May 15, 2012

Why Using Championships, Playoff Performances, And Clutch Moments To Judge A Player's Greatness Is Ridiculous

     When you're a professional athlete, the thing you want more than anything else is to win a championship.  MVP awards, scoring titles, All-Star games, and things like that are nice, but nothing sounds better than celebrating with your teammates after claiming the rest to be called the best team in the league.  I understand that.  The problem is that when we try to judge how great a player is, we tend to use that same logic.  All that matters is winning.  As a result, any analysis of a player's level of excellence leads to a discussion of three things:  championships, playoff performances, and production in clutch moments.  However, those three criteria are horrible for distinguishing which players were great and which players were not.  Here are three reasons why:

1.  They arbitrarily ignore/devalue a ton of information.

     One of the main rules in the field of statistics is to get the largest sample size you can.  And sports is all about statistics.  As much as people try to explain any variation in points, yards, or hits from game to game, some portion of it is pure randomness.  And that means when you look at more games, a player's numbers will be closer to their true averages, what they would be if the player played an infinite amount of games.

     Let's take Michael Jordan, for example, since his existence is pretty much the reason for this post.  In his career he played 1251 games, 1072 in the regular season and 179 in the playoffs.  Right away, the discussion goes to his performance in playoff games.  Now we're basically throwing away 1072 games worth of information in favor of 179 games that happened to fall in April, May, and June, and are against a set of teams that don't properly represent the whole group of teams in the NBA.  There's no way that doing this can give us more accurate information on how good an athlete was.

     Okay, now we're talking championships.  Provided that the previous rounds had gone the way Jordan wanted, we're looking at 35 Finals games worth of data.  Now we're down to less than 3% of all the games he played in his career.  Which, again, is bad.

     How about everyone's favorite, clutch performances?  This is the Skip Bayless method of arguing, and it annoys me to no end.  Every discussion revolves around one or two moments, usually in the fourth quarter or overtime, that perfectly illustrate the argument being made.  Let's assume that there are 10 crunch-time shots taken by every player in their career that affect our feeling of whether or not they are "clutch".  Jordan attempted over 29,000 field goals in his career.  Now we're looking at 0.03% of those and trying to learn something from it?  If everybody takes 10 crucial shots, somebody is bound to make all 10 just by chance.  It doesn't mean anything.

2.  They're very ambiguous.
     Robert Horry has 7 championship rings, but gets very little credit for them.  On five of those teams he wasn't a primary starter, and he doesn't get recognition for starting on the other two (I had no idea he ever was a full-time starter until now when I looked it up).  Why so little love?  Because he wasn't very important to those teams (except for rare occasions).

     Kobe Bryant, on the other hand, was an All-NBA player for the 2000, 2001, and 2002 championship Laker teams.  Yet when L.A. took on Boston for the 2008 title, the analysts all said Kobe needed to win a title without Shaquille O'Neal, that Kobe's first 3 championships were because of Shaq.  So does Kobe have 5 championships?  Or does he really only have two, because the other three somehow don't count?  And what about Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Ron Artest, who were all major factors in the Lakers' two most recent championships?  Do they get credit for those titles, or are we somehow to believe it was all Kobe?  The nuances of assigning championship to individual players are so intricate and nonsensical that there's no way it can have any value as an indicator of greatness.

     And let's not forget about playoff games in general (I almost did).  By most accounts, LeBron is considered to be a poor performer in the playoffs.  Yet he's had some remarkable games in rounds as late as the Conference Finals, and tends to play consistently well in every round of the playoffs besides the two NBA Finals series he's been in.  So are we supposed ignore all the earlier rounds?  Only the Finals count as playoff games?

     And don't get me started on "clutch".  What does "clutch" even mean?  Is it high-pressure playoff games?  Because LeBron's had just as many good ones as bad ones.  Is it any close game in the fourth quarter?  Because I've heard about a bunch of huge fourth quarters from LeBron, and still he has a reputation for non-clutchness.  Is it the last five minutes of a five-point game?  Is it the last shot of the game?  I have no idea what "clutch" actually refers to, and I'm guessing for everyone else it only means whatever will get their point across.

3.  They leave out a lot of other factors.

     This is mostly for championships.  One player cannot win a championship.  You need the right amount of good starters; a good bench; the right balance of scoring, passing, rebounding, and defense between all those players; good on-court chemistry between said players; and a coach that knows what to do in every situation.  No one player, no matter how good they are, can make up for a lack of all those things, and therefore, no one player deserves all the credit for any championship.

     The same thing goes for playoff games.  You can't make the playoffs with a lousy team.  You can't play well in the Conference Semifinals unless your team is good enough to win the first round.  You can't play well in the Conference Finals unless your team is good enough to win the Conference Semifinals.  You can't play well in the NBA Finals unless your team is good enough to win the Conference Finals.  And you can't win a championship without the proper supporting cast.  That's not even mentioning other factors like playoff opponents and injuries.  Everything has to be just right for any player to win a title.

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