Skill vs Impact in the NBA

Comparing players can always be problematic. How do you account for era differences, positional differences, teammate quality and opposition quality?

All of these are valid considerations to account for when trying to compare various players. But what about impact vs skill? What even is the difference? Is there one? Let’s take a look.

There are many metrics and accomplishments that can be and that are used when comparing players to determine who is the better player. And therein, is actually the likely problem.

What is the definition of a better player? If player A score more points per game than player B, is player A automatically the better player in spite of additional stats or context? Of course not. Generally speaking, it is reasonable to assert that the player with the greater positive statistical impact on their team compared to whomever they are being compared to, is the better player.

An interesting distinction here is that the better or rather more impactful player is not necessarily more skilled than another player of lesser impact. Kevin Durant himself recently caught flack for implying that Kyrie Irving was more skilled than NBA legend Allen Iverson. As a superfan of AI myself, I am probably biased inn my thinking that Iverson was a more impactful player than Kyrie has proven to be thus far. But is Kyrie really more skilled? Probably, yeah.

Kyrie is a better shooter from both beyond the arc and within it, has an elite lay-up package and it seems to be clear that his handles are a progression of the blueprint that Iverson laid out.

Disagreement about Kyrie and AI aside, is it fair to deem a player with superior skill as the “worse” player if he is in fact less impactful on his team?

Yes.

Despite the fact that the impact a player can have on the basketball court is ostensibly as collection of the skills they bring, those skills along with other intangible factors coalesce into something greater. If player A has better handles, a better shot, and is a better passer than player B, they are without question more skilled.

However, if player B, through a combination of perhaps, superior size and basketball IQ, is able to generate more offense both for themselves and their teammates, not only will they statistically be the more impactful player, but also the better player.

How would this even be possible? Consider instead of comparing Kyrie Irving to Allen Iverson, compare him statistically and skill-wise to Shaquille O’Neal. It is quite obvious that in most aspects of basketball, Allen Iverson is more skilled that Shaquille O’Neal. He is a better free-throw shooter, jump shooter, ball handler, and passer (except out of the post).

Is he the better player though? Very few would make that assertion. Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance on the court is almost unrivaled in NBA history, and any sane GM would choose him over Iverson. Shaq to be fair is a highly skilled player in his own right, you don’t get to be that good without having a high level of skill as an athlete, but despite his place as an all-time great, he clearly isn’t the most skilled player to have graced a basketball court.

So, does it make sense to construct a basketball team based entirely on their impact or potential impact versus skills? Well…not necessarily. As mentioned before, there is a strong correlation between the two. Particularly in young players, skills or burgeoning skills does have the ability to come together in a meaningful and impactful way. This is often hinted at when pundits mention a player’s skills but opine that they just need to “figure it out”, or “put it all together”.

With zero context or additional information most people would prefer a rangy, athletic 6’6” two-guard that can guard multiple positions and even create his own shot over an undersized pass first point guard. But most would also choose Chris Paul over Andre Iguodala.

A young player with above average athleticism and a serviceable jumper may be potentially seen as a high ceiling player due to possessing scalable skills at a young age. Even in this hypothetical, the improvement of those skills will not necessarily translate to a more impactful player. This is partially because not all skills scale up equally and not all skills are equally impactful.

As far as the scalability of skills, generally speaking it’s exceedingly rare that a player can entire the league with a weakness that’s significantly below average compared to his peers and improve to the point where that same skill is now elite level. Passing and court vision are fairly scalable, players can and do work on simple tweaks, keeping their head up while operating on or off ball, physically working on improving accuracy while passing.

Shooting of any kind is generally less scalable especially for players that started playing at a younger age as bad habits tend to be deeply ingrained. This, combined with overhauling a totally broken shot and have disastrous consequences in the short-term on the court. So even when considering that not all skills scale up as easily, remember, they’re not all equally impactful. A player that makes meaningful improvements as a shooter will likely have more impact on the court than a player that has made gains as on their ball-handling, depending on their positions.

Yes, this is yet another layer that impacts the skill vs impact outcome on a court. In an increasingly “position-less style” era that basketball is shifting to, this will likely become from less true, but skills are still largely position specific and as a result will affect a player’s impact on the court. Large players with possess skills that are typical from each position will always be the most impactful players. This is why Giannis is rising and becoming dominant force in the league that he is. However, most players, not even Giannis, truly possesses all of the skills of guards, wings and bigs.

And because skills are still largely position specific, a point guard with excellent post defense and rebounding skills will not be as impactful as another player of the same position that has excellent court vision and a reliable 3-point shot. Even across positions, a post player that excels at both post defense and offense, will likely have more impact than a guard with excellent court vision and on ball defense.

The modernization of the game is seeing an increasing level of skill at all positions and a gradual size increase at the smaller positions. But until the game becomes so position-less that player types and positions become almost homogenized, impact players will not necessarily be the most skilled in the game.

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