To sports columnists and talking heads of a certain age, the word “analytics” has become a pejorative, a shorthand for nerds that are so engrossed in their algorithms that they can’t see the actual game being played on the court.
The truth, as always, is far more complex.
As Seth Partnow writes on page one of The Midrange Theory, “The word [analytics] has become hopelessly poisoned, reduced, confused, and misapplied,” and that examples of individuals choosing their numbers over their eyes is not analytics, but rather “analytics done poorly.”
Partnow, for his part, does analytics extremely well.
Be warned: this is not a book for casual fans or anyone that thinks that scoring a ton of points is the only true mark of a great player. This is, in fact, most likely the smartest book ever devoted to the game of basketball. There are no wasted words here, no fluff paragraphs reciting play-by-play or game recaps (unlike Built to Lose). Even the footnotes are full of insight and valuable information.
I have a graduate certification in the field of analytics and have been an NBA fan my entire life, yet there was so much I learned throughout the book. While educational, it never feels turgid or impenetrable. Partnow was the managing editor of The Nylon Calculus (where he developed new metrics that accounted for previously unknowable measures like defensive rim protection and individual playmaking ability) and then director of basketball research for the Milwaukee Bucks for three years, so he knows his business. Moreover, he knows how to relay it. He manages to thread the needle, writing about things that would normally be above the reader’s head, while simultaneously making it accessible enough that it raises the reader up to that level and thus able to understand it.
The Midrange Theory touches on everything, from trying to manage the salary cap, to the exaggerated death of the midrange, to the difficulties of the NBA Draft, to the idiocy of a “quick two” versus a needed three, all the way to what a team’s analytics department looks like, and virtually everything in between. He goes into detail as to why Jeremy Lin’s turnovers largely offset his ridiculous offensive production during “Linsanity,” why Robert Horry was a playoff savior while Carlos Boozer’s performance often plummeted in the postseason, and how Russell Westbrook’s quest for triple doubles actually proved Goodhart’s Law (“when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”).
Despite what sports curmudgeons would have you believe, Partnow and his ilk don’t ignore what happens on the court. He uses numbers and graphs in addition to the eye test, not in place of it.
At the start of chapter five, Partnow writes, “The numbers are not the game.” That’s true, but the numbers – and the ability to harness those numbers and use them to learn about previously unexplored dimensions – allow us to understand the game like never before.
The Midrange Theory is currently available in hardcover and will be in paperback in October, 2022
I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.