Berri, Schmidt, and Brook argue that the arbitrary algorithms of basketball experts elevate the number of points a player scores above all other considerations. In one clever piece of research, they analyze the relationship between the statistics of rookies and the number of votes they receive in the All-Rookie Team balloting. If a rookie increases his scoring by ten per cent—regardless of how efficiently he scores those points—the number of votes he’ll get will increase by twenty-three per cent. If he increases his rebounds by ten per cent, the number of votes he’ll get will increase by six per cent. Every other factor, like turnovers, steals, assists, blocked shots, and personal fouls—factors that can have a significant influence on the outcome of a game—seemed to bear no statistical relationship to judgments of merit at all. It’s not even the case that high scorers help their team by drawing more fans. As the authors point out, that’s only true on the road. At home, attendance is primarily a function of games won. Basketball’s decision-makers, it seems, are simply irrational.
It’s hard not to wonder, after reading “The Wages of Wins,” about the other instances in which we defer to the evaluations of experts. Boards of directors vote to pay C.E.O.s tens of millions of dollars, ostensibly because they believe—on the basis of what they have learned over the years by watching other C.E.O.s—that they are worth it. But so what? We see Allen Iverson, over and over again, charge toward the basket, twisting and turning and writhing through a thicket of arms and legs of much taller and heavier men—and all we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing. We become dance critics, blind to Iverson’s dismal shooting percentage and his excessive turnovers, blind to the reality that the Philadelphia 76ers would be better off without him. “One can play basketball,” the authors conclude. “One can watch basketball. One can both play and watch basketball for a thousand years. If you do not systematically track what the players do, and then uncover the statistical relationship between these actions and wins, you will never know why teams win and why they lose.”