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Amateurs vs. Professionals

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Being interviewed as part of someone's undergrad project the other day I got asked an interesting question.  "What difference, if any, do you think your work makes to the sport you cover?"

Yikes.

It seems simple on the surface but that question is right up there in complexity with "Did you know you were going that fast, sir?" and "Honey, does this dress make me look fat?"  I mean, what?  You make absolutely no difference to anyone, anywhere and things would be entirely the same if you never existed?  That's depressing.  On the other hand claiming every thought you have heralds a New Renaissance for professional basketball seems...presumptuous.  Unless, of course, you're AK1984.  Then it's true.

But it did get me to thinking...what difference do we make?  I don't mean just "we" as in Ben and I.  I mean all of us doing this thing.  There's the obvious...keeping people focused on the team and at least mildly entertained.  Those are both positive things.  Is there any other reason for existence?  Could our ideas, discussions, fights, and flights of fancy actually affect the game itself in some way?

If you're talking about having the same kind of effect or production as a professional in the trade the answer is pretty much no.  The gulf between even the most learned of us and a professional scout or GM is vast.  Part of it is lingo and being acclimatized to the league but there's a huge knowledge gap as well.  I can see some of the things scouts are seeing when they point them out to me but I can only come up with a half-dozen on a good day without their prompting.  They come up with a hundred from the same stimulus.  6% on your best day isn't an F, it isn't even a grade.  It's not a "try harder", it's a "you're not even in the right class, Bub".

On the other hand analysis of the sport is evolving in a way that grants more access to the layperson.  We've certainly seen statisticians making inroads into the establishment in recent years.  We've also seen at least one former sportswriter become a General Manager, though how well that's going to work out is up in the air.  In the first case the people in question cultivated specialized skills valued by their organizations.  In the second case, I assume, the sportswriter evolved beyond coverage and became a true initiate.  Either way, there are more opportunities today for Joe Average to make a difference than ever before.

I compare the situation to another field of interest:  astronomy.  Professional astronomers are still doing the vast majority of the significant work.  Most amateurs don't have the true math or science background to produce professionally.  The gulf is vast there as well and no amount of glossy magazine perusal will bridge it.  However amateur astronomers have made enormous strides in the observational field.  As it turns out professional astronomers competing for limited time on mammoth observatory telescopes can delve quite deeply into a single project but they can't compete with the casual observation power of thousands of folks in their backyards keeping careful data.  As such amateurs have begun to discover supernovae, chart variable stars, engage in spectroscopic studies, even help in the search for extrasolar planets.  A group of careful amateurs, linked together and being meticulous, can be of great aid to professionals, extending their reach beyond its traditional confines.  It's to the point where professionals are starting to link up with amateur groups, directing and benefitting from their studies.

I don't guess it's beyond the realm of possibility that a group of amateur basketball observers could make a difference like that.  Nobody's going to have the calculus to ensure the correctness of the next draft pick the way that KP and his staff do.  But a weird synergy gets created in the process of tossing around ideas, observations, and theories about the game.  Some of those could be considered eye-opening.  In certain ways hundreds of thousands of eyes can be more beneficial than just two.  In those particular ways...yeah, I suppose a meticulous, reasoned, data-fertile site could also be beneficial.

I didn't answer the guy's question that way, of course. But it's food for thought.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)