Do Fans Place Too High Of An Emphasis On Stats?

By Ryan McNeill

Something that I’ve been thinking about this past week is the emphasis that fans, players and coaches place on statistics. When entering into a discussion about an upcoming game or talking about a game that we recently watched something we focus on is who scored the most points, snagged the most rebounds, blocked the most shots and or a variety of other stats that can be derived from a particular game or season.

While individual and team stats can be a great tool to explain who wins or loses a game, I feel that using stats isn’t always the best tool to measure the worth of an individual player to his team.

In a recent Toronto Star article Raptors rookie Jorge Garbajosa had to say about North American’s love of stats:

“Here, I think the problem – and it’s just my first year – is that everybody is talking about the stats. Everybody is saying, ‘He scored 25 points with 47 per cent field-goal shooting.’ I think this is not a good thing for basketball. Because a lot of things that you cannot write in the paper help a lot for a team to win. But this is maybe the way you do things.”

Garbajosa followed this quote up later in the article when he stated:

“The stats are not important. When they show the game on TV in Spain, they don’t take too much care about who’s scoring points. … The next day people are not talking about how many points you scored. They are just talking about how the game was. Maybe that is the difference. I don’t know.”

These quotes by Garbajosa reminded me of a key concept in Brian McCormick’s book “Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development.” In that book Coach McCormick tries to take the focus off of winning or losing games in youth basketball and instead switch the focus to the development of skills in young players. He feels that when coaches place to high of an importance on winning games that it’s detrimental to the development of young players. I feel that if coaches can get younger players to stop looking at their stats following games and convince these players to make an extra pass or put the work into being a strong defender than fans will see great improvements in the level of basketball played at the professional level in the NBA within the next decade.

I feel that Garbajosa has a great point when he says that North Americans place too high of an importance on individual statistics from games. Case in point – who cares if Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are two of the league’s top scorers if the Nuggets can’t win ball games?

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4 thoughts on “Do Fans Place Too High Of An Emphasis On Stats?

  1. What I would say is that stats are frequently misused or misunderstood. I certainly have misunderstood a concept and subsequently misapplied a statistic. I still do. To make the analogy: let’s say a player can’t make his free throws. The coach tells the player to correct his wrist motion. The player still misses because his elbow drifting to the side was the actual problem. That situation can easily apply to statistical analysis. If you identify the wrong area for analysis, you won’t come to a useful conclusion. Statistics are a ripe area for this kind of thing. When we see numbers there can be a tendency to stop thinking about the problem. But collecting the data is only one step. Proper analysis of that data is the real key. Or to use another terrible analogy: Just because I can cut my jugular vein with a knife, doesn’t mean it’s no good for cutting my bread.

  2. great post, ryan. very inspiring too – i started writing my thoughts here but it ended up so long – and probably incoherent – that i had to turn it into a post on my blog. in fact, i had to turn that into a 2-part post.
    the gist of my reasoning is this, though: stats can be as misleading as illuminating. the main difficult is knowing precisely what you’re measuring while never forgetting to acknowledge that stats do not provide us with a “superior” view of the game; it’s just another point of view that should be added to the appreciation of the game.

    if you ever have the time, i hope you get to read my posts about this. its just a subject that provokes a deep emotional reaction on me.

  3. Rob: You had a great point when you wrote “If you identify the wrong area for analysis, you won’t come to a useful conclusion. Statistics are a ripe area for this kind of thing. When we see numbers there can be a tendency to stop thinking about the problem.” I agree that stats can alert a coach or player to a possible weakness in their game. The point that I was trying to make is that fans (and sometimes players and coaches) place too high of an emphasis on individual stats like leading scorer or rebounder. A stat that explains why a team went on a 12-0 in the fourth being due to a team shooting 90% from the field is good game analysis – spitting out the game high scorer and rebounder is just lazy journalism. I was a huge fan of what Jorge said about North Americans talking about stats instead of the game (good weakside defense, stifling zone defense). I’ve found that whenever I watch Sports Center or any other show that has highlights from the night before they just throw out stats from the game rather than get into techinical aspects of what transpired.

    Pedro: Thanks for drawing my attention to your article – it was a great read! Readers can check it out by going to http://posterized.blogspot.com/2007/02/stats-and-nba-part-i.html

  4. ryan – i’ve just posted part II of my thoughts on stats & the nba: http://posterized.blogspot.com/2007/02/stats-and-nba-part-ii.html

    In this post I try to explain why I actually love stats. I largely agree with what Rob said there.

    The whole thing about SportsCenter – it’s certainly lazy journalism, I agree. But I guess it’s not entirely their fault: it’s just the quickest – and most misleading – way of summing games up. Time constraints surely do that to you and that’s a real shame. Besides it’s all also part of the pervading “celebrity culture” mindset that plagues our time. Can’t see a way out of that.

    Unless one is a hardcore NBA fan or a supporter of a particular team he doesn’t really want to waste 20 minutes of his time with a recap of a “meaningless” regular season NBA game. So I guess we could blame the season length too.

    All those factors act combined to mystify the game and the use of stats to the point where it becomes completely fetishized. Real shame. However I still have some hope as long as TIm Duncan keeps being voted an all-star starter. The guy has great fundamentals and none of that flashy showboating of Vince Carter et al. The Spurs have a peculiar playing style which means he’ll never get to average 30ppg or have off-the-chart stats. He’s solid, reliable and just great. The fact that the public acknowledges that and favors him over more media-friendly types is certainly something to be celebrated.

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