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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Player Comparisons and Analysis Must Be Based on Facts

The sad state of sports journalism is not a new story, nor is it a story whose narrative is likely to improve any time soon. It is striking and disappointing how frequently player comparisons are made that contain inaccurate factual statements--and some of the most prominent, respected commentators have been guilty of this. For example, during Kobe Bryant's prime when there were heated debates about Michael Jordan versus Kobe Bryant, Kobe Bryant versus Steve Nash, and so forth, Mike Wilbon appeared on Dan Patrick's podcast and told Patrick that he had just been researching some numbers--whereupon Wilbon then incorrectly cited Jordan's field goal attempts per game and field goal percentage, while also incorrectly citing Bryant's field goal attempts per game! Not surprisingly, Wilbon's analysis and conclusions were skewed by the inaccurate statistics that he cited.

Charley Rosen has been writing about basketball for decades, and his observations are often insightful. However, a trip through the archives reveals that he has repeatedly made basic factual errors that skewed his analysis. Here are two examples.

In a 2005 FoxSports.com article titled "All-Time Overrated NBA Players," Rosen included Bob McAdoo. Rosen's critique of McAdoo began, "Here's all anyone needs to know about McAdoo's game" and then Rosen based his entire argument on a description of McAdoo's matchups versus Dave Cowens. Rosen claimed that Cowens' physical defense wore McAdoo down to such a great extent that "By the end of the fourth quarter, he'd be looking to receive the ball near the three point line. Anything to avoid contact. In other words, McAdoo was nothing more than a big, quick, soft, jump-shooter deluxe."

The specific details provided by Rosen add superficial credibility to his analysis--but that credibility is shattered by the fact that Cowens and McAdoo faced each other in 38 regular season games, but just four of those games took place after the NBA added the three point shot in the 1979-80 season (none of their 12 head to head playoff games took place during the NBA's three point shot era). McAdoo shot just 1-6 from three point range in those four games--at that time, the three pointer was more of a desperation shot at the end of a quarter than a regular part of the offense--but he also scored 28, 29, 32 and 19 points (27.0 ppg) compared to 10, 15, 4 and 10 points scored (9.8 ppg) by Cowens. BasketballReference.com only has overall field goal percentage data for three of those four games, but the numbers that they have show that McAdoo outshot Cowens .596 (31-52) to .392 (11-28). Rosen's case against McAdoo is destroyed by Rosen's sloppy research. If there is a valid argument to be made against McAdoo, that argument is clearly not that Cowens had great success defending McAdoo by pushing McAdoo out past the three point line; the numbers show that McAdoo gave Cowens--and anyone else who might have been guarding him--the business with a capital "B" during those games. By the way, if you extend the comparison to before 1979-80 you do not save Rosen's argument: McAdoo outscored Cowens 28.6 ppg to 17.9 ppg head to head overall in the regular season, and McAdoo outscored Cowens 29.3 ppg to 21.8 ppg head to head in the playoffs. While it may be true that there was more to those matchups than just scoring, that is not what Rosen argued; Rosen specifically stated that "all you need to know about McAdoo's game" is how well Cowens defended McAdoo.

The second example is even worse. In a companion piece titled "All-Time Underrated NBA Players," Rosen sung Willis Reed's praises: "Reed was a reliable and versatile scorer from the high post, the pivot and along either baseline. Possessed of a soft jumper, and deadly hooks and fadeaways, Reed was the Knicks' fail-safe option on offense...It's not surprising that Reed also played rock-'em-sock-'em defense." So far, so good--but Rosen concluded by asking, "Why isn't he in the Hall of Fame?" Say what? Reed was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982!

Rosen's mistake is not just a random throwaway line, either. Rosen then goes into detail about how a hip injury curtailed Reed's career and prevented him from playing long enough to be a Hall of Fame candidate.

This is not like calling a player a nine time All-Star when that player actually made the All-Star team 10 times. That is sloppy but it does not reframe the entire conversation. Rosen's error is just breathtaking ignorance not only by the writer, but by the editor as well. Rosen wrote a book about the 1972 Lakers, who played Reed's Knicks in the NBA Finals. Did Rosen's research never uncover the basic fact that Reed was inducted in the Hall of Fame just 10 years after that series?

It is important to consider any media coverage or commentary with a critical eye and informed brain--and that is true not just regarding sports media, but the media in general.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:06 PM



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