Stats vs. Effect: The Best Debate With the Poorest Examples (Part 1)

By: Opinionated Reezy (Ronald Stovall Jr.)

Before we begin, I know when people say effect, they mean impact, but for the purpose of the conversation I am going to stick with effect.

So the emerging debate in the basketball world is stats versus effect and I understand why that is, but we are using extremely poor examples on either side. I’ve seen posts on YouTube attacking NBA FG% Twitter, which I completely agree with, but when I saw my favorite station, ESPN, weigh in on the argument I couldn’t take it anymore. Here they go again trying to own both sides of the argument.

ESPN is notorious for using stats like crystal balls, which has diluted the impact of its usefulness and in turn most people rely on effect as a mystical means of determining success. Here is the reality:

Stats can not and will never be a sole predictor of future wins or success.

Effect does not always transfer between games and in all scenarios, it is a predictor of behavior and response.

Here is the secret – You can use stats to measure effect, but you must use the right ones and frame the narrative you are trying to tell.

Why are we getting this argument wrong?

We have been conditioned to see the game as efforts of individuals who all just happen to be on a team.

We have been conditioned to look at basic stats and not the full picture.

We haven’t been told what the stats are used for or how to properly use them.

We sensationalize certain player types and only look at one side of the ball.

We have been conditioned to believe that if our superstars did more, the results would be different.

We have been conditioned to only look at key aspects of a game and not the entire game.

How should we use stats?

If you are using stats it must be framed properly to explain a specific situation. Here is a bad example using the most improperly used stat ever the +/- rating.

What is the stat telling us? +/- rating tells us the point differential in the game while a player is on the court. That stat is useless in the moment as there are so many variables as to why a team is scoring or not scoring.

There was a segment on Undisputed where Skip Bayless was concluding that LeBron James just wasn’t good enough because his +/- rating was negative for a stretch of games. That is an empty narrative because it does not take into account what is happening on the floor.

The +/- rating is better used over a large segment of games, i.e. season or possessions to gain an understanding of tempo and scoring flow. It, however, cannot tell you if a team will be successful.

The next stat is P.E.R, Player efficiency Rating.

What is the stat telling us? P.E.R is an attempt at measuring a player’s efficiency on the court. That is it. John Hollinger even says so himself:

“Bear in mind that PER is not the final, once-and-for-all evaluation of a player’s accomplishments during the season”

I think we all know the infamous segment on first take where Skip Bayless tried to infer that Kobe Bryant wasn’t the Black Mamba because his P.E.R rating was in the 90’s and then Stephen A. went off. Stephen A. was 100% correct although he was arguing the point from an effect standpoint, a statistician will tell you:

You haven’t factored in the number of games Kobe played (or didn’t play) in comparison to everyone else on the list.

You haven’t factored in the number of shots Kobe took or overall production Kobe needed to create for the same level of success.

You haven’t factored in the previous success of the team Kobe is on.

In other words, P.E.R can absolutely tell you that Kobe Bryant at that time was less efficient than others, but P.E.R can not tell you that Kobe Bryant was less effective than others.

This is definitely a multi-part topic and both areas of discussion are absolutely valid, but years of poor use of stats has eroded its usefulness.

I’ll conclude part one with this – I said effect or effectiveness can be measured. Here is how:

Set the frame of reference for which you are making your statement, i.e. number of games, seasons, shots, possessions, etc.

Establish the direct statement you are looking at. Words like ‘better’ or ‘worse’ are relative so those are no good, efficient, effective, productive are better words.

Never use basic stats as the foundation of your argument and while you can speculate wins, stats, especially individual stats, are not to be used.

Taking everything into account. Using the stats of players this year between Golden State, Houston, and the Lakers who have taken more than 15 shot attempts per game here are your effective players in order

Steph Curry – by far

LeBron James

Kevin Durrant

James Harden – tie

Klay Thompson – tie

Kyle Kuzma

If I tighten my statement to include that the players must have played at least 80% (41) of games this year. I take LeBron James off the list. Prove me wrong.

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