The NBA offseason is a time of boredom for fans of the league, and boredom often turns to debating. But debating responsibly is quite another matter.
It’s easy to get into the ruts of, “Eye test vs. numbers” or, “You’re just a hater” and my personal favorite, “Have you played?” Once those things start, the argument is inevitably going nowhere.
So I’d like to offer a little help and present to you a dummy’s guide to debating basketball responsibly. If you and whomever you’re discussing things with follow these basic rules, not only will your debate be more of a discussion than an argument, you might even get something out of it.
The Numbers are a Tool, not a Rule
I want to begin with the whole notion of how numbers should be used responsibly. Stats are neither definitive nor “lies.” They are an indication of what happens on the court, not why things happen on the court.
If we all understood this, life would be a lot easier. No, you can’t “make numbers say anything,” but you can cherry-pick them to give the illusion of saying what you want to say if you’re not careful.
For instance, you can’t “make the numbers say” that Russell Westbrook can’t score. He’s led the NBA in scoring twice in the last three years, so quite obviously he can score. But you also can’t use that fact as an argument that he’s a better scorer than say–Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, who scored with nearly the same volume but also a lot more efficiently.
Westbrook used about 28 True Shooting Attempts (basically the times he took a shot plus his trips to the stripe) to score 31.6 points per game this year. Curry used a little over 22 to score 30.1 points in 2015-16.
If he used six more attempts, could he score one more shot?
But then again, you have to consider the context of what is happening on the court. Curry has teammates who can shoot and pass, and Westbrook didn’t. That means that offenses were able to key on Westbrook a lot more than they were on Curry last year.
In the words of Dirk Gently, “Everything is connected.” Scoring begets scoring and the better the players that are around a guy, the more efficiently he will score.
However, does that offset Curry’s huge advantage in efficiency? Probably not. But there is a point where numbers stop telling us everything. There are things that they just can’t say because while they tell a story, it’s just the story of that player on that team in that situation. Could Curry score 30 if he was teammates with the Adams’ family?
Numbers tell us things, but they aren’t as static as some would like to make them out to be. They also aren’t as elastic as some would pretend they are when they don’t like what the numbers say.
Numbers are tools; they are things that really happen, and if we use them properly, we can build a good basketball argument. Just don’t go around hammering someone over the head with them.
It’s the Eye Test, not the “I” Test
The antithesis (to some) of numbers is the “eye test”.
“I don’t care what your numbers say, I know what I see.”
Anytime you start yelling about the numbers being owned by someone, you’re losing the argument. The numbers exist outside of that person, outside of that argument and outside of you. They are facts. They are real. Yelling them away doesn’t make them cease to exist anywhere except the space between your ears.
That does not mean there’s no place for the eye test though. Certainly, the game of basketball is decided “on the court” and “not by analytics”. (I’ve only heard this argument and never the antithesis, “the game is won and lost by analytics, not by what happens on the court, so I don’t know why the thesis has to be repeated so much, but that’s a story for another day.)
For example, I was writing about Nicolas Batum the other day, and I noticed his Synergy numbers only had him in the 20th percentile. So I watched him defending for a while and noticed he plays a lot of “free safety” where he’ll come over to help out a teammate that’s been beaten (and his teammate is Kemba Walker, so that happens a lot).
As a result, a lot of the points “against him” are from passes back to his man for spot-up jumpers. And while he gets back to challenge those pretty well (he’s in the 60th percentile), those tend to be higher-efficiency shots. Since those nearly account for half his defenses, it artificially drives down his overall numbers.
So now I had the numbers (low Synergy scores) and a hypothesis (because he’s running around a lot on defense) and a conclusion (the reason his numbers were high was that he was helping out a lot and not always able to get back in time.
So now I needed a test. If my theory were correct, I figured that he’d be traveling more on defense than his teammates. And sure enough, he was traveling nearly 10 percent more game on the defensive end.
The eye test has a place, but it also has to be examined and challenged. Because often when we talk about the eye test, what we mean is the “I test”. Confirmation bias is a very real thing. We see what we expect to see or want to see. Objective data is what keeps us honest.
A classic example here is Kobe Bryant and the “clutch factor.” Going through his clutch numbers at NBA.com, this is what he’s done with the Lakers down by three or fewer points and under 10 seconds on the clock in his career.
Let’s start with the most rudimentary fact of all: 38 times in regular season games, Kobe hit a clutch shot. There’s a reason people have the impression that he’s able to hit those shots. They’ve seen it happen–38 times. That’s why they get riled when people say he’s not clutch.
On the other hand, he’s missed those shots 100 times. If you’re a big Kobe fan, those 38 instances stick in the head a lot longer and a lot more vividly than the 100 misses do. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss.
So, the Kobe “haters” might wanna jump on this and say, “CLUTCH?!?!? HA!!!” But that needs a balancing act too.
This year, 18 players attempted at least five such shots. These are what you might call the “go-to” guys.
Those 18 players combined for a 29.8 effective field-goal percentage. So Bryant’s 31.9 percent isn’t as horrible as it sounds. I’ve been tracking these types of things for several years now, and basically, 31 or 32 percent is the “going rate” on last second shots.
Based on volume, Bryant is impressive. Based on percentage, he’s average.
But let’s peel this whole thing back another layer because sometimes the eye test isn’t just about what you do see; it’s about what you don’t see. And with Kobe, you don’t see him passing.
It is shocking to me that in his entire career, he only had three assists in those situations. Out of 100 missed shots, none of them could have gone to an open teammate?
Another thing that amazed me is that Bryant didn’t drain a free throw in those situations after the 2007-08 season. And that he was only 69.7 percent from the stripe in his career when the game may have been on the line. (It’s fair to acknowledge that some of those misses could have been intentional, though.)
But still, not cracking 70 doesn’t seem like the Mamba Mentality that is presented to us.
The point here being–both sides need to see things that they don’t “want to”. His fans want to only see the makes and ignore the misses. His haters want to point to his percentage and not recognize that compared to the league average, he’s not that bad.
And the truth is, he made a lot of tough shots, but he took some tough shots that were bad decisions. If Michael Jordan had the Mamba Mentality, this never would have happened:
And this is the crux of it all: If you’re using the eye test to prove something, you’re not doing it right. You need it, but it should be to see, not to show.
Beware of Bias
Lastly, and most importantly, beware of bias. And when I say that, I don’t mean everyone else’s bias. I mean your own (but I need to be aware of mine).
My Twitter experience tells me that those with the most passionate opinions are the first ones to yell about bias (usually in the form of calling me a “stan” or a “hater”).
If you’re emotionally invested, there is a very good chance you’re the one who is biased here. I think it also helps to define what the word “bias” means here:
Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
The words “prejudice” and “unfair” are important here. It’s only a bias if you rush to a conclusion based on your predilections and tastes. It’s not a bias if you have actually have an informed opinion–that’s an informed opinion.
For instance, I don’t have “round earth” bias. I just happen to know the facts, and the facts say it’s round (sorry, Kyrie).
Likewise, having a positive or negative view of a player isn’t always a bias; it can be an opinion based on a careful and thorough study, including both numbers and the eye test.
Before you scream the word bias, remember the adage about three-fingers pointing back at you. If something gets you that upset, there’s a good chance you’re the one with strong feelings about the player, positive or negative.
If you have strong feelings, you have to have a little alone time with yourself and challenge your own convictions. If you’re right, you can reinforce your opinion, but it will be stronger because it will be back by facts, not by just accusing the other guy of being biased.
If you’re wrong, you’ll figure it out. And then you won’t be wrong anymore.
For instance, I’m not a Rockets fan, but I live close to Houston, so they’re my “second-favorite” team. For most of the season, I was leaning towards James Harden for MVP, and I had some good arguments for why he should be.
But when push came to shove and it was time for me to “cast my vote” (for the various websites I write for), I had to go with Westbrook. A very long, hard look tilted things in his favor.
While I don’t think you need to flip-flop around with your opinion, I do think that if you’ve never changed your mind about a basketball player, you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, you’re probably guilty of bias.
So, as crazy as this sounds. When you’re debating–listen! You might even learn something. The other dude (or dudette) might have a valid argument.