Rant: The War On Advanced Analytics

Increasingly, there seems to be a war on advanced analytics. Typically its opponents are older and former NBA players who feel like the game they love is being disrupted by numbers.

NBA fans everywhere, even casual ones, are all too familiar with traditional measuring stats. Points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks are the most commonly referenced by fans and analysts alike.

Perhaps even more importantly, is the interpretation of those stats. If Player X averages 8 assists and 1.7 steals per game, they are deemed to be a great play maker and excellent defender. Players with a high points per game average are seen as prolific scorers. Furthermore, field goal percentage often acts as a quick measure of a player’s efficiency.

However, as the game and our understanding of it has advanced, the breadth of the things that we measure and even can measure has significantly increased over the years. Those that are anti-analytics or anti-advanced stats will often argue that “the eye test” is all that is needed to evaluate a player’s talent. Advanced metrics are eschewed as the tool of the nerd who would otherwise have no meaningful connection to the game.

The problem with this take is the obvious oversight on what advanced metrics even are. Statistics or metrics are really only considered advanced insofar as how frequently or rather infrequently they are used or understood. Any statistic is merely a tool that can and should be used in tandem with observing a player on the court. Advanced metrics and statistics are not meant to be an end all be all on a player’s ability or productivity on the court.

To the contrary, advanced statistics are usually intended to measure specific things on the court. Advanced statistics are not a fabrication of things that are not occurring on the court. In fact, statistics in general can either confirm preconceived notions of a player’s skill set, or can serve to actually debunk, or clarify with greater specificity what a player is contributing.

The fact that advanced analytics can provide additional evidence or clarity on a player’s accomplishments on the court, makes the push-back against analytics that much more bewildering. Conversations about the greatest player(s) of all time, for example, are often agenda filled and biased.

However, a deep look into most advanced statistics will confirm what the eye test often shows, players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James are clearly far and away better than their contemporaries. It also reveals though, the two players are much closer statistically than many believe.

That exactly is the point. The eye test can take us but so far. It is obvious that Michael Jordan and LeBron James are special talents, without ever glancing at a stat sheet. Chris Paul is clearly a talented player. However, without analyzing the stats closely, one might not realize just how accomplished Chris Paul is as a player.

There are many subjective accolades that cloud the conversation. All-Star selections, MVPs, All-NBA teams, etc. But none of those are a direct measure of a player’s impact on the court. Saying that Michael Jordan went “6 for 6” in the Finals is almost a meaningless statement without the relevant context.

Sheer number of titles is also not indicative of a player’s impact on the court (looking at you Robert Horry). Therefore, when players, former players, TV personalities and fans dismiss advanced analytics as ruining, the game, they are missing the point. Advanced analytics, in fact enhance the game.

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