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What We See and What We're Shown

I've mentioned here previously that I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  For me, this means I'm somewhat removed from much of the day-to-day access to the Kings other than what I can garner online.  Luckily, we live in an age where technology allows access that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  I'm planning on getting League Pass this year, meaning I'll be able to watch a good number of games for the first time since I moved away from Sacramento 10 years ago.

Because of this, I feel like I've thrust myself into the role of championing the balance between looking at stats and watching games.  I look at the boxscore, but I realize it doesn't tell me the whole story.  That's what drew me to SactownRoyalty in the first place.  It was great to interact with fans who watched a lot of games and shared those insights.  At the same time, it's great to have a segment of the group here who don't watch many games, but follow the team and watch trends and provide another kind of analysis.

The debate around basketball metrics often centers around whether they are good or bad, right or wrong, valid or false.  The problem is that it can't be black and white.  A stat, even a tweaked and manipulated one, tells us something.  We then can compare it to the games we see, and draw a conclusion.  But just as stats have shown us that you don't get the full picture just by watching a game, you also cannot get the full picture simply from stats. 

The rest of the article will look at that balance in reference to recent events, and I'll even tie it into the Kings again.  If you are tired of this discussion, this article ain't going to be your thang.  Consider yourself warned.

In case you haven't followed it, there has been a recent eruption in this debate.  It started with some good discussions over at TrueHoop.  Henry Abbott had a lengthy interview with Wayne Winston, who up until recently was the stat guru for Mark Cuban and the Mavericks.  If you enjoy reading about the statistician's role in the modern NBA landscape, there are some interesting bits scattered throughout.

The issue came up when Winston questioned Kevin Durant.  For all of Durant's amazing abilities, there is a controversy.  He even goes so far as to say:

"I would not sign the guy. It's simply not inevitable that he'll make mid-career strides. Some guys do. But many don't, and he'd have to improve a lot to help a team."

Abbot explains in a later article on the same topic:

The Thunder have, over the last two years, consistently performed worse than normal when Durant is on the floor. Any way you slice the +/- numbers, he's one of the Thunder's worst players.

You read that correctly. Kevin Durant, uniformly regarded as an out-of-this-world NBA player, has been killing his team.

To be fair to Abbot, the piece where the above quote comes from does include much more explanation and analysis.  If this debate is something that truly interests you, set aside some time, because these links are lengthy, but they should really be required reading.

After all of this, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus chimes in with his analysis.  It is, quite simply, incredibly well done.

This has, as you might expect, caused quite a stir.  How valid are the numbers, what does it matter, who they hell are these stat geeks to say Durant sucks, etc.  Durant even weighed in on his Twitter with three separate tweets:

Everybody that is doubtin me as a player and my team as a whole..all i can say is that we all are tryin and workin our hardest!

What more do u want? let me be the player i am...i come to practice everyday..and push myself to my limit, God has put me n a gr8 position!!

I love all the REAL basketball fans who appreciate hardwork, passion and love for the game..and not jus "plus and minuses"...wateva dat is!

While I'm pretty sure I comprehend Adjusted +/- more than Durant does, I cannot hold a candle to the rest of these scholars of basketball statistics.  I'm not going to try, that's not my goal or the point of me writing all of this.

I see two major issues here:

  1. Folks are taking a complex issue and attempting to answer "yes" or "no" when the real answer might be "a bit of both".
  2. The Kings have nobody in the room to raise these issues.

I'll address the first issue first, because I'm a slave to sequentially numbered lists.

I can watch Kevin Durant play basketball, and I can know that he is one hell of a player.  I can look at his adjusted +/- numbers and see that there a specific statistical measure that shows that the team is better when he's off the floor.  Abbott and Pelton's articles demonstrate the many nuances involved in potential explanations for these two seemingly opposing ideas.  But ultimately, it is ridiculous for anyone to be so entrenched to one side of the argument that they do not weigh the merits and weaknesses of the opposing information.

For Winston to honestly state that he would not want a player like Durant on his team is insane and asinine.  But it is also a fool who completely ignores the stats.  What should happen is that a team takes the data, which the Thunder better be doing by now if they weren't, and figures out how to improve the team and Durant.  You figure out how to improve aspects of Durant's game that make him a better all-around contributor to the team.  But you also acknowledge the strides he's made in his short time in the league.  You figure out how to improve the players around Durant to be better compliments to him, so the team is a cohesive unit when Durant is on the floor.  But you also figure out what the other players are doing well so that you're team experiences less of a dropoff when he comes out of the game.

It is not black and white.  It is not yes or no.  It is additional information to be taken into consideration and factored into game-plans, coaching plans, and the team direction.  To suggest that one camp or the other is right, and that the other is wrong, is short-sighted.  My apologies to Abbott, who I respect greatly, but he makes that assertion in his analysis that I linked to earlier. 

All of this brings me to my next point.  If there are two very different aspects to discussion of a player's worth, where is the other half of the conversation within the Kings front office?  Now, I cannot take full credit for this line of thought, TZ first placed the bug in my head during the Geoff Petrie installment of the wonderful 30Q series, simply stating:

The team has no advanced stats guy -- not even one, as most high-level NBA teams now do. (A few teams have whole advanced stats staffs.)

There is a point of view out there that can suggest that a player as good as Kevin Durant has some issues that may need to be addressed.  It's not a matter of whether that point of view is right or wrong.  It's a matter of whether or not that view has merit.  There are enough advanced statistics out there right now that help us fans gain a better understanding of what is happening in games.  I'm sure the stats gurus for various teams have invented measures that the general public hasn't even heard of yet. 

The stats alone should not take over decision-making.  But they must, absolutely must, be taken into consideration.  Hard to do when the Kings don't have a voice in the room sharing those insights.  The Durant debate doesn't directly impact the Kings, but it does throw into sharp contrast what the Kings are missing out on.  They're missing these debates about players.  They're missing the other half of the player breakdown. 

They're missing that voice.