to the size of the ball in play. In other words, there have been some wonderful books on golf, more than a few baseball classics, but sadly, not a heap on hoops (or football). Until I find more basketball books which are less on stats and more on winning, I’ll continue to use James’s concepts as a framework for my thinking.

And here’s two more baseball writer’s thoughts I keep in mind: Judge players slowly, and pay more attention to the ordinary plays than the exceptional ones. Thank you, Thomas Boswell.

How about you, Rapture Nation? What writers and books have been valuable in your thinking about sports? Let us know in the Comments.

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