“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The analytics boom has been present in the NBA for a while, and we are experiencing its peak. We’ve never had so many triple-doubles, double-doubles, and all sorts of records being broken – and the regular season ratings are in a steady decline. People don’t watch the games, but scroll through social media, maybe check out the box-score and then pass judgment.
Don’t get me wrong; numbers can reveal a lot of things. There is, of course, a but – only if you place them in the right context. For that, you have to watch the actual game. The prime example of this phenomenon is the triple-double thing. A catchy phrase that signifies our fascination with the decimal system. Last night, Stan Van Gundy had a reality check for everyone drooling over triple-doubles.
Triple-doubles are like Twitter – there’s no chance for a real conversation there. The whole story behind advanced analytics was to try and explain the players that seem to contribute to winning (or losing) more than your basic box-score would show – particularly today when certain guys have total control over a team and 00 status.
“There’s a big difference between 15 points and 35 points. There’s a big difference between 10 rebounds and 18 rebounds. There’s a big difference between 10 assists and 17 assists. So to say a triple-double is a measure of a great game, I don’t know. You got to tell me what the guy shot and how many turnovers he had and what he did defensively; the whole thing. I get it. They’re nice, round numbers, and people get into those things in sports. But I’ve never really been one that thought a whole lot of the whole triple-double thing.”Stan Van Gundy, via Mark Medina
There’s a big difference between James Harden with the Rockets or Trae Young in Atlanta dropping a triple-double, and let’s say Isiah Thomas with the Bad Boy Pistons. Efficiency is the name of the game – can you do it within the flow of a team-oriented style of play, or are you just jacking up shots and screaming at teammates when they grab a rebound you had your eye on?
No amount of stats can substitute watching the actual game, understanding the chess match that goes on during those 48 minutes, and valuing the contribution individuals have to their team’s success. Numbers have a role in that valuation, but if you stay there, you’ve barely scratched the surface.