Against NBA Superlatives and Comparison

There is a seemingly irresistible tendency, characteristic of NBA viewers, regarding the ordering and ranking of players. The premise is simple. If you (the casual fan) are moderately familiar with the NBA product, then you should be able to observe the individual players and assign superlatives or other descriptors according to your observation: worst, bad, good, better, best. As you observe more and more, your convictions regarding these perceptions are consistently validated and deepened. Player X is good. Player Y is bad. Player Z is the best on the court right now. And most importantly, Player A is clearly, definitively, absolutely, and inarguably better than Player B. This sort of statement, of course, usually leads to an argument. Although every sport inspires discussion of this kind, the NBA seems to provide the most fertile terrain for development and propagation of the conversation’s central ideas. This is probably due to the widely acknowledged belief that professional basketball is the team sport most oriented toward individuals, where a particular player has the potential to affect a game in a more profound way than is typically possible in football, baseball, or soccer.

This conversation is constantly evolving as statistics and advanced metrics data become more prevalent. NBA viewers are inclined to cite these figures as the objective evidence supporting their originally subjective interpretations. For example, a viewer might notice that despite his high scoring totals, Toronto Raptors’ guard DeMar DeRozan leaves something to be desired with his shooting. Records of his made shots as a fraction of his total shots this season will yield a percentage, in this case 38, which is well below league average and well below teammate Kyle Lowry’s shooting percentage of 46. The statistic therefore provides confirmation of the original observation and the viewer can justifiably and factually make the claim that DeRozan is shooting the ball worse than Kyle Lowry this season. The logical fallacy, however, would be to then assert that Lowry is a better shooter than DeRozan. Lowry may be shooting better this season or even over the course of their respective careers. But a number of factors go into a made or missed shot including increased or decreased defensive attention, positional discrepancies, teammates, and coaches. Employing terms such as “better” or “worse” serves no purpose unless used in an authentic and factually based context.

The problem is only enhanced as the subject matter and statistics are further complicated. Websites, blogs, user comments, and TV analysts constantly dedicate time to ranking and classification exercises such as “top five NBA point guards” or “the ten best western conference forwards.” ESPN’s annual “NBA rank” article attempts to arrange every NBA player from the worst to the best before the season begins. While this fixation with ranking and comparing might generate substantial revenue and provoke interesting conversation, it does very little to describe the actual players and their ability to rebound, defend, shoot, pass, dribble, or score. Once again, the NBA viewing community turns to the numbers in an attempt to defend particular claims. More complex formulas produce statistical categories such as player efficiency rating (PER) and total win shares (TWS) which aim to encompass every measurable aspect of a game. These numbers are useful and they have a place in a meaningful conversation about basketball. However, their extent is limited by the very fact of their calculation. The process initiated to generate a statistic, no matter how inclusive, by necessity excludes certain data. This inevitably favors certain players while potentially diminishing the accomplishments and talents of others. NBA fans and media would be aghast if some bold novice were to make the claim that Portland Trailblazers’ journeyman center Robin Lopez is better than his teammate, six-time all-star LaMarcus Aldridge. But if the novice were considering only TWS from 2014, arguably the most comprehensive available statistic, Lopez would have to be viewed as the far superior player.

In 2014, the tired “stats don’t tell the whole story” cliche needs to be amended. The saying should probably convey something along the lines of “it’s impossible to tell the whole story, so why do we even try.” It is truly impossible, and often counterproductive, to understand one player in comparison to another. Even if everyone can agree that LeBron James is a better player than Henry Sims, we would not be able to express the degree to which James outperforms Sims or be able to adequately articulate all that goes into this understanding of one as better than the other. If there are issues equating ESPN’s top ranked player with the player it ranked last, how can it conceivably be helpful to debate between numbers 72 and 77? Why is an abstract conversation about the seven best point guards in the NBA even germane when there are actual games being played and real players competing? Basketball games are defined by poorly set screens which force guards into tough shots; by a heightened defensive effort from a team accused of being soft; by overcrowding in the lane on a baseline cut resulting in a turnover; by a lucky bounce of the ball. Anyone who knows basketball understands these facts intimately. This should be the narrative inundating possessions, games, and seasons rather than shaky and insincere tripe about legacies or player rankings. Instead of talking about A being better than B, let’s talk about what actually happened and why. Let’s talk about stifling defensive rotations, fallaway fifteen footers, and alley-oops off of an elbow screen. Let’s talk basketball.

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