These Moneyball teenagers need to get with the times

Thaddeus Young of the Brooklyn Nets drives against Paul Millsap in the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 19, 2015, in Atlanta.
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Thaddeus Young of the Brooklyn Nets drives against Paul Millsap in the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals on April 19, 2015, in Atlanta.

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal featured a compelling story about three Moneyball-obsessed teenagers who have grown up in such a modern age that their only lens on sports is a data-driven one. The three kids are so into this stuff that they even paid their way to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in February.

"Moneyball" is the main title of a book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who shunned traditional practices in evaluating players, opting for new statistical tools and methods. The term Moneyball has since been used to describe such data evaluations.

The Journal story describes in detail their affinity for a "two for one" near the end of a quarter in a game, where a basketball team gets up two quick shots rather than holding the ball longer to ensure a single quality shot.

The article quotes 14-year-old Jonah White as saying: "A smart team would've taken two bad shots instead of one good one."

Here's the thing: Such thinking is stale, outdated and extremely minor.

Brett Pollakoff at NBC Sports described an interaction between Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey and his coach at the time, Jeff Van Gundy, about the value of the two for one. Morey is known as the leading star in the NBA's analytics community.

Morey recounted a story about trying to change then-head coach Jeff Van Gundy's mind where two-for-one opportunities are concerned. These situations can come up at the end of each quarter, when a team has the chance to shoot the ball with maybe 30 or more seconds remaining in the period, in order to ensure they get it back in time (thanks to the other team needing to shoot it before the 24-second clock expires) for one more potentially critical possession.

"Jeff had never been in favor of two-for-one," Morey said. "It made no sense (to him) whatsoever. And basically I was like, why are we not doing this? There's 100,000 trials, and it doesn't matter who's on the floor, it doesn't matter the context—two bad shots are better than one good shot. Always. There's, like, no exception.

"So I was like, why are we not doing this? And Jeff, of course, is very smart. So he said, 'OK. If I do that two-for-one thing, every time instead of not, how much more are we going to win?' I was like, oh. That's a good question. So I went back. And I was like, we'll win … one more game every two years.

"And he was like, 'I'm not doing that!' "

So yes, there is the tiniest sliver of help by going with the two-for-one strategy, but it's not the kind of thing that should be overly celebrated, as our Moneyball teenager White did. Here is his reaction, described in the Journal:

But one fan was so inspired by the situation that he nearly leapt out of his upper-deck seat. It was as if he had spotted a comet streaking across the sky.

"Two for one!" yelled Jonah White.

Advanced analytics has come a long way, but a very well-known and worn-out effect like the two for one shouldn't deserve that type of praise. One day, when these students learn more about the game, they'll be more muted in their celebration. Stay in your seats, kids. Leaping out of your chair should be for alley-oop dunks.

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