Wages of Wins Weighs in on the MVP RaceI have always believed that statistics are a very powerful tool that can be used to help us understand basketball (and many other things as well)--but statistics are a tool, not a perfect, all-knowing force, and a tool is only useful if it is the right one for a given job and if it is wielded skillfully by a knowledgeable person; a construction worker using a jackhammer would not do a good job detailing a car. In the past few years a dichotomy has developed between a group of people who believe that numbers tell us all we need to know about sports (a trend that started in baseball with Bill James and "sabermetrics" and has since spread to other sports) and a group of people who primarily trust what they learn from firsthand observation of players. I believe that statistics are most helpful when they are utilized by an informed observer who has actually seen the players/teams in question play. Players are not robots and they are not accumulating statistics in isolation; a play that results in a slam dunk may have involved multiples screens, passes and defensive switches but the boxscore only records a made shot and possibly an assist. There is a big difference in quality between a player who beat his defender off of the dribble, soared over a rotating defender and dunked and a player who was wide open because his team's superstar was double-teamed, enabling him to catch an easy pass and dunk all by himself. Yes, a season's worth of statistics evens out some of these discrepancies but the bottom line is that proper player evaluation cannot be done entirely with a spreadsheet. As Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey told me, statistics are important but the "eyeball is number one."
David Berri and his Wages of Wins partners produce some interesting work but I fundamentally object to one of their basic premises, namely that basketball and other sports can be understood at a deep level without even watching the game. In fact, they believe that watchers are inherently biased, unable to differentiate between flashy, memorable plays and solid, unspectacular plays that are just as effective; they fail to consider that statistics and the methods to evaluate them are the products of human minds and thus also contain biases and imperfections. A knowledgeable basketball observer certainly can utilize statistics effectively but the kind of detachment from the world of sports that Berri and his group propose does not lead to greater objectivity; rather, it leads to bizarre conclusions such as performance-enhancing drugs don't enhance performance or--regarding the 1996 Chicago Bulls--"Per 48 minutes played, Rodman's productivity even eclipsed Jordan." The truth about PEDs--and why there is erroneous information about their effectiveness--can be found here. I trust that most serious NBA fans realize that although Rodman was a great player only a statistical system that vastly overrates rebounding would suggest that he was more productive than Jordan. Rodman was a very valuable member of five championship teams for two different franchises but you could not build a team solely around his talents.
Berri and company recently weighed in on the MVP debate. Since they are much more interested in crunching certain numbers than considering the totality of what happens on the court, they are oblivious to the fact that the MVP race is likely going to come down not to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James--as they suggest--but rather Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. James is probably going to be "disqualified" by virtue of his team not winning 50 games, much like Bryant was "disqualified" the past two years (I disagree with this kind of "disqualification" but that is another story). Starting with the faulty Bryant/James premise, WoW eventually concludes that Bryant should not get this year's MVP for three reasons:
- Yes, Kobe is a great player. He just isn’t the most productive player in the NBA.
-The Lakers improvement this year is not about Kobe.
- Kobe, who has not been voted MVP in the past, is actually not much different from what he was in the past. He just has better teammates.You can click on the above link to read the arguments that they use to support those three points. My response to those three points is simple:
1) Measuring the "productivity" of a basketball player is not an exact science. For one thing, statistics do not capture everything that happens on the court. Second, per-minute numbers make assumptions about how productive a player would be if he played more minutes but those assumptions cannot be proven. Third, "productivity" is interactive: a player who draws double-teams can make weaker players seem more productive, while four weaker players surrounding a great player can make the great player seem less productive. Bryant is a more skillful player than LeBron James and Bryant has fewer weaknesses. James is not a good free throw shooter or three point shooter and his defense, although improving, is not as good as Bryant's. The Spurs capitalized on James' inability to shoot outside by constructing a wall and keeping him out of the paint in the NBA Finals. Granted, not too many teams have the mindset and personnel to carry out such a plan but that showed that James, as great as he is--and I rank him as the second best player in the league--still has weaknesses.
As for the second and third points, here is a comment that I posted at WoW:
Someone else already pointed out the fallacy in comparing Kobe this year to Kobe in previous years, namely that this year’s MVP should be the most valuable player of this season; Kobe’s performance in other seasons is not relevant and does not disqualify him from winning the award this season if he is the most qualified candidate.
Here are three relevant issues that the author failed to consider:
1) When looking at the Lakers’ record with various player combinations (with Bynum, with Gasol, etc.) did you factor in the home/road balance of those various schedules and the quality of the opponents that the Lakers faced? As I pointed out in my article about the Lakers’ "three seasons" (Breaking Down L.A.'s Three Seasons), their schedule without Bynum and Gasol has been heavily slanted toward road games and/or games against good teams. Their 11-9 record with Kobe and without either Bynum or Gasol is very impressive considering that fact, even with the two recent losses to poor teams (Fisher has come up lame now as well).
2) The author claims that Kobe should not be the MVP because most of the team’s improvement has come from the other players but he fails to consider how much of that “improvement” is the result of playing with Kobe. For instance, the Lakers have spot up shooters who get wide open shots because Kobe must be double-teamed; Kobe’s presence gets them open opportunities whether or not Kobe is credited with an assist on those shots. Kobe is the victim of a form of “double jeopardy”: when those players failed to make those shots the past two seasons he was “disqualified” for MVP consideration because his team did not win enough games; this year they are making those shots and he is being “disqualified” because he supposedly has such a strong supporting cast. Nash’s supporting cast of Amare, Marion and others was not held against him, so why should the improvement of Kobe’s supporting cast be held against him?
3) Paul’s top two big men have been healthy and played together for the entire season. Kobe has played with Bynum, then without either big man, then with Gasol without Bynum and now has endured another stretch without either big man. Yet, despite all of this turmoil, Kobe’s team is right in the thick of the race with the Hornets. Last year, the Hornets and Lakers both had injury problems and the Lakers had two starters (Kwame and Smush) who would not have even played for any other playoff team, let alone being starters; Kobe guided his team to the playoffs, Paul did not. Yes, last season does not directly relate to this season but if we are going to compare Kobe this year to Kobe in previous years the above analysis is much more to the point and highlights the fact that Kobe consistently has done more with less talent around him than Paul has. Put Kobe with West and Chandler for a whole year and give Paul the proportions of Bynum, Gasol and Turiaf/Mbenga that Kobe has had this season and do you really believe that Paul would do as much with that group as Kobe has?
posted by David Friedman @ 8:53 PM