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Stats expert Jeff Ma on consulting the Blazers, Oden vs. Durant

Sep 10, 2010, 6:03 PM EDT

Jeff Ma, the star of Ben Mezrich’s excellent non-fiction book Bringing Down The House (the book’s “Kevin Lewis” is, in reality, Ma), the founder of both Protrade.com and Citizen Sports, and the author of The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Vegas, has also done some consulting work with the Portland Trail Blazers. Recently, Ma sat down with Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge for an interview, and Ma said more than a few interesting things. Here are a few excerpts:

On former Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard and how receptive GMs in general are to advanced metrics: 

From an analytics standpoint, you can separate the sports executives into three buckets. There are the guys that do analytics themselves. That could sit down at a spreadsheet and crunch out the numbers themselves. There’s only a handful of those. Daryl Morey, [Rockets executive] Sam Hinkie, [San Diego Padres executive] Paul De’Podesta in baseball, there’s a handful of those guys. Then there are the guys in the middle who have an appreciation for analytics, they don’t necessarily understand how to do it or understand a lot of the basic principles but they understand it has value in what they’re doing. Then there’s a third group that doesn’t think there’s any place for it in sports.
Kevin is in that middle group. In some respects I think that’s the best group to be in because you have a great appreciation for what the scouts do and the process of scouting. I think that’s important, that’s valuable, that’s part of this whole thing. You don’t want to have too limited of a viewpoint. I’m not saying Daryl and those guys have too limited of a viewpoint but being in that middle group is the best place to be in some respects because you do allow yourself the ability to make decisions in a lot of different ways, which I think is important when you’re making decisions. 
On Whether Ma had a preference for either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant heading into the 2007 Draft:

Yes. A very big preference actually. If people that use analytics to predict player performance in the NBA, using performance analytics, meaning what they did in college, and they tell you they had Oden ranked higher than Durant, they are full of crap. There are very few statistical measures that would have rated Oden’s numbers in college better than Durant’s. Oden was injured his entire career, that one season at Ohio State. He had to shoot free throws left handed, was not efficient, didn’t have a great statistical season.

Our numbers absolutely said they should pick Durant. It wasn’t even close.

But that kind of decision is never that cut and dry. I would never want the Blazers to make the decision so cut and dry. The thinking they had was that this elite center is very rare and the ability to get that guy was staring them in the face and that’s what they went after. The sad thing is that when you ignore the numbers, the numbers often tell you something regardless of what you’re ignoring. The numbers in this case were ignored because Oden was hurt but what have we seen in Oden’s career? A propensity to get hurt.

I felt like they should have drafted Durant and said they should have drafted Durant but I think it’s really easy to look at this with hindsight. If you had polled NBA executives and even statheads at that time, who they should pick, I think at least 2/3 of them would have said Oden.

I encourage you to read the full interview, as well as Kelly Dwyer’s excellent breakdown of Ma’s interview for Yahoo!. The Oden/Durant stuff will likely get the most attention, but there are lots of interesting and astute observations about the general role of advanced metrics and quantitative thinking in sports in general that make the interview more than worth reading. 

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