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The Friday Five: The 5 Stages of Discovering Advanced Stats

The Friday Five

Welcome to this week’s edition of The Friday Five! This is a feature that I post every Friday in which I give my thoughts on a topic that’s related to basketball video games, the real NBA or another area of interest to our community, either as a list of five items or in the form of a Top 5 countdown.

With the 2015 NBA Draft in the books, it would probably make sense to write about it in this week’s Friday Five. However, I didn’t follow this year’s Class very closely, so to be honest, there’s not much I can say. D’Angelo Russell was a bit of a surprise at number two, the 76ers probably aren’t as worried about Joel Embiid now, and I’m optimistic about the Bulls picking up Bobby Portis. With not a whole lot else to say – certainly not enough to fill a whole column – I’ve decided on a more light-hearted topic this week: The 5 Stage of Discovering Advanced Stats.

Advanced stats (or if you prefer, analytics) have definitely become more prominent and popular with NBA teams, analysts, and fans alike. They certainly are interesting and useful, though not everyone is a fan. Notably, Charles Barkley is on record as suggesting that proponents of advanced stats are dateless nerds. While I don’t agree with The Round Mound of the Rebound on that one, there are some people who perhaps get a little too wrapped up in them. For your entertainment, I present The 5 Stage of Discovering Advanced Stats; any resemblance to the Kübler-Ross model is purely…well, intentional, if I’m to be completely honest. Let’s get started.

Stage 1: Denial

James Harden in NBA 2K15

Advanced stats? What are all these ridiculous numbers, challenging my knowledge and perception of basketball? Yeah, sure, because mathematicians make the best basketball analysts! What’s that famous Homer Simpson quote? “People can come up with statistics to prove anything. Forfty (sic) percent of all people know that!” Advanced stats…seems like creative manipulation of the numbers in a desperate attempt to disprove common knowledge and conventional wisdom. Yeah, nice try. Here’s another classic Homer Simpson quote for you: NERRRRRD!

No, that’s not my actual opinion of advanced stats, but it’s not uncommon for basketball fans to feel that way upon first discovering them. Advanced stats do challenge some commonly held beliefs, but they also confirm conventional wisdom as well, while providing a means of quantifying it. It doesn’t help that advanced stats can be misused, or put forth in a very condescending manner – more on that in a little bit – but if nothing else, they can be a bit overwhelming at first. In any event, that initial reaction is often rejection, or at the very least, scepticism. I have to admit, I didn’t grasp the value of advanced stats right away.

Stage 2: Wonder

Derrick Rose in NBA Live 15

But then, you stop and think about it. Whether we’re talking raw stats or advanced stats, they’re an objective measure of a player’s production. Sure, we can wax poetic about a player’s abilities, make educated guesses, and through keen observation, offer up anecdotal evidence that isn’t completely wide the mark. However, we are still making guesses, and to some extent, we’re always going to be held hostage by own biases. Advanced stats can be overwhelming at first, but they’re also interesting, a fresh idea. And without new ideas, new methods, and a willingness to change our minds as new discoveries are made, where would society be?

At this stage, you probably don’t fully grasp advanced stats, and you may still feel a little sceptical as a result. Nevertheless, you’re not immediately rejecting them, as you initially did. There’s definitely something to these advanced stats, and quite a few noteworthy numbers do in fact line up with what you’ve always considered to be conventional wisdom. You may not be completely on board with advanced stats and using them just yet, but you’re definitely intrigued.

Stage 3: Excitement

2015 NBA Finals Prediction: Warriors in 5

These advanced stats are great! You’re really starting to get a good understanding of them, good enough that you can bring up an assortment of advanced stats in conversation and not just sound like you’re arbitrarily quoting numbers to sound smart. You’re learning more about basketball, and how to analyse it. To think you once relied on raw stats and the “eye test”, like a clueless sucker! (Careful now; you’re about to skip straight to Stage 4) Who cares if Charles Barkley thinks you’re a pathetic geek? The joke’s on him anyway, his advanced stats make him look even better!

This is the proverbial “honeymoon phase”, where everything about advanced stats is fresh, new, and exciting. You’ve got a brand new way of analysing basketball and talking about player production. You can argue against someone else’s point of view without sounding like a popular quote from The Big Lebowski. And because advanced stats are growing in use and popularity, you’re hardly alone: anyone who knows their stuff and wants to put forth an intelligent argument is going to have at least some understanding of them. Alright, now you’re just about ready to move on to Stage 4.

Stage 4: Arrogance

LeBron James is appearing in his fifth straight NBA Finals

Remember when I said that advanced stats can be put forth in a very condescending manner? This is the stage where that comes into play. You’ve fully embraced the concept, and you’ve got a solid understanding of what it’s all about. You know just how to use advanced stats, and can employ them effectively in discussions with your fellow hoops fans. Unfortunately, you’ve become something of a sneering, pompous know-it-all. You’re passing cynical judgement on anyone who doesn’t worship at the altar of analytics, the same way a jaded hipster might turn up their nose at inferior coffee, or any drop that isn’t craft beer*.

That’s not to say that you don’t know what you’re talking about, but you’re starting to become as narrow-minded as the person who completely rejects advanced stats. You’ll sneer at the “sheep” who “buy into the narratives of mainstream media”. This ignores that advanced stats are becoming popular with analysts, and that they can have their own narrative, too. Advanced stats are objective, but they can be used subjectively: “inefficient equals untalented” is one such example. Metrics such as Win Shares are estimates, and context is important. Again, it’s not to say that you’re wrong and don’t know what you’re talking about, but at this stage, you’re definitely getting too wrapped up in the idea that you’re smarter than everyone else.

* I should note that I do actually love craft beer myself, but like anything, it’s possible to take that appreciation to pretentiously snobbish extremes.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Michael Jordan in NBA 2K15

However, that’s something that most people who get into advanced stats tend to get over, in time. Just as most of us get over the more childish elements of our fanaticism – no, other teams don’t all suck, other players are good too, and other fans aren’t wrong just because they’re cheering for a different team – it’s possible to appreciate and utilise advanced stats without being a smug jerk. The air of superiority will dissipate, as you come to realise that a knowledge of advanced stats doesn’t make you automatically correct about everything. And while “watch the games” isn’t a satisfactory rebuttal to objective statistics, you won’t dismiss reasonable observations out of hand.

You’ll come to accept that while advanced stats are important and should be a part of the discussion, they’re not the only part of the discussion that has merit, or the only aspect of basketball worth talking about. You’ll accept that there are other factors to consider. And you’ll accept that not everyone has an immediate understanding of advanced stats and their importance, so you’ll ditch the hipster attitude, and educate instead of mock…hopefully. Advanced stats are a tremendous tool for analysing the game, quantifying production, and rating and ranking NBA players. Just don’t be a tremendous tool when you’re discussing them.

What’s your take on advanced stats? Love them? If so, how did you get into them? Think they’re rubbish? If so, why? Have your say in the comments section below, and as always, feel free to take the discussion to the NLSC Forum! That’s all for now, so thanks for checking in, have a great weekend, and join me again next Friday for another Five.

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