One Man’s Beef With Advanced Basketball Stats And The Bloggers Who Misuse Them

Basketball, From The Go — By on April 23, 2013 at 3:00 am

chris paul russell westbrook

via Bryan Crawford / @BryanCraw4D

I always laugh when people label me as “the guy who hates basketball stats and is always mad.” Whenever I hear that, it makes me realize the person making that comment has a real lack of understanding about me as an individual and this game that’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I’m passionate about basketball, and my anger is directly attributed to discovering there is an entire group of people who write about this game with no passion for it – in my opinion – whatsoever. That’s not to say they don’t “like” basketball, but there is a profound difference between liking or enjoying something and loving it.

But that’s what happens when your foundation and approach to basketball is largely based on statistical and numerical analysis. Sure, the stat guys can break down plays and film and tell you what “should” happen in a certain situation, but the disconnect seems to be a general lack of understanding about the fluidity of the game, how fast things happen and the split-second decisions a player has to make based on what the circumstances are on the court at any given moment.

Even for a guy like myself who has played and still plays a lot of basketball, I find myself watching a game and opining on what a guy should’ve done in a certain situation. But the difference is that when you play, you understand how someone can zig when it appears he should’ve zagged based upon the action on the floor.

However, when you can’t play or you don’t play, the nuances of the game – which come from practical application – aren’t so easily understood, and therefore, you draw conclusions from an already limited knowledge base.

So things like “clutch gene” and “killer instinct” become esoteric because they aren’t quantifiable, and if a stat guy can’t “measure” something and wrap a number around it, then he either tries to disprove it or just dismiss it altogether. Think about this: How does ONE PERSON decide that “the clutch” is the last five minutes of a basketball game with a team either leading or trailing by a few points, and that shit somehow sticks and becomes accepted as truth? Really?

It’s like the blind leading the blind.

Five minutes in a basketball game is a lifetime, and those with experience know that “the clutch” is really when the game becomes do or die and you can actually “feel” the pressure. Everyone’s heart is racing, and yet one guy actually WANTS the challenge of being able to raise his level of play and deliver a victory for his team, in spite of those external circumstances.

Sometimes he’s successful, sometimes he isn’t, but the outcome is far less important than the courage it takes to embrace and meet those situational challenges head on. So trying to say a guy like Kobe Bryant isn’t “clutch” because he doesn’t routinely make buzzer-beating game-winners totally negates the fact that he is the player with the ability to remain calm and focused in those high-pressure situations and everyone knows that no matter what, when he has the ball, he’s a threat to score.

allen iverson kobe bryant

Whether he’s successful or not is irrelevant. The fact that he never backs down from the challenge is what makes him clutch. And remember the whole “demystifying Allen Iverson” thing? Where out of the blue it was concluded that A.I. was overrated because of his poor shooting percentages and whatnot?

Never mind the obstacles he faced being a two guard trapped in a point guard’s body. He was nothing more than a “chucker,” and that’s it.

Those are just a couple of examples, but my main issue with those who have an over-reliance on metrics in basketball – and who try to rewrite NBA history in the process – is this: Advanced stats have given non-basketball players and pseudo-coaches a license to state “unequivocally” their innate understanding of basketball based on the “unbending certitude of math.”

These people use math to “prove” the validity of their opinions; opinions that, as far as I can tell, are based solely on the results of these very formulas and reek of a lack of understanding about basketball in general.

Responsibility as a sportswriter means being cognizant of your own gaps in knowledge and experience and being humble enough to seek out the expertise of those who, you know, just might know more about the game than you. I did and still do. As a result, I feel as though it makes me a better writer and conversationalist about the game.

But a lot of these stat guys have this arrogance about them, and they don’t feel the need to ask questions of others because they feel secure in the fact that “numbers never lie” without taking it a step further and realizing that they don’t always tell the whole story, either.

You have to search for answers to your own questions rather than searching for justification to your own assumptions. And as such, you must use all available evidence and methods that will indeed challenge your assumptions.

This is something that a lot of stat bloggers fail to do, which in turn makes their writings on the game underwhelming, incomplete and, oftentimes, very misleading.

This ain’t baseball; it’s basketball – a game that has never been defined by the process but the end result itself. I’m not that closed-minded to where I can’t see the value of stats and advanced metrics, but to create entire narratives around them is beyond ridiculous.

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    10 Comments

  • Kenny says:

    Bravo, Bryan Crawford. Bravo. I agree with you 100% here.

  • DNKB says:

    Ima cite this piece like I site stuff in Political Science. Actually, it connects to a similar argument there about methods and how to understand political events and phenomena on the ground, but I digress.

    Great article! Great point! And so true, even the Kobe comments ;) Sports are so much bigger than numbers. Numbers Definitely Lie no matter how catchy and nice Michael Smith’s show is and the stories you share and so much more proves just that.

  • Yes sir, great read all around. Context gets so lost in the game of numbers. I mean, I think advanced metrics are great for sports to give fans a better, more well-rounded view of the game, measuring and quantifying things we couldn’t before. That’s tremendous. But taken in isolation, they don’t mean nearly as much as the “metrics-only” sect likes to think, just like the “eye test” people are doing themsevles an injustice by not taking all the numbers into consideration.

    But at the end of the day, the game is played on the courts, rinks and fields, not in the statisticians’ computers, so the humanity is just as vital as the statistics.

  • J. Tinsley says:

    LONG LIVE BUBBA CHUCK!!!!

    Ok, but nahh, Crawford. You know where I stand on this my man. Salute! Stats are important, but actually watching the game with your own two eyes are even more so. Great stuff man.

    Next time you come to DC though, don’t let your son damn near starving in my backseat waiting on you to go get him some Mickey D’s though lmao!

  • Garrett says:

    Basketball is an art and, as you said, its about the end result or the masterpiece and not so much the number of brush strokes or the kinds of utensils used to get to the masterpiece.

    But true artists who understand the art form are few and far apart and drastically out numbered by people who have read “basketball for dummies” and call themselves experts.

    But What can you do about it when these “experts” have created a market worth millions of dollars? Fantasy, PER, draft combines, predraft metrics and the whole nine. None of that should matter. The only thing that should matter is if you can put the ball in the damn basket.

  • Big Mellz says:

    Great Job!!!
    I feel like I can breathe so much easier now. Stats only tell part of the story. It seems that the Stat Nerds are using the MIT Sloan Conference like their million man march.

  • Joe Simmons says:

    B Crawford. I can definitely get with this. People need numbers to quantify impact. Sometimes numbers don’t tell the entire story. This is one of the best basketball pieces to hit the site for sure.

  • S says:

    Agreed man, stat junkies get out of control at times. As you said, numbers don’t tell the whole story. A concept some stat junkies can’t seem to grasp.

  • James Hodnett says:

    While you are correct in stating that anyone who *only* uses advanced statistics is not doing a good job of covering the game, I do take issue with your argument that essentially boils down to “if you didn’t and don’t play the game, you can’t talk about it.”

    That is just mean-spirited and incorrect. Just because one wasn’t born with the necessary height and athletic gifts does not that that individual has nothing of value to add to the discussion. Statistics, just like scouting and interviews, are tools by which we can evaluate players. Many statistics are overrated, or perhaps only measure certain aspects while claiming to be all-inclusive (as an example, PER measures pretty much only offensive and rebounding contributions, with a slight nod to steals and blocks).

    However, the “eye test” is also extremely unreliable, and statistics can help us either focus our eye tests and provide a prism through which to view what we are seeing. People are notoriously biased when viewing sequences which can be taken in a variety of ways, and advanced statistics provides an excellent screening process to wed out the bias.

  • Ryan says:

    Excellent article here

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