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Behind the Numbers

Sportswriter Allen Barra is a stats fetishist whose worship of numbers often takes him into the world of fantasy.

11:01 PM, Jan 16, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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But Barra gets even nuttier with his Olajuwon numbers, saying, "I will suggest this: Mr. Olajuwon, cloned five times, would beat five clones of anybody else." While it's impossible to test Barra's argument, it seems theoretically obvious that the most successful team of NBA clones would consist of power-forwards who could handle the ball and run the court, like Kevin Garnett, not centers like Olajuwon. Either way, it's a strange concept that Barra seems to give a lot of weight to. In last week's column, he noted that "if you multiply a player's HGS by five, you'll get the theoretical points per game for a team made up of players of similar skill." Shaq's HGS is 37.02, meaning that in Barra's world, 5 Shaqs would score 185 points per game. I rather think they couldn't get the ball past mid-court.

Barra's numbers fetish is so all-consuming that we can't be far away from his arguing how badly Michael Jordan is performing. Last October Barra wrote a column positing that Jordan's comeback was doomed. If Jordan played "his highly optimistic 30-32 minutes a game, and his percentages continue to drop," Barra lamented, he would only shoot 43.5 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free-throw line, with his steals and rebounds dropping as well. Which, to Barra, spelled disaster.

All of his dire predictions are coming to pass. Jordan is playing 36 minutes a game and shooting 40.8 percent from the field. His free throws are a little better than expected, at 80 percent, but his rebounds are off from his last season in 1998, from 5.8 per game to 5.2 per game, as are his steals, from 1.7 per game to 1.56 per game.

But despite all of that, Jordan has turned his team into a winner. Last season the Washington Wizards won 19 games. This season, with the addition of Jordan and not much else (except Brendan Haywood and a lottery pick who doesn't play), they are on pace to win 42 games and go deep into the playoffs. Although the season is young, Jordan seems a lock for MVP.

Excellence in sports is about more than numbers. It's about subtleties, like drawing double teams, and intangibles, like leadership. At the start of the NFL season, Barra called the Denver Broncos' Brian Griese "the AFC's best quarterback," and noted that according to "our Pass-Efficiency Rating, he has better efficiency numbers than John Elway ever had." Everyone in the room who would take Griese over Elway to QB a game that their life depended on, raise your hand. But to Barra, it's always obvious. Just check the HGS or the Pass-Efficiency Rating or the SloB (Slugging times On Base).

By reducing athletes to numerical automatons, Barra takes sides against the Great Man theory of sports: At their highest levels, sports are about men doing things that are beyond themselves. It's why the Packers have never lost a playoff game at Lambeau Field and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are winless when the temperature goes below freezing. It's why the Yankees beat the Mariners and the A's in the playoffs last year. It's why Jordan is a winner and Olajuwon is just a great center. It's why Iverson was the MVP and Miller is a role player.

If you get too caught up in numbers, you lose the ability to recognize even the most elemental truths. Last August Barra wrote: "If the Cubs stay sharp enough in the season's final two months to get the home-field advantage for the playoffs, that would make them the NL's favorite." Well, it probably made sense on paper.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.