Basketball Is Getting Lost in the Statsheet


August 18, 2014

basketball gets lost in the numbers

Because of the constant globalization of the National Basketball Association, basketball has finally begun to reach the furthest corners of the planet. The sport has become one of the most popular games in the world because it is fast-paced, free flowing, and its athletes are legitimate stars. However, the constant growth of the sport has forced teams to find new ways to stay ahead of their competitors. This has pushed NBA management towards transposing new ideas from other sports into basketball in an attempt to gain a better way of evaluating the available talent pool. In the recent past, NBA brass has turned to sabermetrics, or advanced statistics. Advanced statistics helps the common person understand how efficiently professional athletes perform on the court without having played the game themselves. For the NBA management teams, it allows the simple differentiation between athletes who are statistically productive and those who may be overvalued because of their name and reputation. Numbers put a finite value on what a player does for his team, and they are the most important aspect of a player’s legacy. Points, rebounds, and assists decide if a player will be well-paid or will struggle to stay in the league. They decide whether a player will reach the Hall of Fame or end his career as just one of many good players who have played in the National Basketball Association. Because of this, NBA general managers have begun to weigh statistics more heavily in recent years. General managers like Daryl Morey and Rich Cho ushered in the movement towards advanced metrics for the NBA, however the management teams who rely solely on basic analysis to evaluate their current and prospective players are missing a large aspect of the process. Though production rules any business, success in professional basketball relies heavily on intangibles, and the most valuable basketball players regularly make plays that never show up in the stat sheets. Basketball cannot be reduced down to pure statistics.

The purpose of a general manager in any sport is to build a competitive team, sell their squad as a valuable commodity to the local fan base, and ultimately win a championship. And, those goals can be accomplished by making competent, meticulous personnel decisions. Smart general managers recognize the importance of garnering a successful, knowledgeable head coach and adding effective players to their teams (the quantifiable aspects of good decisions by a GM) to bolster their chances of winning. The most effective general managers study the tangible results (i.e. wins and losses for coaches and stats for players) and use game film to assess their intangible qualities (the sound basketball plays that are not reflected in the stat sheet). Talent and coaching positively affect each other. Good GM’s understand that good coaching philosophy does not win games without good players, and that good players do more than score the basketball. Sabermetrics attempt to put a physical value on what a player does on the court. They do allow management teams to quantify the fiscal worth of players, however they can also undermine and overrate the value of an athlete. Basketball players can mean more or less to their teams than their stats say that they do, because basketball games are won or lost in moments that can not be calculated through statistics. Statistics give insight into how productive a player is with their current team, but numbers cannot fully express what any player brings to the table. Every basketball player possesses a different amalgamation of work ethic, confidence, natural ability, attitude, basketball skills, and determination¬† that decides what type of player they are. And because general managers are putting so much stock in advanced statistics, the essence of basketball is being lost in the numbers.

Advanced statistics helped create more dynamic basketball theory like the Rio Grande Valley Vipers experiment (The Houston Rockets Developmental League associate which is also run by Daryl Morey) where players attempt to create quick corner three pointers or short range shots on every possession because those are the shots most likely to be scored on any possession. Quicker shots boost the number of possessions for the team in each game, and possessions correlate positively to wins. The experiment has been a success. The Vipers D-League team won a championship last year, have the best record in the D-League this year, and are leading the D-League in possessions and scoring efficiency. Thus, the Houston Rockets have incorporated some of the principles of their developmental affiliate into their NBA offense over the past two years and became contenders for a championship before they being upended by the Portland Trailblazers in early May. The fact that Houston lost in the first round despite having a revolutionary game plan and superior talent points to the major flaw in building a team solely through statistics.

The same numbers that helped develop intelligent basketball strategy for the Rockets also overvalued guys like Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, and Jeremy Lin, all core components of the team. By the numbers Lin (12.5 points, 4.1 assists, and 1 steal per game), Parsons (16.6 points, 4 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game), and Howard (18.3 points, 1.8 blocks, 1.8 assists, and 12.2 rebounds per game) stand as important cogs of the franchise. They are statistically productive and look fairly efficient considering their field goal percentages 44.6%, 47.2%, and 59.1%, respectively. However, both Lin and Chandler’s scoring numbers are inflated by the extra possessions that the Rockets create with quick shots, and they both have obvious flaws in their games. Lin gets overwhelmed when he plays against superior athleticism and he is turnover prone. In the biggest moments of the game, when pressure is the highest, Jeremy Lin often gives possessions away. At point guard, his limitations are magnified because he expected to facilitate offense and create shots for teammates. Chandler Parsons is an extremely average player who was forced into one of the most important positions on the floor. Though he is more productive than Lin and will probably finish his career as a better overall player, Chandler is not talented enough to play starting small forward for a real contender. He faces some of the best athletes in the league nightly, and unfortunately, he is often outmatched. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony play his position and Parsons is guaranteed to compete against two of the three superstars at his position on the way to a championship. Parsons’ numbers do not show how woefully inadequate he is when matched against a better player. They erroneously show that he is a productive guy on a good team instead of a marginal talent. Similarly, Dwight Howard’s statistics make him seem like an extremely efficient basketball player instead of an underachieving superstar. Dwight Howard is one of the best centers in the league offensively and defensively. His numbers place him in the top five of current centers in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, and blocks, however he plays well under his potential when you consider his physical presence and talent level. Howard entered the league ten years ago as one of the most naturally gifted players in the recent past, but he remains far less productive than he should be because of unrefined footwork, poor shooting touch, and a dedication to complete reliance on his natural ability. His stats fail to relay that he is underwhelming as a competitor, turnover prone, and lacks a legitimate go-to move for high pressure situations. They fail to show how underwhelming he actually is as a basketball player.

And, these types of misrepresentations of talent are rampant within advanced statistical communities. During the early 2000′s, Jason Collins led the NBA in plus/minus for several years and became overvalued and overpaid. Plus/minus reveals which players affect the game positively and negatively by measuring how well a basketball team scores points when a certain player is on the floor. Though Collins was a cerebral player and generally was in the right position on offense and defense, he was extremely limited as a scorer, rebounder, and shot blocker. Jason Collins averaged 3.6 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game over the course of a 13 year career. His high rating in plus/minus was a function of having talented and productive teammates like Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, and Richard Jefferson playing with him. Sabermetrics do not apply to basketball the same way that they do in baseball, because simple averages cannot be extrapolated to determine value in basketball. Stats like scoring efficiency and true shooting percentage exclude important intangibles that directly affect their rating. Scoring efficiency and true shooting percentages statistics were created to determine which basketball players scored more efficiently in the league, however both statistics skew heavily towards players that are not the focal point of defenses. Most athletes who score high in these two categories get open shots that are created by a superstar teammate and do not shoot the basketball often. When the same players are given more shots, their averages begin to fall towards the mean of typical NBA guys which leads us back to what we already know without statistics. Superstars drive the league, and field goal percentage, points, and rebounds (i.e. simple stats) decide how great those players are.

In an attempt to find an innovative and more efficient way of evaluating talent, NBA general management teams have overlooked some of the more obvious principles of building a team. In order for management teams to build a good basketball team, some of the talent evaluators have to actually be basketball people. General managers comb through all the statistics to find productive players, but they need someone to be equally as diligent in watching tape and evaluating the play of an athlete on the court. Smaller basketball plays like getting deflections on defense, making sound entry passes into the post, and knowing where to be on each play affects team chemistry which ultimately decides how great a basketball team can be. Decision making and a player’s application of his natural gifts is the difference between an athlete being a star, a superstar, an all-time great, or transcendent of the game. An example of this is the difference between Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. All four score about 6-8 points in the fourth quarter of games and are respected stars on their teams, however none of three are on the same level of basketball. The stats portend that Chris Bosh should get the last shot in games over the other three players because he has a higher shooting percentage in the final quarter and made more shots in the final minutes of games, yet Bosh is only considered a star whereas the other three are genuine superstars. That is because Bosh rarely creates his own shot. Anthony, Durant, and James are more versatile scorers and more agile athletes than Bosh, so they are better choices to take shots and bigger stars. In fact, one of the reasons that Bosh shoots so well in those situations is because his teammate LeBron¬† James gets more attention at the end of games. A basketball guy knows that. Carmelo is just as talented a scorer as Durant or LeBron, but KD and LBJ are NBA MVP’s. The difference between these players are decision making. Carmelo is just as adept a scorer, however he forces bad shots which makes him less effective against good teams. He also fails to make the smaller plays mentioned above that can decide whether a team wins or loses a tight game. Basketball guys get the differences between the players whereas a stats guy would just see their averages and rate them all highly. The only difference between LeBron and Durant is how they apply their skills within the game. Durant pacifies his teammates’ need to be the man, LeBron does not. They are both seminal talents, but LeBron wants to be the man so imposes his will more readily in games. Therefore, LeBron has won four MVP’s, two NBA titles in four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, and has become the class of a generation. A basketball guy understands that too.

Basketball cannot be fully dissected by advanced statistics. Statistics cannot evaluate everything that a player can do on the court, and therefore cannot relay a player’s worth to a management team. Using advanced methods of evaluation has some small advantages in creating basketball strategy and philosophy, however in order to find the true value of a player one has understand basketball. The essence of the game of basketball is being lost in sabermetrics. Basketball gets lost when there is too much focus on the numbers.


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