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Rosen: The Trouble With Stats

One of the most basic of the several cultural factors that are destroying the beauty of basketball-as-we-should-know-it is America’s general obsession with numbers: The stock market and its fluctuations. The GNP and the unemployment rate. Ubiquitous rankings and poll results. Test scores. Gross and net worth. Digits wrought in red or black ink.  What’s your APR? Your IQ? Your credit rating? Who’s number one?

In virtually every aspect of our society, value is expressed in linear, numerical terms. This allows the individual (and the collective) mind to reduce the ongoing, ever-changing stream of life to a static format that’s more easily quantifiable.

While statistics can certainly be valuable and even necessary in many applications, the only stats that count — and are trustworthy — in basketball can be read on the scoreboards. Indeed, the new fad of using metrics — and even the traditional numerologies — to evaluate players is bogus.

Let’s start with points scored … When were they scored? Against whom? How many points were scored in inconsequential albeit close games? Hubie Brown always warns against taking too seriously high-scorers on bad teams, as well as high-scorers against bad teams.

Rebounds … Since poor shooting teams miss more shots, their big men have more opportunities to snatch offensive rebounds. Likewise do opposing bigs have more opportunities to rack up defensive rebounds. Is a rebound in heavy traffic equal to a player with mandated inside position rebounding an opponent’s missed free throw? And what about the uncontested defensive rebounds corralled when the other team is hustling back to prevent a fast break?

The corollary here is that rebound percentages are also meaningless.

Assists constitute the most fraudulent stat. The operating definition is a pass that directly leads to a basket, with the scorer being allowed a dribble and two steps after receiving said pass. Okay, why is there no assist when the pass-receiver gets fouled in the act and makes both free throws — thereby tallying the same number of points as he would have had he converted the pass into a bucket? Why should the passer get credited with an assist if the receiver scores after making a twisting, off-balance, fadeaway jumper with an astronomical degree-of-difficulty against a double-team?

Defense … Steals and blocked shots are cited as irrefutable evidence of a player’s defensive prowess. Indeed, Larry Hughes was named to the NBA’s All-Defense First Team in 2005, solely because he led the league with 2.85 steals per game. In so doing, however, Hughes was a mediocre straight-up defender whose perpetual gambles left his teammates in precarious defensive situations whenever his always-risky speculations came up empty.

The same defensive game plan holds true for at least two more All-Defense regulars: Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant.

While shot-blocking is a sometimes useful skill, too many long-armed, quick-footed and high-flying big men are so eager to reject shots that they’re liable to hastily abandon their assigned defensive positions to attack any shots in their vicinity. Dwight Howard is the worst offender here. Meanwhile, clever offenses can maneuver the ball to deliberately sucker these block-happy block-heads into leaving the basket unprotected.

Turnovers are another fallible measurement. How often is a pass thrown to the spot where a teammate is supposed to be? Or what about an entry pass into a pivot man who fails to seal his defender properly and should be blamed for a resulting interception?

Plus and minus … Again, no consideration of what players are on the court, what the matchups are, if a game was a blowout or a nail-biter, nor how significant was the particular game where this misleading stat was recorded.  Two cellar-dwelling teams with little at stake? Or a critical battle between two top contenders?

Also, if a teammate converts a circus shot that none of his mates influenced whatsoever, the other four guys get points credited to their plus columns. Conversely, if a teammate commits a turnover that leads to a breakaway score by the opponents, points are registered in everybody’s minus side of the ledger.

Even so, I reserve most of my angst toward the various metrics that supposedly evaluate a player’s overall defensive capabilities. Like points scored against him in isolation situations — no differentiation being made for whether the points were scored in the low post, on a wing, as a result of a teammate’s foul, or whether the iso resulted from a very disadvantageous defensive switch.

Moreover, there are no numbers that can record the following defensive actions:

  • Good-or-poor defensive rotations.
  • Bigs showing on the weakside of a high screen.
  • Guards and wings either (properly) tailgating their men through baseline screens or (improperly) going over or under the top.
  • Attacking a right-handed jump-shooter’s release point with an outstretched left hand (so as to provide a distraction in the same vertical plane as the shot).
  • Showing and recovering in the shadow of the hoop.
  • Boxing out.
  • Properly coming to a jump-stop to close out an otherwise open shooter.
  • Hustling in transitional defense.

…  And so on.

To truly evaluate a player, simply watch him play over an extended number of games. And since there are 10 players and only one ball, the trick is to watch that player during the 80-to-90 percent of the game when he doesn’t have the ball.

The overriding, most relevant point of this discussion is that numbers cannot measure the courage or the spirit of any human being in any set of circumstances. To try to do so is both misguided and dehumanizing.

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