Yo Stat Geeks, Put Down The Calculator And Talk To People

I'm not against the advanced stats movement in sports. Win Shares. WAR. All that stuff has value and is what you get when you bring smart people and their slide rules to the sporting world.

But like anything in life -- chocolate cake, for example -- too much of a good thing will just make you fat and a tad bit lazy.

Not to pick on this guy, but take for example what this guy said about team chemistry as a factor in the Suns above-expectations season last season:

1 on 1 with David Berri: Part 1 | Valley of the Suns
Berri: Chemistry is a term often used in discussing sports. But it’s not often defined. What I tend to see is that a team exceeds expectations. Consequently people argue the team has “good chemistry.” Or a team — like the Knicks under Isiah Thomas — fails to meet expectations.

Berri's problem is the lack of definition, which really is just another way of saying he lacks information, imagination, people skills and interest.

Just because "team chemistry" can't be counted doesn't mean it doesn't exist and it doesn't mean there's not a serious and rigorous approach to building it.

For Berri and his stat-loving friends to discount something they don't understand is just as ridiculous as me ignoring the value of the Moneyball crowd because my math skills are below fifth grade level (which they are not).

The term "chemistry" itself is vague and ill-defined, as Berri points out. It's a stand-in for a lot of things.

Cool dudes who get along. Slaps on the ass. Going to movies together. No. Those are signs of good chemistry, just like numbers with plus signs next to them are signs of positive things.

Chemistry is the sporting equivalent of something the military has understood for a long, long time. They call it "unit morale" and use a French word (ironic, I know) "esprit de corp".

The premise is that no matter how skilled and how disciplined the individuals are, the bonds and trust they feel for each other will lift up their collective performance.

More importantly, when the shit hits the fans, as often happens in military and sporting situations, this foxhole mentality of fighting for each other can often be the difference between winning or losing.

New Suns President of Basketball Operations, Lon Babby, had a chat with me the other day on the topic,

"The level of camaraderie here is really unusual. It's a real hallmark of this organization... It's not forced, you can tell. A lot of people talk about chemistry and all that stuff and it's forced. It's not forced here. They genuinely like each other - I can tell that - and they respect each other. That carries all the way down from the very top to the basketball team.

"Basketball, I've found over the years, is really about trust. Is a guy willing to make the extra pass because he knows the guy who gets the ball is going to give it back to him when appropriate? That trust, I think, is throughout this organization. That's something I knew about, but now that I'm here, it's really striking me every day."

Former Suns VP of Cool Dudes, David Griffin, told me last year after returning from the MIT Sloan Sports Geek-fest Conference that the Suns not only use advanced stats, but are a leader in the NBA in using advanced methods of psychological evaluation. 

See, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Or in this case, count things and understand people, too.

It's no accident that the Suns have good chemistry. They strive for it. They think about it. They understand and discuss players' personalities and pass on guys who are talented if they don't fit with the right mentality.

To discount the work and thought process that goes into building a team by retrofitting some numbers as Berri does... well, sometimes life happens outside the computer and you have to talk to people and get their measure as men to understand that.

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