Three things got under my skin the past few days:
1. The conversation about the supposed differences between “stats people” and…”eyeball people?” Sure, we’ll go with that.
2. A specific missed three pointer by LeBron James in the Heat’s loss to the Cavaliers on Tuesday night.
3. And Vince Carter. Always, always Vince.
I intended this post to be a criticism of the first, of those who belittle statistical analysis in sports by claiming “stats people” either focus on the irrelevant or simply don’t watch the games. Joe Posnanski discussed this in the context of baseball, based on a couple of quotes by Nationals’ manager Jim Riggleman from two commercials in which he recently appeared.
More absurd to me is the thought that there’s a group of sports fans who enjoy the spectacle of the games so much that they will maniacally analyze every bit of data they can get their hands on and yet don’t watch the games.
Maybe it’s the rush to label everything, to pigeonhole everyone. But to make that assumption is to forget that we’re all drawn to sports for the same basic reasons. We all started to watch the games because of the beauty and the emotion and the fun of sports. Of course we who employ various levels of statistics – be it Wins, Win Shares, or Wins Produced – watch the games. If I choose to study the numbers that Basketball-Reference and HoopData call “Advanced,” it’s not to supplant my viewing of the sport but to supplement it.
I’m someone who believes – who hopes, really – that one day, we’ll be able to quantify everything that happens on the basketball court. We’re on our way, with more advanced optical tracking. With more thought put into ideas like the definition of Expected Value (a phrase borrowed from economics and mathematical analysis of poker) in regards to the NBA, it may one day be possible to breakdown exactly how much value each movement on the basketball court has in contributing to a win or a loss.
And even if that day should come, I would still watch every minute of every NBA game I could access. NBA basketball, at its best, is an absolute sight to behold. Its moments leave one incredulous (I DON’T BELIEVE WHAT I JUST SAW!) and the athletes leave you breathless. I merely use the numbers I can find to answer the questions that we so often ask after the spectacular or the foolish on the court: “How did he do that?!” or conversely, “How did that happen?!”
Take Miami’s loss in Cleveland. With 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Mike Bibby tied the game with a 3-pointer at 83-all. Three of the Heat’s next four shots were also threes, and all missed. In that stretch of just over two minutes, the Cavaliers managed only four more points, so the game was still within reach for Miami – there was no need for the long shots, often early in the shot clock.
Amongst a backdrop of poor shot selection, the miss that stuck out to me was LeBron’s wide-open look with 4:54 left on the clock, Cleveland leading 87-83. There was no one within 6 feet at least of James when he caught the ball in the corner…
…yet he hesitated, took a dribble, and then fired up a shot.
Still unguarded, he missed. On the other end, James was called for goaltending as James Jones picked up a blocking foul on Anthony Parker, who made the free throw to widen the margin to six. The Heat didn’t score for the next 2:16, by which point the Cavs were up 12.
And instead of wondering how the best player in the league missed an uncontested three to close the gap, I thought back to those “stats people” and their silly conference in Boston. At Sloan, Sandy Weils’ presentation on the same optical tracking technology I mentioned earlier included a fascinating bit of analysis: there’s something advantageous about the catch-and-shoot. More specifically, as Zach Lowe wrote:
A player’s shooting percentage jumps significantly when the last thing he does before the a shot is the act of catching a pass — and not the act of dribbling.
But if you catch a pass and hold the ball for about 2.25 seconds, whatever advantage you gained from catching the pass disappears. This makes sense, since holding the ball gives your defender a chance to catch up to you and prepare to defend your next move.
That’s an amazing thing to learn as a basketball fan. While James’ look remained uncontested, it seemed to me that his hesitation and dribble took almost two full seconds. Lowe notes that the act of dribbling before taking a shot seems to lead to lower field goal percentages, and various studies show that thinking about one’s task can lower performance – particularly in professionals who repetitively perform at such a high level in the moment.
It’s impossible to draw conclusions from the smallest of samples – one shot. Variance is a bitch. But I’d be willing to say that LeBron would shoot much worse if he dribbled off of the catch before every wide-open three than if he simply shot the ball in rhythm.
Which brings me to Vince Carter. Oh, Vince. I no longer see you as a zombie; instead, the struggle within you on a nightly basis reminds me of the battle between Link and his shadow-self in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
Two consecutive possessions illustrate the point perfectly. With 4:31 to go in the second quarter, Carter came off of an off-ball screen to the three-point line, caught a pass from Steve Nash, and drilled the deep ball to give the Suns a one-point lead.
On the very next trip down the floor, Carter again received a pass from Nash, this time at the top of the key just inside the line. Defended tightly, he dribbled for a few seconds (with Nash wide open to his right) and – with nine seconds remaining on the shot clock – hoisted a contested 23-footer which clanked off the rim. Dudley entered the game for Carter at the next whistle. This is what we call “Vince Carter-initiated offense.”
And none of it is surprising if you watch the Suns regularly. After all, Vince shoots 35% on his long two-pointers, 4.4% below the league average. Tight defense reduces field goal percentage even further – a closely-guarded layup and an open 19-footer are made at about the same rate. And for every foot and a half a player moves away from the rim, field goal percentage drops by 1%.
So while I intended this post to criticize those who say we don’t watch the games it became about why we use stats in the first place. Recently, it seems to me that statistical analysis is being used to answer a rather loaded question:
“How could you even consider giving the MVP to Derrick Rose?”
Many people who are much better at applying statistics than I am argue on an almost-daily basis against the seeming-consensus that Derrick Rose is the MVP. Some point to a few of my favorite statistics, such as Wins Produced and adjusted +/- comparisons for both individuals and lineups for Rose and his primary competition, Dwight Howard and LeBron James. Others take a more basic yet persuasive look at the numbers and the issue, arguing that “Most Valuable” and “Best player” are one and the same. The issue flairs up when a well-known writer’s Direct Messages on twitter end up in the public domain – comments which, without complete context, seem to demean those ornery “stats people” and question whether they’re even watching the game correctly.
It doesn’t help that said writer has been a vocal supporter of Derrick Rose since the calendar turned.
As a result of such vitriol, many use advanced statistics in an attempt to prove others wrong and to answer the rhetorical question above. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is the best approach for an award lacking specifics.
As it stands, the best one could argue is that we have a (barely)-working definition of what the MVP is: the best player in the league.
Or maybe it’s the best player on the best team.
Or maybe it’s the player that creates the most Win Shares.
Or the most Wins Produced.
The Wins Produced by an individual player is the guideline that I prefer for determining the MVP, ultimately. I believe that to be true only when we can perfectly define the creation of wins. Until that day – with such a subjective situation – I can accept a world where we have to reflect each year on how the voters decided to judge the MVP. Derrick Rose is a fine choice for the award if the voters decided that the most valuable player in the 2010-2011 season was “the leader (not including the coach, whose defensive system is probably the most valuable asset this team has) of the best story in the league (because we failed to predict that they would win their own division and believed they were a year away from contention) and the team with potentially the best record (not including the Spurs, since they’re boring).” And I mean that sincerely.
Absent an ascension to that great Statistical Summit in the Sky where we can absolutely define the value of the actions on a basketball court, we’re left with an award voted on by those left to delineate their own set of criteria – if they even give it that much thought. As one writer put it recently in relation to the 6th Man Award, “if you don’t think guys like [him] should win the award, start a movement to change the criteria.”
Change the name of the award. Force the NBA to define what “Most Valuable” is (and good luck with that, as David Stern has said he enjoys the conversation this debate creates). Or better yet, show us the light. Prove to us that you can absolutely define value with the numbers.
That really is an admirable goal. And it’ll make me watch the games even more closely.