I love sport lists. Get 10 NBA fans together and ask them who the 10 best NBA players of all time are, and you’re likely to get 10 different lists. Even getting a consensus on the best NBA player of all time proves to be difficult. Many will point to Russell’s rings, and just as many will claim Wilt was a man among boys. Some might say Jordan was clutch, while others might argue the “Big O” was the most versatile.
Lists tend to reveal a lot about the person making the list. You may have Russell at the top of your list if you think winning a team championship is the best measure of an individual. On the other hand if you think that winning a championship is more a team effort and doesn’t adequately reflect a single person’s accomplishments, then Wilt might be your guy. If you feel that today’s athletes are far superior and face tougher competition than those of yesteryear, then Jordan would be #1. While lists are subjective, it’s not as open as choosing your favorite ice cream flavor. While “pistachio” would be an acceptable answer at your local ice cream shop, saying that Bill Cartwright was the greatest NBA player of all time is just wrong.
Recently ESPN asked their writers to rate the top 10 centers of all time. Henry Abbott of truehoop.com, and ESPN newbie, filled out his form and included Bill Walton & Dave Cowens, but omitted Moses Malone. Bill Simmons made a short blurb about Malone’s exclusion in one of his columns, and Abbott felt the need to explain his reasoning at truehoop. While there might be valid reasons for ranking Moses 11th or greater, I think Abbott’s position is a bit odd.
If he had been 6-9 he probably would have made it. I’m into overachievers. But Malone’s awfully big. And strong. Not fair, but true, I’m afraid.
Three different sites list Malone at 6-10, but I don’t want to split hairs over an inch. Abbott’s point is that he would have viewed Malone’s accomplishments more favorably if he were a smaller player. But I have to ask: given all other things being equal, how would being shorter made Moses Malone a better player? I just don’t get the argument there, because it leads down a slippery but not very steep slope where smaller players get more credit for their achievement.
If Henry’s discussion ended there, you wouldn’t be reading about it here. But he continues onward.
I’ll tell you this much, though: you’re not going to convince me just with stats. I play basketball, or something close to it. I never thought being a winner was necessarily about getting the most points and rebounds. It’s about building a team.
I’d like to state the obvious and say there’s a strong correlation between getting the most points and winning. But seriously, what is the purpose of bringing out the “I play basketball” card? Is Abbott suggesting that there is a division between those that can ball and those that can multiply fractions? Or rather that only those who play basketball are qualified to understand what makes a winning team? I play basketball too. So does Dean Oliver, and I’m sure there are tons of people in the statistical community that can lace them up. Nonetheless you don’t need to be a great basketball player to understand what being a winner is about. Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale were much better players than Jerry Colangelo, but who would you rather have building your team?
Abbott continues his thoughts on statistics:
But for now, I’m convinced that points and rebounds, as freestanding indicators of a player’s quality, are a total crapshoot. If Eddy Curry were a total ballhog, he’d shoot every time he touched it, and no doubt score more. But of course he’d really hurt his team in the process. No way to factor that in when we put points and rebounds on the altar as sacred stats.
I can see four major problems in Henry’s example. The first is that Curry is a notoriously poor rebounder. So by using points and rebounds as an indicator of Curry’s quality you’d probably get a good understanding of his value. In other words if you were in a coma for the last 8 years & I gave you a newspaper with Curry’s stats, you’d probably have a fair idea of what Eddy brings to the court.
Second is Abbott’s assumption that Curry could score much more if he were a ballhog. There is no doubt that Curry can score one on one against just about any center in the league. However, like any NBA player, Curry can’t score with two defenders draped on him. And unfortunately Curry is unable to find the open man when double teamed. Hence opposing teams find it a low risk move to double team Curry, and by using this tactic they can limit how many points he can score. If Eddy Curry were able to find his teammates for an easy bucket, then opponents wouldn’t be able to double team him as much, and therefore Curry would be able to increase his scoring averages. So Curry’s scoring average isn’t predicated on some kind of statistical altering greed, but rather it’s limited by his poor passing ability.
Third Henry assumes that if Curry scored more it would hurt his team. But Curry’s primary function is scoring. Other than grabbing offensive rebounds, Curry doesn’t do much else well. If Eddy Curry were able to drop 29 points a night instead of 19, it would benefit the Knicks. The Knicks are trying their hardest to get the ball to Eddy more, not less, in an effort to increase his usefulness to the team.
Finally Henry asserts that should Curry hurt his team by going for personal glory, that there is “no way to factor that in” with stats. O RLY? Should Curry become a “total ballhog” you’d see a steep rise in his turnovers per minute, and his PER would plummet. To see how this affects the team you could look at the team’s offensive efficiency, or you could go to 82games.com and check the offense’s +/- with Eddy on the court. So in fact, there are many ways to statistically “factor in” a player that is in over his head.
It seems to me that Henry Abbott’s main gripe is that statistics isn’t the panacea of NBA analysis. That is you can’t take a single formula & use it to find precise answers as to the net value of a player. In some cases statistics do a poor job of capturing a player’s worth. Guys like Bruce Bowen, Quinton Ross, and Raja Bell aren’t adequately represented by their statistics. But should we just discard all statistics because it gives a few players the short end of the stick? That would be like eliminating capitalism because of the poor. Statistics bring such a surfeit of unbiased data that we can live with their deficiencies.
Abbott frequently uses the term “crude” when describing statistics (“using one players’ individual’s points and rebounds as a major tool in that debate is like using a shovel as a major tool for brain surgery: so crude it hurts.”). However, I find statistics to be an accurate and elegant way to communicate information. Take for example my assessment of Eddy Curry. Curry is a highly efficient scorer (19.3 ppg, 58% FG%) who doesn’t rebound well (7.1 reb/g) especially on the defensive end (4.6 dreb/g). He isn’t among the league leaders in scoring because he doesn’t pass well (0.9 ast/g, 3.4 to/g). The Knicks aren’t doing well mainly because of their defense (26th defensive efficiency) and some of the blame points to Curry (0.6 blk/g, defense 5.7 points worse with Curry on the court). Without the numbers to back it up, my view of Curry might be skewed by my allegiances.
Finally, Henry uses this analogy:
Points and rebounds are only ubiquitous because they are so simple to measure. Any idiot with a clipboard can chart that.
Similarly, it’s really easy to tell if your car’s headlights are working. But that’s a bad bit of investigation if you want to figure out if you’re going to make it safely cross-country. For that you gotta pop the hood and get your hands dirty.
I have to agree with him on this, but I feel as if Abbott missed his own advice. Moses Malone has more points, rebounds, free throws, MVP awards, and All Star appearances than Walton & Cowens combined. The only advantage I can see that Walton & Cowens have over Malone is that they’ve won more titles. I can’t say for sure what Abbott’s exact criteria was (rings?, desire?, height?) but by ignoring the wealth of statistical information available, he certainly didn’t pop that hood open and get his hands dirty.