Digging a Little Deeper

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On the weekend I regretfully broke a key tenet of my unofficial ‘how to keep my sanity’ code—I got into a basketball debate with a stranger on Twitter. There is nothing lamer than arguing with someone you don’t know on the Internet, trying to make your points in 140 characters or less. There are no winners, only losers. Seriously, don’t ever go down that thankless rabbit hole of ad hominem attacks and bad English. Unfortunately, given the absurdity of my fellow debater’s proposition, I couldn’t resist engaging in Twitter warfare.

After Rudy Gay clanged his way to 17 points against the Lakers, on 7-26 shooting, my ‘opponent’ claimed that he was surprised that Gay had such a bad shooting night given that he was a “MUCH BETTER” shooter than LeBron James. It was a strange statement in many ways—why even bring LeBron’s name up to begin with? There are a million other players to compare Gay with—players that have better reputations as shooters. And why are these two players even being mentioned in the same sentence?
 
 

But in other ways it wasn’t that strange. It’s Twitter, and people say dumb things on that medium; and inside and outside of social media, there are still casual fans obsessed with picking absurd holes in James’ game, and refusing to concede that he is the greatest player in the NBA. More specifically, there is a lingering notion that James isn’t a good shooter, and that Rudy Gay is.

These perceptions—perceptions like Kobe is a great defender, Chris Bosh is overrated, and LeBron is bad down the stretch—hold water among the casual fan long after they should be dispelled with a more careful watching of some game tape, or shock horror, a glance at something more detailed than the box score. Gay, for example, has developed a reputation with his fans, and many casual observers, as a ‘closer’—a guy who’s money with the game on the line. And sure, he’s hit game winners in the past, and a couple this season, but those moments are given overwhelming prominence in labeling a guy like Gay as ‘clutch’. People hang on to the few times he’s hit game winners and ignore the many times that he’s bricked a ill-advised mid-range jumper.

For someone like LeBron, there’s a lingering perception of him being a bad mid-range shooter. Given his physical attributes—his ability to blow by any player in the NBA off the dribble—the times he settles for a 16 foot jump-shot are a little infuriating (he’s become far more aggressive over the last couple seasons, however), but it still doesn’t make LeBron’s mid-range game something that should be considered low percentage.

As we were down that rabbit hole my opponent rightly pointed out that LeBron’s field-goal percentage (56%) doesn’t, on the surface of things, make him a better shooter than Gay—whose field-goal percentage is just over 40%. Lay-ups and dunks obviously count towards those numbers. But this is where advanced stats come in. Thanks to great sites like hoopdata.com, we can now break down a player’s field-goal % and see how well he scores from various spots on the court. If Gay is a better shooter than LeBron he should have a better % from 16-23 feet—midrange to the 3-point line in other words—but he doesn’t. LeBron is shooting 45% from 16-23 feet this year, while Gay is only knocking down 25% of those shots. And this is more than just a bad year for Gay. Since 2007, LeBron has shot the ball better than Rudy from that range in all but one season. That seems like the norm, rather than an anomaly.

Okay, so what does this all mean? Asserting that LeBron James is a better shooter than Rudy Gay is obvious to those who follow basketball right now, right? Well, it’s obvious to the serious fan, but not necessarily to those who just follow the conventional box score in order to assess how good a player is. The point is, that in order to truly break through all the conjecture and emotional narratives about a player, you’ve got to channel your inner nerd and pull out those dreaded advanced stats.

There was a time when players were evaluated solely on the stats that they put up in a box score. If a guy could score 20 points per game in the NBA, then that player was good, and was probably going to get a pretty nice pay day when it was time to sign a new contract. But just like in baseball, basketball, at least in front offices around the league, is going through a statistical revolution. It’s no longer enough to claim that a player is a good because he can average 20 points per game. When does he score those points in a game? Garbage time, or late in a close game? How does he score those points? Can he hit the 3-ball? Does he get to the line enough? These are all pertinent questions that help with evaluating a guy’s talent.

And then there’s defense. It sounds like a pretty redundant thing to say, but defense is half the game of basketball. However, we’re all guilty of evaluating players based solely on their offensive performance. Kobe Bryant is having a great season because he’s scoring the ball phenomenally and his field-goal percentage is ridiculous. But no one talks about his awful off-the-ball defense when assessing his performance. On the flip-side Roy Hibbert’s offensive game is ridiculed, and rightly so, but his fantastic defense is a big reason why the Pacers are 2nd in the Eastern Conference.

It’s not as glamorous to praise guys for their defense, but it’s a HUGE part of the game of basketball. To judge by offensive numbers alone would lead you to conclude that Monta Ellis is a better two-guard than Andre Iguodala. And that would be absurd.

But even defense can’t be assessed satisfyingly by just looking at a conventional box score. When discussing great defenders we can be lulled into the trap of over valuing steals and blocks. Sure, great defenders rack up blocks and steals, but not everyone who racks up blocks and steals is a great defender. Attempting to constantly steal the ball can make you a liability on defense—too much of a gambler when simply staying tight to your man can be far more effective. And the same goes with blocks. Al Jefferson gets his fair share of blocks, but is a horrible defender.

Forcing a player into a terrible off-balance shot, or preventing him from shooting in the first place and making him pass the ball—something that Marc Gasol, for example, does every night—doesn’t show up in a box score. Fronting a big man, and not allowing him to catch the ball deep in the paint doesn’t show up in a box score either. And while we’re at it, neither does taking a charge, or chasing down a loose ball. These are all attributes of a great defensive player—a great basketball player. And this is why it’s necessary to look beyond the conventional stats in order to do NBA players justice.

Most NBA front offices are now drinking the kool aid when it comes to advanced stats, and many NBA teams have hired stat geeks—such as John Hollinger, creator of P.E.R., who was hired by the Grizzlies recently. But that’s not to say that traditional scouting is out. It’s still important to watch the game, check out a player’s body language, assess his intangible qualities, and see how he reacts to real in-game situations. But this complements a more objective, data driven evaluation of players. The two approaches don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

It’s necessary to set aside our prejudices and embrace advanced stats in order to truly evaluate what players bring to the table. That’s true if you’re an NBA G.M. and it’s also true if you’re simply arguing with a total stranger on the Internet—although once again, I thoroughly advise against doing the latter.

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