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Charles Barkley Doesn’t Love Analytics, But Analytics Sure Love Him

During TNT’s studio show following the Houston Rockets’ victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, Charles Barkley ripped Rockets GM Daryl Morey — and the NBA’s burgeoning advanced stats movement by extension — saying: “I’ve always believed analytics was crap. … I never mention the Rockets as legitimate contenders ’cause they’re not. And, listen, I wouldn’t know Daryl Morey if he walked into this room right now.”

“The NBA is about talent,” Barkley added. “All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common — they’re a bunch of guys who have never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.”

The debate over using advanced metrics in sports is nothing new, and Barkley’s comments aren’t out of place with what baseball traditionalists were saying after “Moneyball” was published more than a decade ago. But what I found humorous in Barkley’s remarks is that there are no greater champions of Barkley’s legacy as a player than proponents of advanced metrics.

As Will Leitch pointed out, Barkley’s sentiments echo those of baseball’s Joe Morgan, the player-turned-broadcaster who famously hated sabermetrics despite posting numbers that statheads could only drool over.

Yes, Barkley is well-regarded by the establishment — he is a Hall of Famer, after all. But his career has been dogged by the criticism that weighs more on stars in the NBA than any other sport: He never won a championship. Fellow power forward Tim Duncan, on the other hand, has won five — and counting. Barkley also lacked the sheer stat totals of Karl Malone, another contemporary at the position, who came within 1,459 points of setting the NBA’s all-time scoring record. These time-honored considerations are what keep Barkley a distant third behind Duncan and Malone on most mainstream “Greatest Power Forward Ever” lists.

Statheads, on the other hand, often decry the outsize role that championships have taken in assessing NBA players’ legacies and have little use for raw numerical accumulation. Instead, they marvel at numbers such as Barkley’s outrageous per-possession offensive efficiency rating, which is the highest ever among players who used as many possessions as he did.

Malone may have outscored Barkley by 13,171 points (and Barkley even trails Malone in points per game), but according to more advanced metrics, there’s little doubt that Barkley was the better player. Over a common range of ages (22-36), Barkley was worth about 2.1 more points per 100 possessions to his team’s efficiency differential than Malone (in the estimation of Box Plus/Minus) and produced about 10 more wins of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). For BPM nonbelievers, Barkley also leads in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and Win Shares per 48 minutes.

And as much respect as we have for Duncan, it’s not clear that he performed better in his prime than Barkley did, either. Over the same range of ages, Barkley leads Duncan in BPM — by a whopping 1.8 points per 100 possessions — VORP and WS/48. (Granted, Duncan’s PER does edge out Barkley, 24.7 to 24.6.)

Now, Malone and Duncan each logged more minutes than Barkley — in Malone’s case, about 323 full, 48-minute games’ worth — and there’s value to be added in simply showing up and playing at a high level day in and day out. But when you look at the career leaderboard for VORP, which blends per-possession effectiveness with durability, Barkley outpaces Duncan and is within 9.0 units of Malone’s total despite the latter’s huge playing-time advantage.

In other words, the advanced stats tend to hold Barkley in much higher esteem than the conventional wisdom does. Barkley may not care for analytics, but his legacy as a player would benefit from greater acceptance of the analytical point of view.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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