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Monday, April 02, 2007

How to Detect Wack NBA Analysis

If wack NBA analysis were gold then we would all be as rich as Croesus. I've noticed that certain traits tend to characterize the streams of flawed NBA commentary that are bombarding us via TV, radio, the internet and newspapers.

1) (Not) just the facts, ma'am

I don't trust analysis from anyone who cannot get the basic facts straight. If a person cites inaccurate statistics or gives an incorrect account of events then he is either deliberately misleading his audience or he is a sloppy thinker. It never ceases to amaze me how many "experts" cannot keep the most basic facts straight. The worst part is, they're not talking off the top of their heads--TV commentators have access to researchers and have reams of pages of stats, facts and notes in front of them. Writers certainly should double check information before including it in an article or column. I admit that I am an NBA junkie; I've got a ton of NBA statistical information bouncing around my cranium. Despite that, I try to not include anything but the most basic stat in something I write without double checking it in a media guide or some other credible source. Can mistakes happen anyway? Sure; I've submitted articles with correct information to certain publications only to see the published text "edited" in a way that made it inaccurate. Also, typographical errors can happen at any publication; I have both committed and been a victim of those on occasion--but when TV, radio and print reporters spout stuff that I know is wrong off the top of my head before I even check the record books, that is just inexcusable (the latest example: Mike Wilbon's podcast with Dan Patrick. He even claimed to have just looked up the incorrect numbers that he started spewing. As I was listening my immediate reaction was, "These stats aren't right. How can he go on the air and just say stuff that isn't correct?")

2) Context?! We don't need no stinkin' context!

This one happens a lot and it shows up in a variety of forms. It can also be combined with incorrect factual information for added effect. Something can be technically "true" and yet be very misleading because of the way that it is presented. For instance, Scottie Pippen did not win a championship or play in an All-Star game during the portion of his career that happened after Michael Jordan's second retirement. Those are facts. Yet, for someone to say that this proves that Pippen is not worthy of being listed as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players is to take that information horribly out of context. Pippen's post-MJ career began when he was 33 years old and had just had back surgery to repair two ruptured lumbar disks. He was no longer the same player that he had been in his younger days. He was still an excellent defensive player (two All-Defensive Team selections) and he played a big role in helping the Trail Blazers make it to the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Interestingly, Jordan has never made it out of the first round of the playoffs without Pippen by his side--of course, that, too, is somewhat lacking context, because his non-Pip years came early in his career when the Bulls' cupboard was pretty bare and then late in his career with the Wizards. The reality is that both players were vital to the Bulls' success in the 1990s.

3) Heads I win, tails you lose

When an argument is tailored in such a fashion that it "works either way" something is amiss. This type of "thinking" is applied frequently against Kobe Bryant. When he outscored Dallas 62-61 for three quarters last year before sitting out the final period, critics brayed that he denied fans the opportunity to witness him chasing history by trying to score 70 or 80 points. Then he had an 81 point game and the critics said that proved that he is a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring as many points as he can than winning games. Well, which is it? Kobe Bryant took heat for sitting down during a high scoring game and he took heat for staying in too long. Could somebody supply Bryant a flowchart matching up his point totals with the time remaining in the game, his team's lead and the quality of the opponent so that he will know the exactly correct time to sit out?

Similarly, when he has scoring binges Bryant is called "selfish"--but when he shoots less and passes frequently he is said to be "trying to prove a point by not shooting." No matter what happens, the person who engages in this type of thinking will say, in effect, "Heads I win, tails you lose."

Wilt Chamberlain often received this kind of treatment. He was criticized for shooting too much when he was younger and then blasted for "trying to prove a point" by shooting less and leading the league in assists later in his career.

In other words, whether Bryant or Chamberlain shoots 30 times, 15 times or 3 times, it proves that they are "selfish."

4) Jumping to conclusions

When someone is doing wack NBA analysis, small events can lead to dramatic statements. The MVP is supposed to recognize a player for his achievements during an 82 game season but a couple weeks ago some people tried to make a case that Steve Nash clinched it in about a minute during Phoenix' dramatic win over Dallas. Nash is definitely one of the top three MVP candidates this year--but how can one minute of one game "clinch" anything? Also, this is an example of "Heads I win, tails you lose," because when the Suns floundered around for the next several games I did not hear anyone say that this undid the original "clinch."

What about when I write things like "60 More Reasons That Kobe Bryant is the NBA's Best Player"? Aren't I jumping to a conclusion based on one game? No, and I'll tell you why. First, I wrote "60 More Reasons," which indicates that this game provides additional evidence, not that it proves anything by itself or that it "clinched" something. Second, that was just the headline to a post that included an in depth look at why Bryant deserves to be called the "best player," including statistics and an analysis of what skills enable him to score so prolifically. That is a lot different than just saying, in effect, that Nash's performance in the last minute of regulation was so great that it trumps Nowitzki's season of consistently great play.

5) Shape shifting

Wack NBA analysis never dies; it just changes its form and appearance. When someone does wack NBA analysis he is never deterred even after it has been conclusively shown that his "facts" are wrong and/or taken out of context and/or that his argument is meaningless because it is tailored to come to the same conclusion no matter what happens. The wack NBA analyst simply comes up with new "facts" that are also taken out of context or just plain wrong or devises another argument that "fits" all situations. We just saw this with a recent "awful" exchange. First, we "learned" that Steve Nash's 32 point/16 assist game is just as important/rare/meaningful as Kobe Bryant's 65 point game--except for the problem that several players have had better points/assists combos just in the last two decades while 65 point games are exceedingly rare and even more rare when they occur in the midst of four straight 50 point games. Then, we "learned" that this doesn't matter because Nash has done some pretty rare things in the playoffs. What that has to do with anything is unclear--it does not reinforce the original, erroneous post about 32/16 versus 65 and, besides, Kobe Bryant played a key role on three championship teams, turning in numerous big playoff performances. As a bonus, we also "learned" that Bryant's reputation as a great defender is exaggerated. The problem with that is that NBA head coaches have voted him to the All-Defensive Team six times and numerous scouts say he is the player that they would want to have guarding someone who is attempting a game winning shot. Well, none of those things are problems if you are a wack NBA analyst, because you simply dismiss the head coaches as biased and uninformed and use a supposedly random sampling of a few boxscores that "prove" that Bryant is getting burned on defense--without, of course, giving any account of what the Lakers' defensive schemes were in the games in question. Then, Tex Winter, one of Bryant's staunchest advocates over the years, makes a couple passing remarks about Bryant's defense in the midst of a sprawling 3000-plus word account of how Bryant's scoring outbursts are better than Wilt's and how his game is similar to Michael Jordan's (statements that seem to contradict the idea that 32/16 is "better" than 65). This, of course, is "checkmate" in the Bryant-Nash debate because one of Bryant's "coaches" said something negative about Bryant's defense. In one fell swoop, all the forms of wack analysis appear: First we are told that coaches are biased and uninformed (presumably because they disagree with the poster). Then we are told that one coach's opinion trumps the opinions expressed by dozens of coaches in six years of All-Defensive Team voting. The coup de grace is that Winter is not even technically a coach anymore; he is a Lakers consultant. So we have incorrect information, quotes taken out of context, "Heads I win, tails you lose" regarding coaches' knowledge of defense, jumping to conclusions and several instances of shape shifting; that is a special moment in the long and storied history of wack NBA analysis, a true grand slam.

Note how the shape of the discussion shifted from 65 versus 32/16 (refuted) to Nash's playoff record (not better than Kobe's, individually or from the standpoint of championships won) to Bryant's defense (allegedly not as good as his "reputation," despite widespread praise by coaches/scouts and six All-Defensive Team selections) to Tex Winter's interview. The only thing that could be fairly said about Bryant's defense based on Winter's brief remarks is that Winter expressed concern about Bryant's defensive technique during his recent scoring outbursts or perhaps even for a bigger portion of this season. Unless or until Winter says that Bryant is an overrated defender who is getting by on his reputation, it is certainly not "checkmate"--and, even if he were to say that, it would be the opinion of one observer, to be weighed and measured alongside the opinions of other informed observers. Most All-Defensive Team members don't make the team by unanimous vote, so there can be disagreement even among experts. More context is required before anyone is "checkmated."

What if Winter had said that Bryant is the league's best defender? Would I then be saying "checkmate"? No, I would be saying that this is one more example of someone praising Bryant's defense. The "case" for Bryant being the league's best player does not rise or fall on the basis of any one game or quote or stat--nor does the "case" for most debates rise or fall on the basis of one single piece of evidence.

The next time you read or listen to a piece of NBA analysis, use the five points mentioned above as a guide to determine whether or not it is wack.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:35 AM



At Monday, April 02, 2007 7:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that Scottie Pippen made the All Star team after Jordan's first retirement.

So much for you knowing your facts. Also, you should probably wash that Dirty Sanchez off of your face.

At Monday, April 02, 2007 1:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman,

I've followed your feud with the other guy closely, and while you have many solid points, you have flawed ones as well.

Here's the kicker: both of you are doing "wack" NBA analyses to fit your arguments. You two are playing a never-ending game of one-upmanship, and are both viewing some points with rose-colored glasses.

We don't need to go over your discussion regarding the Tex Winter comments, but you seem to be glazing over some major points. One is that Winters never said Kobe was a bad defender. In fact, like Tex, I believe Kobe is one of the best in the league (thus the Defensive First Teams), but don't forget that Kobe really is saving energy on defense so that he can have enough for scoring.

Frankly, I would rather have a Kobe that would give us 28-30 in any given night and put in a terrific defensive performance, than a 65-point Kobe explosion with him getting lazy on D.

But that's just me.

I admire Kobe for being one of the league's best, and hands down, without spouting off any statistics, I know that many people will agree with me on that.

What I don't appreciate though is your seemingly blind adulation for Kobe, and this is shown in your commentaries.

This is destroying your self-proclaimed credibility. If you're really a sports journalist, you should be more impartial. Nothing wrong in admiring, but you sir are not listening to reason anymore. While Basketbawful may have some disagreeable statements, he also has several correct ones that you (surprisingly) refute.

My unsolicited advise? Stop it. If you think you're above the other guy, ignore him. If you think you're more credible, then a verbal spat with Basketbawful would be beneath you.

I'm sure a Mike Fratello or a Hubie Brown would not stoop down to hecklers in the blogosphere if those greats ever had blogs.

I don't think I need to tell you this if you really are who you say you are.

I would like to thank you for an entertaining exchange with Basketbawful, but it has become tiresome.

So stop it. Please.

At Monday, April 02, 2007 3:18:00 PM, Blogger Joe Grossberg said...

I think Pippen was a starting all-star in 1994 -- along with BJ Armstrong(!) -- and even won the game's MVP award.

Anyhow, I think at some point you need to concede that this other guy just isn't ever going to shut up and admit he's wrong.

At Monday, April 02, 2007 4:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Pip won the All-Star MVP in 1994, after MJ's first retirement and also made the All-Star team in 1995, a short time before MJ returned from his baseball hiatus. The Bulls did not win the title in 1994 but advanced farther than they did with MJ prior to Pip's arrival.

The period of time that I referred to in this post, as I indicated by referencing Pip's age, is after the breakup of the Bulls last championship team in 1998. Nevertheless, I will edit the post to make that explicitly clear.

Thank you for pointing out that I did not write this as clearly as I should have. Ironically, this exchange points out the difference between wack and non-wack analysis. I realize in reading your comment that I could have expressed my point better, so I will change the way that I worded it. The issue of what Pip did or did not accomplish during MJ's first retirement has also been the subject of a lot of wack analysis but we'll leave that discussion for another day; in this instance I specifically meant to discuss what happened after the Bulls' 1998 championship.

Kobe may well be saving energy on defense. If someone said that his defense this year is not quite as good as it was last year I would probably agree with that--but that is a lot different than saying that he is a bad defensive player.

I don't look at this as a "feud" but as an examination of how basketball analysis should be properly done. I've had lengthy discussions here, via the comments sections, with people who think that Nash should be the MVP or that Carmelo is underrated. It is fine to have different opinions and I will respond to anyone who comments here. Running a blog is different than being a TV commentator or even writing articles for "mainstream" publications. People in those situations probably do largely ignore their critics, though I'm not sure if they are really correct in doing so. What interests me here, above and beyond the Bryant-Nash question, is the proper way to think, analyze and write. It is certainly possible to make a very cogent case for Dirk or Nash to be MVP. I would have them second and third on my ballot, so it's not like I think that they aren't worthy. I just don't understand why some people take such an illogical approach to things.

Also, I have noticed that flawed arguments--whatever the subject--tend to come in the same basic forms. I've seen some "pro-Kobe" articles that are also wack because they engage in the same flawed rhetoric that I talked about in this post.

At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 4:46:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Too many people are guilty of such flaws in their analysis. What's disappointing is it's not just bloggers and message-board posters, but professional analysts working for big companies as well.

At Tuesday, April 03, 2007 6:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you 100%. Although some readers may have interpreted this post as a "shot" at one particular blogger, a careful reading of what I wrote shows that I also referenced Mike Wilbon, who is a member of "mainstream" media, as well as critics of Scottie Pippen, who often come from "mainstream" outlets.

"Wack" analysis is quite prevalent in a number of areas, many of which have more dire consequences than a discussion of who is the best NBA player. I truly believe that the five "techniques" that I mentioned encompass the most common methods used by people who engage in wack analysis. What has never been clear to me is whether these people actually present such flawed arguments deliberately or if they simply are not capable of applying logical thought processes to what they are talking about. I think that in most cases it is a little bit of both.


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