A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Anatomy of the Indefensible Snub

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Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns of the National...

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So, NBA all-star reserves have been announced, and Steve Nash‘s name wasn’t on the list. I said I expected as much when I made my all-star picks, and gave the gist of my thoughts for why this was crazy. I want to go into them more clearly here, and then really examine how such a glaring snub is possible.

Objective Metrics put Nash ahead of Griffin

Blake Griffin got named to the all-star team in the first batch of reserve picks. I don’t actually have a problem with him making the team, but how does he make it over Steve Nash? Consider the following:

1. Nash’s stats are about as good as they were when he won his MVPs (so it’s pretty amazing he’s not even an all-star now).

2. Using APER from Hoopdata, we see that if you use about as good of an all-in-one box score metric we have, Nash does better than Griffin just in case one was tempted to get too excited about Griffin’s numbers. Nash’s APER is 26.4 (7th in the league), Griffin’s is 22.8 (18th in the league). For those familiar with PER but not APER: PER uses some shortcuts based on the data that’s available in history. For example, it assumes all players get assisted on the same fraction of their scoring (which is used to give an estimate for a scorer’s dependence on others). For current players though, we actually have this data for individuals, and as you’d expect, a point guard like Nash is far less dependent (13%)  than someone like Griffin (66%). So while Nash’s PER is better than Griffin’s as well, the true APER gap is bigger.

Of course, if you’re not really familiar with any of these stats just remember from point (1): Nash’s stats are good enough for him to be MVP as a distributor, so don’t buy anyone saying that someone else has drastically superior stats.

3. Nash is a proven +/- monster, Griffin is not. Nash’s adjusted +/- according to basketballvalue.com is at +11.6 for the year (which is fantastic, like Nash is every year). Griffin’s is at +1.5. Order of magnitude weaker. So there’s every reason to believe than Nash’s box score stats are better than Griffin’s, and even if you’re not totally sold on that, the +/- says the same thing.

4. Of course team success is a factor in all this right? Nash’s Suns are only 23-25. Not so good…but then Griffin’s Clippers are 19-30. So again, we compare the two Nash has the edge.

Nash wasn’t even in the conversation

So how are people justifying Griffin over Nash? Well, that’s the thing. They aren’t. While Nash is being included when people talk about a large list of all-star candidates, Griffin was in a heated debate with guys like Kevin Love, Lamarcus Aldridge, Lamar Odom, and David West, not with Nash.

And of course, now Love has been named as a replacement all-star pick for the injured Yao Ming – and if you do the same comparison between Nash & Love that I did with Nash & Griffin, you’ll see Nash doing basically the same thing. Love does have the PER edge there (though Nash the clear APER edge), but he also has a much worse team – worst in the entire conference (so what exactly has he accomplished for them?)

Okay, so how is Nash beating these guys when we look at things objectively, but not even getting in the conversation in practice?

Well, part of it has to be that Nash plays guard instead of forward. It’s not as obvious how to compare players in such different roles. So if people start out thinking about Griffin & Love for a spot, I suppose it’s understandable they might overlook a guard. Of course, that’s ridiculous in this context, because we’re talking about the last all-star spot. The “Wild Card” where you aren’t supposed to look for a particular type of player, just who is best. I do think that the awkwardness of the comparison hurt Nash here, but only because people became fixated on Griffin & co – and that fixation itself should not have happened.

Let’s also be clear: The jaw-dropping, highlight reel way that Griffin plays could be a reason to argue for him over Nash here, but you can’t say the same thing about the other forwards Griffin was acknowledged to be competing with. Clearly Nash isn’t being overlooked because he’s an extremely boring player.

From distraction, comes the indefensible snub

I think the essence of the issue is simply a kind of distraction. People are evaluating players based on a sense of how much of a “success” the year has been for them. Each player has different expectations, and thus different standards are used. Normally, the difference between these standards is not enough for people to really screw up, but in this case, with Nash, they are.

Nash has been leading the Suns as contenders or not-quite-contenders for years. For the team to fall to sub-.500 levels this year isn’t going to be considered a success by anyone (the Suns organization included). A narrative thus gets attached thinking about Nash as basically falling off the map. Yeah he has as good personal stats as ever, but y’know, people wonder, maybe he was overrated to begin with. Press them on this with good questions and they’ll admit that Nash’s supporting cast is not impressive by any stretch of the imagination. Ask them if they’d be surprised to know that the Suns are actually a very good team when Nash is on the floor (and that they lose because the team falls apart when he rests), and they’ll probably say “No.” Keep on going, and his snub becomes completely indefensible.

Thus what I’d say what we have here, is a bunch of human beings who just aren’t putting in the effort to compare every all-star candidate against each other, and thus come up with a conclusion by a process that sometimes yields fundamentally incoherent results. To be fair, truly achieving a complete and objective analysis is an ideal that isn’t going to be reached. What impresses me though is situations like this when the flaws in reasoning are so glaring, with a voter base (coaches and David Stern) so knowledgeable. It’s reminder to all analysts to take a step back before reaching conclusions, as well as a reminder to never swallow what the putative experts say without questioning their thinking.


Written by Matt Johnson

February 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Team record plays a part. It’s one of the dumbest things in basketball analylsis, but there it it. It’s also about more subtle things like “celebration of basketball”, and Griffin is certainly a future star, which I’m sure weighed on the selector’s minds.

    All-Star is one of the more meaningless accolades for mine, though, and I’m a little surprised you’re so scandalized.


    February 5, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    • Do you really think that all-star voting is so distinct from all-NBA and MVP? The all-star game itself is crap, and the accolade is less prestigious, but if you don’t make all-star, unless something big changes over the remainder of the season, you don’t make the more prestigious accolades.

      Re: celebration of basketball. To me that’s actually not such a crazy concept. Let’s face it though, Griffin has a decent case for all-star status with or without his flash, and the guys he was being compared with (Love, Aldridge, etc) don’t have that flash. Whatever factor the flash was, it wasn’t huge.

      Matt Johnson

      February 5, 2011 at 10:55 pm

  2. Not entirely, but I think (for whatever reason) that voters take all-NBA more seriously than they would the ASG. We’re also talking about coach’s decisions here, rather than the general public. Personally, a shake up of voting (be it including coaches, referees or even players in the electorate) makes more sense in terms of All-NBA, DPOY, etc, that as you point out are the more prestigious accolades. ASG is one night. The latter awards remain on your basketballing CV forever.

    I have no confidence whatsoever in the mass public’s ability to judge basketball. Call me elitist as you will. But having said that, the ASG is an exercise in marketing of the NBA more than anything concerning the SPORT of basketball, so it’s not unreasonable to give the NBA’s consumers the ability to choose their product for this one night.

    Agree that Blake was fairly deserving in any case. He’s certainly not a BAD choice.


    February 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    • Voters taking All-NBA more seriously than ASG would certainly make sense, but can you give some examples backing that up other than the fan voting? I’ll certainly join the chorus smacking the fans around, but my post wasn’t about the fans.

      And let’s be real, yeah no one cares about the game itself, but being named “all star” does stay on a player’s CV forever.

      Matt Johnson

      February 6, 2011 at 12:05 am

  3. I think it’s pretty clear Nash has more impact than Griffin this year. Not only for the reasons you listed, but the history of rookies and sophmores having questionable impacts as seen through both win improvement and APM is quite long.

    With that said I can’t accept Love getting in for an 11 win team either. Love is playing with some talent – at some point you have to look at how the team would fare without him and in this case they might be at a Cleveland like 7 or 8 wins. I don’t think it’s enough of an improvement.

    I’d have picked Nash and either Zach Randolph or Lamarcus Aldridge. Why not, I’ll take Zach Randolph – the Grizzlies have a playoff spot and are even playing good defense this year.

    Dr Mufasa

    February 6, 2011 at 9:30 pm

  4. Biggest all star game snub in NBA history imo.

    NYK 455

    February 7, 2011 at 8:12 pm

  5. […] couple weeks back, when Steve Nash didn’t get selected as an all-star, I wrote an article about how indefensible snub happens. Here’s a more general paraphrasing of my takeaway there: […]

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