Misleading basketball fans with “naked” statistics

Bill Simmons, in his Book of Basketball, argues that the sport of basketball has the best statistics because, unlike any other sport, you can easily judge a basketball player’s performance by simply looking at his stat line.  Yes and no.

Yes you can evaluate a basketball player’s performance value from his stat line, but only if you keep his statistics within the framework of production per minute and possessions used.  Then and only then can you understand the value each statistic has in determining the outcome of the contest and the particular player’s contribution to that outcome.

Yet in basketball, unlike almost every other sport, pundits and news services constantly find it acceptable to divorce basketball statistics from their proper context.  They mislead basketball fans with what I call “naked” statlines.

Case in point.  On tonight’s ESPN scroll, next to the Bucks-Orlando score, a game which Orlando won handily, ESPN casually informs that Orlando C Dwight Howard scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds whereas Milwaukee’s C Andrew Bogut scored 15 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds.

This naked statline undoubtedly will mislead viewers into believing the two centers played to a virtual standoff, thereby negating each other’s impact on the game.

They did not AT ALL.  Howard’s 17 points and 10 rebounds came in less playing time than Bogut’s, and his points came at the cost of far fewer offensive possessions owned by his team.  It turns outs that the center contest was not only NOT a standoff, it was so heavily weighted toward Howard that its UNEVENNESS may have, in fact, decided the outcome in favor of Orlando.   Yet the statline in the scroll conveys the exact opposite impression.

What’s the big deal, you’re asking?  “They don’t have that much room”, you’re saying?  Maybe true, but let me ask you this.

Tell me the last time you saw this scrolled statline following a Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers score:  “…Brett Favre 225 yards passing, Aaron Rodgers 271 yards passing…”  N

Never.  You’ve never seen such a scroll because establishment information sources would never divorce football passing yards from its proper context:  attempts passing.  They find it necessary to put football statistics in context,  yet they constantly divorce basketball statistics from their context. Why?

Or how about this one after a baseball score: Derek Jeter 2 hits, Alex Rodriquez 1 hit.  Again, never.  They never divorce baseball hits from their proper context.

So why are basketball fans constantly treated to naked and misleading statistics?

Because basketball statistics, while they may seem facially informative, are ironically the most prone to abuse and the most misunderstood.  Be wary.


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