FanPost

Not-So-Quick Thoughts on "Advanced Statistics"

[Ed. Note: Gils_Keloids with an awesome discussion of the place and value of statistics in evaluating and comparing individual players. My favorite line: "Just because you are using numbers does not make it any less subjective..." A must read!]

I think you'll often hear me say (and others share this opinion) that while team statistics are useful and can be analyzed to give you insight into teams' strengths and weaknesses, what they do well and what they don't, the individual statistics that give player ratings and such are much less useful and are, in the end, subjective.

In fact, evaluating a player based on statistics derived from team statistics like basketball will always be a futile exercise.

Think of it this way.

You have a car, any car you like, a Prius for those environmentally conscious folk, a Ferrarri for those of you having a mid-life crisis, or a Mini-Van for the soccer moms and dads.

You can gauge how far your car has gone using the odometer, you can figure out the mileage per gallon, and sometimes if your car is fancy enough, you can calculate the average speed. Depending on how much time you are willing to invest, you can get all sorts of measurements of your car's performance.

Now, someone can take all those measurements, adjust them for city or highway, make all kinds of allowances. And then, someone could compare those numbers on paper and get a very good idea about which car was faster, had better mileage, etc.

Just because you are using numbers does not make it any less subjective

Now what if I told you to take those numbers and tell me: How much did work did the cylinders in the engine do? What about the pistons? Separate out the value of the sparkplug and valves, please. How much did the wheels add to the distance driven?  Give me a numerical ranking of the steering versus the antilock brakes.

You would look at me like I'm crazy, right?

Well, most people would. Some people actually try to do it, and they come back with a calculation that splits all the contributions of the parts into a number, or rating. And they say, look, it adds back up to the mileage + avg speed! And when I do it for different cars, it adds back up! It must be right! And look, the parts of the engine always have the highest ratings, so it seems right. Now I can compare the cylinders of one car versus the sparkplug of another and tell you which is better! I'm simplifying or course, but the point is that if the concept of the task is absurd, any calculation you come up with is moot.

It all sounds silly doesn't it? But that is exactly what people try to do with basketball and individual ratings. It's a futile task. Evaluating individual players in a flowing sport with a large team dynamic component is, in the end, a subjective task. Just because you are using numbers does not make it any less subjective, due to the nature of the numbers.

Arguing which player is better is a bar fight, and will always be a bar fight. I've seen more and more people introducing individual statistics as if they were bringing objectivity to the debate. Really, It's just more subjective judgments and opinions disguised in numbers (and I love numbers).

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