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Charles Barkley: Nerds never played the game, never got the girls in high school

Technically Incorrect: In a critique of teams built on stats, the NBA analyst excoriates those who believe numbers are all. In fact, he says, there is no proof that numbers lead to winning.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Charles Barkley thinks numbers can't possibly beat talent. TNT/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Big Data can't rebound. Big Daddy can.

This is the considered view of those in basketball who distressed by the notion of numbers being at the heart of a team's success.

TNT analyst and Hall of Fame Round Mound of Rebound Charles Barkley is one of them.

Barkley believes in old-fashioned concepts such as sheer talent and team chemistry. So when commentating on a Houston Rockets game on Tuesday, he observed of the Rockets: "Just because you've got good stats doesn't mean you're a good team defensively. They're not a good defensive team. They gave up 118 points. No good team gives up 118 points."

The Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, is known to be one of the biggest daddies of Big Data. As ESPN reports, like a good nerd, he took to technology to explain to Barkley that his days were numbered.

Yes, Morey took to Twitter: "Best part of being at a TNT game live is it is easy to avoid Charles spewing misinformed biased vitriol disguised as entertainment."

It is always the nerd's fallback position that he's in charge of facts, while critics are merely airy-fairy liberal-arts feather dusters. Numbers don't lie. Which, of course, doesn't mean they tell the whole truth either.

Barkley might have suggested that the Rockets, despite Morey's possession of such supposedly incontrovertible statistics, haven't won the NBA championship under his management.

He did, but in his own sweet way: "They say that same crap in baseball, and they put these little lightweight teams together and they never win. They're always competitive to a certain degree and they don't win. It's the same thing in the NBA."

This surely bathes in truth. Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane is often held up as the apogee of numbers-based team-building. Good glory, Brad Pitt even played him in a movie. Yet the A's have won no World Series during Beane's tenure. The neighboring Giants, who use some statistical analysis but also a considerable amount of judgment, have won three times in the last five years.

Barkley decided to go a little further. He questioned the incursion of nerdism into sports management. He said: "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."

Some might think this deeply below the belt. The cliche of the nerd who couldn't get the girl has been tested in recent years with all sorts of dull, libertarian tech CEOs enjoying the company of the bold and the beautiful. Who could forget Uber CEO Travis Kalanick describing his company as Boob-er"?

But the power that Big Data claims to wield has certainly allowed statisticians to enter arenas -- in all kinds of businesses -- where previously they might have sat in corners, humored or ignored. (Why, even ESPN now has Nate Silver.)

They come with their fancy degrees -- Morey attended MIT as well as Northwestern -- flash their MacBooks and PowerPoints and ascend to power.

Perhaps, though, we're reaching a point where Big Data in general, and certainly in sports, needs to prove its true bigness.

In basketball last year's winners, the San Antonio Spurs, were an interesting collection of players from around the world. They came from Argentina, Italy, Brazil and France, as well as the US. There was no special evidence at the time that players such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were statistical masterpieces.

Yet they know how to play as a team. They know how to win.

Perhaps one day, when we're all robots anyway, winning and teamwork will be as surely programmed as TNT's NBA coverage on Thursday night.

In the meantime, Barkley, for all his timeworn jibes about nerds, surely has a few facts on his side when it comes to their supposedly unerring abilities.