5 Ways NBA Pundits Mess with Fans' Perceptions of Basketball
As a fan and pundit, I make mistakes. Much as we try to analyze the league fairly and sanely, sports traffic in stirring emotion.
It is difficult to take in a thrilling game and come away with a sane analysis. Also, it is simply difficult to take in games. There are 30 teams playing an 82-game schedule, not counting the playoffs. We use statistics as a means of figuring out this whole hodgepodge for this reason.
Fans and commentators often tell me, "Watch the games!" as though that's an easy thing to do. I happen to watch these games (roughly three per evening), and let me tell you: Not only is there more NBA content than you could ever consume, it's pretty difficult to break down the content.
So much happens in a free-flowing game of five-on-five. Just watch the ball, and you'll miss so much. Real analysis takes time, and with the aid of slow-motion replays. This is why we're rife with mistakes and biases when discussing the sport we love. NBA basketball is beautifully complex—so much so, that it defies our simple opinions.
5. Position Problem
There is no real need for basketball positions to exist. None. Perhaps there was in the past, when "illegal defense" kept players in self-contained roles, but in the modern NBA, positions are a vestige of the past.
And yet, we tend to think in terms of positions. You'll often hear Rajon Rondo called the best "true point guard," as though the smallest guy on the court has some sacred duty to always pass.
This screws up any analysis of Rondo—certainly a talented player—because it ignores his tendency to pass too often. The Celtics have graded out as a mediocre offensive team these last three years and they could stand to benefit form Rajon shooting more. He can be more of a "true point guard" in the sense of fueling his team's offense if he operates less as a "true point guard."
4. Anti-Defense Bias
If you're a casual basketball fan, there's a good chance you haven't heard of Ekpe Udoh. He plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, which doesn't exactly help his Q rating. Also, he's only averaged a mere 19.5 minutes per game over the course of his career.
But whenever Ekpe plays, his teams do a lot better. As detailed by Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus, teams defend much better when Ekpe plays.
We just don't hold defense in the high esteem with which we hold the offensive side of the ball. The bias likely extends to basketball management itself, which has been meager with minutes for Ekpe in his first three seasons.
3. Pro-Offense Bias
The other side of anti-defense bias is pro-offense bias, and Antawn Jamison is a good example of this. When the Lakers picked up the scoring power forward, many fans and observers remarked on how it seemed quite a good pickup.
This wasn't the first time such remarks were made in regards to a contender adding Jamison. Cleveland did it back in 2010, and it led to the same kind of praise. While I'm not blaming Jamison for Cleveland's collapse against Boston, you'll be hard-pressed to find plus/minus evidence that he helps teams.
According to Basketball Value, Jamison's teams have performed worse defensively with him on the court in each of the past four seasons. Since 'Tawn can score, his horrid pick-and-roll defending often gets cast aside. It matters, though, as Lakers fans are increasingly discovering.
2. Not All Defense Is Equal
There was a lot of criticism over Steve Nash's MVPs, with the frequent charge of, "He plays no defense!" While, as previously noted, I wish we'd focus on the defensive side of the ball more often, we should also know that defensive impact is connected to a player's role.
Offense is about slashing through a defense or shooting over it. Defense then, is about occupying space. This means that larger players tend to be more defensively valuable, especially since larger players reside near the rim.
There's a reason as to why the last point guard to win Defensive Player of the Year was Gary Payton, back in 1996. With hand-checking now banned, there's little hope of staying in front of offensive players on the perimeter. So, the game's most valuable defenders tend to be rangy bigs like Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler and Omer Asik.
Defense isn't half the game for a guy like Nash. Demanding defense from your shortest player is like demanding tackling from a shutdown cornerback. It's nice if you can get it, but it's not their primary job.
1. Big-Market Bias
This is no slight to Derrick Rose, but does he win an MVP in say, Utah? Market size matters, as it exposes you to more fans and media. Also, the line between fans and media is quite blurry in an age of social media. A large fanbase can almost serve as a team's most valuable PR arm, trumpeting the exploits of favored players out to the masses.
I often find myself responding to fans of the Knicks, Celtics, and Lakers who think I "hate" their teams. It's simply just that. Since the fans of these teams are so numerous, and so passionate, I'm trying to operate as something of a correction.
Players who ply their trade before huge metropolises will always be overrated. That's just the nature of this business. If you play where the people are, you'll get all the more credit. Pity to guys like Chris Paul, whose reputations were undeserved because they worked magic in obscurity.