The buzz in the media world the past few days has revolved around Nate Silver’s departure of the New York Times for ESPN. To me, Silver taking his talents to South Bristol was unsurprising — ESPN offers him a broader platform on which to showcase his superb analytical mind. More importantly, the “worldwide leader” offers Silver a chance to return to his first love: sports.
Silver’s new role with ESPN will reportedly be something similar to that of Bill Simmons, meaning Silver will (re)launch a mostly-independent — but ultimately ESPN-backed — website that showcases Silver’s brand of advanced metrics-based analysis. The way Simmons’ sports-and-pop-culture-amalgamation columns of the past have shaped Grantland’s coverage, Silver’s predictions-and-analysis-via-numbers-and-hard-data style will shape the new FiveThirtyEight site.
Silver, of course, will continue doing what made his career — predicting US election results via advanced metrics and data — over at his new employment, but his new site will focus on sports as much as politics.
The timing is perfect on all fronts. Silver, having correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia during last fall’s Presidential elections, is at the height of his fame/powers; and the sports world right now, especially the NBA, is adopting the advanced stats movement to such alarming degrees that it has led to a sea change in how basketball is being played. Think about that for a second. Advanced stats, or advanced metrics, or sabermetrics, or whatever other name you want to call something that has long been associated with geeks and nerds (you know, the opposite of sports and athletes) is changing the way basketball is played.
As I wrote about for Sports Illustrated, NBA teams have drastically altered their offenses the past few years after advanced stats have debunked many of our longstanding basketball conventional wisdoms.
Think of all the things we were told over and over when learning basketball as a kid. Shooting too many threes is bad! Take the midrange jumper instead! We need tough big men who can pound inside to win!
Math formulas have basically proven all that wrong. Shooting a lot of threes isn’t bad, after all, because though a three pointer goes in less often than a two pointer, the extra point from a made three pointer and the higher percentage of offensive rebounds off of misses together negates the slightly more efficiency of the two point attempt.
Silver has done for politics prediction what the advanced stats have done to the NBA conventional wisdoms. And much like the way oldschool NBA coaches and General Managers initially dismissed advanced stats, old school political reporters were not happy with Silver’s approach either.
But numbers, and the ball, don’t lie. Silver is now a mega duper superstar who will extend his math-driven predictions from politics to sports and, apparently, even the Oscars.
(Though Silver will fail at the Oscars predictions because it’s less science than random bullshit. No mathematical formula can calculate or solve the puzzle of how The King’s Speech won Best Picture over The Social Network)
This advanced stats movement in pro sports and political predictions game reminds me of another game that’s mostly about numbers: Poker.
I worked at a casino for two years and after I quit that soul-sucking job, I played poker as a source of income for six months (before I moved to HK to chase my dreams to become a journo), and I can say that, though poker isn’t nearly as skills-based as the pros make it out to be, it’s a hell lot more legit (meaning not as luck-based) than casual gamblers and outsiders believe. If you play the numbers correctly, you should be up overall (I finished my six months run of playing poker everyday up 800 US dollars. Definitely not enough to actually live off, but I did made money off it).
In a sense, the way the advanced stats-influenced NBA offenses operate now is similar to poker players. In the NBA, gone are the days of grinding down low for buckets or midrange jumpers. Today, it’s go big (shoot the three) or go home (attack the rim). Nothing in between. The mentality is to play the odds: you either go for the easiest shot possible (the layup) or shoot a harder shot that’s high-risk, high-reward (three pointer). Forget the “safer” 17 footers that go in at a moderate rate but aren’t worth anymore than a layup or two free throws.
In poker, players have always used numbers, but on a micro level — they used math to calculate pot-odds and the likelihood of hitting a flush — meaning they use math on each specific hand. On the whole? Poker players used to play it safe. They grinded for days on the tables.
But now? young poker players have adopted the numbers game on a macro level. Not only are they using math for each specific hand, they’re using advanced numbers to play tournaments. They’ve realized that, there’s no sense in grinding through a tournament just to finish 57th out of 800 entries. They’re going to play loose and wild — but in a controlled manner, only chasing worthy draws — meaning they’re aiming to either build up a huge chip stack early or just lose early so they can move on to the next one. It’s not worth their time to play a solid tournament. It’s go big (win it or finish high in the money) or go home (quickly lose, move on to next tournament).
Will the 2016 Presidential campaign play out the same way? Go big or go home?