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October 2016, Volume 4, Number 5

Sports data analytics isn't always a slam dunk

One time back in college, I found myself embroiled in a debate with a math major over the role of predictability in sports. The "Moneyball" approach to building and managing baseball teams was relatively new back then. "So you actually believe there is anything that happens in any game that can't be predicted?" he asked with a hint of incredulity. I answered yes, though at the time, I couldn't quite explain why sports data analytics didn't seem to have all the answers. Today, I'd still answer the question the same way, only now I have reasons. Take, for instance, pro basketball's Houston Rockets of the last few years. The team was one of the highest scoring in the NBA for the 2012-2013 season, thanks in large part to superstar James Harden, the darling of basketball analytics geeks. After that season, the Rockets added Dwight Howard, one of the most skilled centers in the league and a player who was considered a perfect fit for the team's analytics-driven playbook. Emotional X-factors But things didn't go as well as the analysts...

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