Exposing NBA Myths

 by Jon Nichols

Most people that follow the NBA were regularly taught as they learned the game about certain so-called truths.  Undoubtedly most of these are in fact true, and they make it easier to follow and enjoy basketball.  However, there are a few notions out there that, despite being defended by very poor reasoning, are believed by just about everyone and used in water-cooler discussions around the country. 

As the “Moneyball” revolution infiltrates the NBA, team owners, presidents, general managers, coaches, and even fans are willing to challenge the beliefs commonly held by most people.  Most teams today have someone in their front office familiar with the advanced basketball statistics that are being developed as we speak.  Through this article, I hope to continue this encouraging movement of progressive thinking by tackling three common myths believed by many people today.

Taking a ton of shots isn’t really a good thing
If I were to ask you right now who the best five players in the league in terms of scoring are, what would you look up?  The answer most people would give is points per game.  The stat is good at telling us one thing, and that one thing is literally just points per game.  It does not tell us how good of a scorer a player is, and it definitely does not tell us how efficiently that player does it.  Before I go any further, the importance of efficiency should be emphasized.

Basketball can be looked at as a game of possessions (an idea well expressed by Dean Oliver in his book Basketball on Paper).  In some ways it can be compared to baseball.  Baseball teams have 27 outs to score runs, exactly the same amount as their opponent.  If the game goes extra innings, both teams are given an equal amount of additional chances to score.  Opposing basketball teams, just like in baseball, also have equal amounts of chances to score.  Every possession ends in the other team getting the ball. 

That is where efficiency comes into play.  You must make the most out of your possessions, and you do this by shooting high percentages, getting offensive rebounds, drawing fouls, and not turning the ball over.  The more efficient team in any NBA game is guaranteed to win.  The Denver Nuggets score over six more points per game than the San Antonio Spurs, but the Spurs are the better offensive team because they are more efficient with their fewer possessions than the Nuggets are with their many possessions.   On the other end, the Phoenix Suns are actually an above average defensive team despite allowing more points per game than all but five teams in the league.  They do not allow their opponents to be very efficient on the offensive end. 

To sum it all up, you can not outshoot your opponent.  For every possession you get, the opponent is getting one right back.  Your team can take 3 shots per minute, but that just means your opponent is doing the same thing.  The key is to make those three shots.

Now this all seems simple, and I doubt many people would disagree with what I’ve said so far.  The problem is that people have a hard time translating this idea to the evaluation of individual players.  Individual players need to be efficient with their possessions just like teams do.  Although there is value in being able to create your own shot and carry a team’s workload, this ability is often overrated.  The Philadelphia 76ers, despite having one of the league’s top scorers (in terms of points per game) in Allen Iverson every year, have been a very bad offensive team since drafting the Georgetown Hoya in 1996.  This is to be expected when most of your shots are being taken by a player who tends to be inefficient.   Iverson and Gilbert Arenas score more points per game than Dirk Nowitzki this year, but it is not a stretch to say that Nowitzki helps his team the most offensively out of the three.

Points per game is often the result of the desire to score, not the ability to score.  Antoine Walker put up gaudy offensive numbers with the Boston Celtics through 2003, but in reality was hurting his team on the offensive end.  The Celtics were one of the worst offensive teams in the league throughout Walker’s career there.  Walker’s averages dropped dramatically once he left the Celtics.  Did he forget how to score?  No, he just took fewer shots because he was moved to different situations.

Yet somehow, the misleading stat known as points per game has been parlayed into some impressive paydays for many players. 

Basketball is a team sport, right?
The best players are generally on the best teams, this much is true.  But the key word is generally.  People often forget that you can have really good players on not-so-good teams.  When people see this, they tend to assume that this player just must not be as good as we thought.  Clearly, if he was any good, his team would be in the playoffs fighting for the championship, right? 

Look no further than Kevin Garnett.  He is arguably one of the best three players of this decade, but you won’t find many people who agree with that statement.  Although people acknowledge that he’s been surrounded by lackluster talent for most of his career, they still hold it against him that he’s never made the NBA Finals and that he usually does not make the playoffs or gets knocked out early.  He just doesn’t have what it takes to win.

The problem is that it takes more than one good player to make an NBA team good.  It takes more than two, more than three, more than four or five.  Championships are often won by superstars, but those superstars are surrounded by efficient players who compliment their star’s talents well.

This common misperception often plays a big role in the MVP voting process.  Garnett received no votes at all for his efforts last season, despite having a dominant season as usual.  However, Tony Parker and Shawn Marion received votes, and Chauncey Billups finished fifth overall in voting.  It would take a lot of convincing for me to believe that any of those three are more valuable to their team than Kevin Garnett is to the Minnesota Timberwolves.  It would also take a lot of convincing for me to believe that any of those three had better individual performances during the year than Garnett.  In the end, the MVP award is a team award, something that seems redundant considering the league already gives out a team award at the end of the Finals. 

The best teams are not always made up of best friends
Team chemistry is a tricky subject.  Intangibles, which by definition can not be measured, are often measured and compared among different teams.  Chemistry and intangibles are often the catchall for anything an analyst doesn’t see or doesn’t understand.  The analyst doesn’t see that the Detroit Pistons are actually quite efficient on offense to go along with their great defense, so he or she assumes that it must be the intangibles and “locker room chemistry” that make them good.

I do not want to say that every good thing a player can do is measurable.  Statistics tell a lot of the story, but they don’t tell the whole story.  Players that play well together, go for loose balls, and make the hustle plays are invaluable to their teams. Most championship teams have a few of those guys.  I have no problem crediting those guys for teams’ victories.

The problem is when things like locker room chemistry are given as reasons for team success.  It’s easy to pick examples of teams that have won with a group of players that got along and shared the same mentality, but it is just as easy to pick examples of teams that were quite the opposite.  Michael Jordan once punched out Steve Kerr in practice, and MJ often verbally tormented his players.  Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three championships despite not being the best of friends.  Dwyane Wade and Gary Payton exchanged verbal jabs with each other during a playoff series last year against the Bulls, and then held up the championship trophy a few weeks later.

Instead of attributing team success to things that don’t have much to do with the game of basketball, we should instead focus on analyzing what we do know.  Instead of just taking the easy route and calling every thing intangibles, we should improve our understanding of the many little aspects of the game.  Tools such as statistics are becoming more advanced and better at picking up on the little things, and in time they may be able to tell us a whole lot.




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