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

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *