Monday, February 08, 2016

Say I gave to the house dealer.

Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA ChampionChasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion by Andy Glockner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Andy Glockner's book is a "behind the scenes look at the high stakes game of creating an NBA champion." It delves into the fairly recent evolution of statistics (big data analytics) and its impact on professional basketball. How is the NBA-- a league of big money and big outcomes -- using this potentially massive amount of data to its advantage? Is it the players, the coaches, the teams, the front offices looking to benefit? How can big data and statistics fit into the traditional paradigm of the NBA as we know it?

I nabbed an advanced copy of this book, because I'm a sports fan and a big NBA fan. I thought the book was going to take a look at the 2014/2015 season and how stats impacted it, but I don't feel that it exactly delivered on its promise. That's not to say it's not a good read. It's certainly enjoyable if you like basketball, particularly the NBA. If you're a fan of statistics and numbers related to your sports, you'll love the book, as it's chock full of data. In fact, so much that it reads like a term paper sometimes. My biggest issue, in fact, was that is was almost a little too dry and statistics heavy, with an outline that jumped around in organization, making it hard to follow and stay engaged. Still, the book is extremely well-researched and you'll pick up a lot of good tidbits to impress fellow sports fans.

Overall, it was amazing to read about the impact of statistics on the NBA and how what would take the video and tape guys hours (probably days ages ago) can now be compiled in seconds by companies with algorithms and computer programs. Glockner introduces to us to several of these firms, including SportsVU, and does a good job explaining their evolution. (Perhaps too good a job - it gets to be a bit much at times.)

Some of my other issues were that, at least in my ebook edition, some of the graphics were hard to read, as all the lines and charts were hard to read - the lines were basically all the same color.

To me, the book was best when Glockner mixed his use of stats with anecdotes and real stories. I'm not exactly sure billing it as a quest to find the most "perfected player" is true, or even a look at the 2014/2015 season, but the stories were fun. There's a short bit on University of Kentucky Coach Calipari's hire of Joel Justus in the analytics realm and how that led to UK's much talked about platoon system for one season - quite a fascinating portion of a chapter. Further, the Colorado State basketball program is a good anecdotal example use of SportsVU and is far less dry than the more stats heavy or less conversational chapters.

Again, the book also gets you thinking: just like any other advantage in sports, stats often help those programs with more money; for instance, the Duke Blue Devils being the only team able to use the SportsVU system in their practice facility (this stuck in my craw, being anti-Duke and all. Go 'Hoos!) It also talks about how young players are showing worse movement than ever (very scary). And, a lot of the book is mind boggling with its repercussions; for instance, a company at the combine is predicting player injuries before these kids are even in the NBA (leading to great questions about who gets that data, what do they do with it, what does it mean for the kids or the teams scouting them, etc.)

Glockner goes into the biomechanics pieces of stats, with some fun and fascinating bits weaved in. He discusses how the company P3 can tell how a player is "off" in his mechanics, for instance, with their amazing system of measurements. This leads to a great Phoenix Suns and Grant Hill anecdote and the resurrection of Grant's career (again, book had more pull to me when it was aligned with an actual team or player that made it seem more real).

The epilogue is what I thought the whole book was about (Golden State using stats to win), but was actually very brief (basically one bit about an assistant who subbed in someone). It's amazing story about how stats can alter an entire NBA finals, but goes out with a whimper.

Overall, it was a good book, but I confess I probably bumped my rating up to a 3-star simply due to my love of basketball. Some of the chapters just seem hodgepodge - as if a bunch of players were just thrown in to talk about stats with no rhyme or reason; it's interesting, but seems random and nonsensical. Are these the most perfected players we were promised? If so, it's not really made clear. The Kyle Korver story near the end of the book finally ties a lot of the book's themes together (analytics, P3, etc.) in a story form, which was interesting and compelling in its format and how I wish more of the book had been presented. Combine that with a little too many numbers for a casual sports fan and the jumping around in organization and there was definitely something lacking. Still, this well-researched novel will appeal to the rabid stats fans and those who want more history about how the burgeoning field of big data analytics is changing the NBA as we speak.

I received an ARC of this novel from Edelweiss (thank you!); it is available for U.S. publication on 3/8.

Also, if you enjoy books about the NBA, I recommend Roland Lazenby's recent non-fiction piece on Michael Jordan.



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