A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Rose vs Howard and the Inescapability of Narrative

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In a very strange year where every candidate has something “wrong” with them, we’re still debating the MVP race with only a few games left. The race has narrowed around the star of the golden team (Derrick Rose) and the one MVP candidate from last year who can say he’s improved (Dwight Howard).

Opinions tend to be with the mainstream guys going for Rose and the heavy blogger thinker guys on the internet going for Howard. (And let’s note that the poll on the APBRmetrics board sides with LeBron.) I’m personally on record as being on the fence between Rose and Howard, so what gets me ornery enough to write a piece is someone being dead set that even sitting on the fence is wrong.

Enter John Hollinger. With him, it seems I’m guaranteed to find both compelling arguments, and some stuff I disagree with enough that I end up writing about it. (Unfortunate that  I end up writing about the “bad” because I really do respect the guy, and I absolutely use his stats.)  He’s now written Truth about the Derrick Rose Story, trying to take down Rose, and favoring Howard, so it’s on.

Turn Me On, Dead Man

Hollinger’s first two paragraphs make clear his thesis:

What bothers me so much about this year’s MVP coronation of “The Derrick Rose Story” is not so much that it’s a mistake — we’ve had bad award votes before and will have them again — but that it’s the same mistake, for the fifth time in 11 years.

This is an inherent risk in the MVP selection process. When you ask people whose life’s work is to seek out and tell great stories to vote on this award, we shouldn’t be surprised when they turn out to vote for the best story rather than the player who is most valuable.

Now, John actually means this quite literally. He goes on to talk about how perimeter players win the MVP because people like cheering for David over Goliath. I’m going to ignore that because I find that point distracting from the more powerful cousin to this argument which is that people seek out a simple causal narrative to explain large consequences, even where no simple cause exists.

Over at Back Picks, ElGee sums up the proposed Rose narrative succinctly in an article where he quite astutely berates MVP voters:

The Bulls are in first despite Carlos Boozer missing a lot of time. The Bulls are in first despite Joakim Noah missing a lot of time. The Bulls have no other noticeable stars. Derrick Rose is MVP-worthy!

I don’t think there’s any doubt that there is a tendency for people to infer a player’s value by working from the top down like this, and obviously it can be quite dangerous to do so. One ends up with the possibility of wildly re-calibrating a player’s value every time there’s an injury on his team – which basically means you can never really be certain of anything, and are particularly vulnerable when evaluating that hasn’t been together for that long. Have the Bulls been together long enough? Uh, well, if you thought along these lines, wouldn’t you really like to see how the Bulls do without Rose for a while?

Tyranny of Reason

Far better to work from the bottom up, right? Just spend time using all your energy to assessing every nuance of a player’s game and go from there -what could go wrong? Well, funny story – quite a lot actually.

Let’s go back to John. He gets into the idea that the proof of the “story” aspect of voting is in how certain players do far better in the MVP voting in some seasons than others. Taken as a general principle, I wouldn’t disagree with this. Take a look at this specific thought though:

Nash is an equally strong example. As everyone knows, he won the MVP
in 2005, sporting a player efficiency rating of 22.04 while joining with
a dominant power forward to lead a 62-win team. What few people realize
is that two years earlier, he had teamed up with a dominant power
forward to win 60 games and tie for the best record in the West; he had
a better PER that season (23.51) and played more minutes. For his
efforts he received one fifth-place vote.

The difference between those seasons, obviously, was that in 2004-05
Nash was a great story, because he had just joined a 29-win team that
surprisingly rose to first in the West. The 2002-03 Mavericks were
already good, so his performance there was deemed a minor event.

My lord, dripping with assumptions. Because Steve Nash didn’t improve in PER (the stat Hollinger made up), he couldn’t possibly have actually increased his value to his new club by leaps and bounds. No mention at all that Nash played a very different role in Phoenix in a very different offense than was in Dallas. No mention that Dallas saw no major drop off without Nash, but that Phoenix for the past 7 years has seen a glaring falloff without Nash in the game. Just a black & white mindset based on the set of statistics scorekeepers have tracked for decades.

And you know what’s funny about that? The problem with John’s thinking can be described in the exact same wording we used to describe the voter issue above: Subscribing to an overly simplistic narrative to explain consequences.

Now some of you may object to that. I skipped ahead a couple steps so let me go back. Let’s first ask ourselves: What is a narrative? Well there are multiple senses of the word, but when we use it to describe what happened, what we’re really doing is describing why or how something happened (as well as the other interrogative pronouns). That means we’re stating the causality of the situation.

When voters (or whoever) use team wins and injuries to allocate credit, they are assessing who caused the team’s success by indirect means.

Is Hollinger’s method truly any different? When it comes to telling stories or not telling stories, the only difference is that he’s possibly more nuanced in his methods. His formulas factor in rebounds, blocks, turnovers, etc – do they state definitively who the most valuable player is? Certainly not. They are merely a recording of some good and bad things that a player did during the game. By no means do they encompass every effect the player had on the game’s result, and by no means do they represent a statement of how much better the team did than they would have done without the player. All Hollinger is doing with his stats is trying a different approach allocate credit by using detailed numerical correlations to inform his conclusions.

Now, while I’ve been considering my MVP choice, I’ll level with you that the cases I’ve read for Howard have been more impressive in general than the cases I’ve read for Rose. Don’t think I’m dismissing all arguments as equal because they are all imperfect, or that I’m more against Hollinger’s side because this article is directed at him instead of Ric Bucher. The reality is that it’s just more clear what I object to about on the more analytical side – I’m not as sure where to even begin when people brush aside questions with an appeal to authority a la “the access I have, and have had for nearly 20 years, informs my opinion. You don’t have that access”. In short, I expect the men of reason to be quite reasonable, and chafe when I feel they aren’t.

Stand back! I’m going to try science!

Let me liken this to the world of science. There are a couple well known sayings scientists use:

1) Correlation does not imply causation

2) Theories can not be proven true, only false. The best you can ever say about a theory is that it is “not yet false”.

The root behind both of these is that all an experiment ever does is test correlation – and correlation on its own is useless. One can only use principles that actually cause things to happen, not simply tend to correlate with their occurrence. Scientists thus must supply causal narrative in the form of theories and hypotheses to have it be something that’s worthwhile, but in doing so they run the risk of running wild with something that was just coincidental.

Image by xkcd, the best comic on the web

It can be maddening, and mistakes are made – but on the whole, I’d say science has been pretty successful wouldn’t you?

The use of narrative to infer player value is inescapable

Back to basketball now: Folks, if science can’t work without narrative construction, basketball analysts aren’t going to be able to get away from it either. As with most types of analysis, the most beneficial way to be is to recognize that there’s no way to get this stuff perfect, and thus to be constantly seeking to refine your methods and reassess your conclusions.

This should involve statistics of several kinds because you are human being who can’t watch every minute of every game, and even if you could you aren’t mentally capable enough of processing that information with the right proportions.

This should involve watching games and talking to other (hopefully more knowledgeable) people who watch games to come to your conclusions.

This should involve going back and forth between the two with questions and hypotheses.

And last but not least, this should involve a general outlook that you may be wrong, and that that would be a good thing because you’d learn something.

Written by Matt Johnson

April 7, 2011 at 2:00 am

18 Responses

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  1. The most annoying thing about this entire debate – this is just venting and not a reply to anything specific above – is the ‘put down the stats and watch the games’ argument. Which is really just a way of saying, “Shutup Nerd!”, because the people shouting it surely use statistics too, just in their own way and they don’t want any internet troll coming along and ruining the fun with a systematic approach…

    I know so many people who think they can do it alone
    They isolate their heads and stay in their saftey zones

    Now what can you tell them
    And what can you say that won’t make them defensive

    I know there’s an answer
    I know now but I have to find it by myself

    I pretty much agree with Hollinger here for calling out the (other?) voters. If you don’t want them to be systematic, you at least want them to be consistent. There’s probably a better example than Nash out there for how opinions shift from year to year about what’s valuable.


    April 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

    • Was that poetry intentional Greyberger? Pretty cool.

      While this wasn’t a direct response to me, I understand where you’re coming from. We all have something we are most polarized against at the moment.

      I completely agree with you point that people who are against stats, still use them. Beyond that if you look at any accolades be they voted on by media, player or coaches: If they don’t have good stats to use, their voting becomes a hodge podge of awarding prior reputation and current hype.

      Also if you look at All-Defensive accolades in basketball, the way steals & blocks are favored can sometimes be comical. (I’m looking at you Larry Hughes) Given a partial set of stats, the coaches overuse that partial set.

      Matt Johnson

      April 7, 2011 at 11:22 am

      • It’s a beach boys song. Great posts by the way I’m becoming a big fan


        April 7, 2011 at 11:41 am

      • Awesome, that’s the kind of tangential pop culture reference I like to see.

        And thank you for the kind words Greyberger. It’s a pleasure to have you on board.

        Matt Johnson

        April 7, 2011 at 11:44 am

  2. Big time article

    I don’t like Hollinger’s Nash example because Nash put up far greater basic stats in Phoenix, explaining the jump in hype. The fact that he hasn’t had much MVP play the last two years would support his argument more for me


    April 7, 2011 at 8:23 am

    • Thank you.

      I’m picking apart Hollinger here because of the point I care most about making: He’s using a story too. The key is not to stop using narrative – you can’t help using it – the key is not settling for easy explanations.

      But he is right that players get more or less attention in different years when they do seem to be more or less the same player, and this sure seems like a flaw. The unifying them to this trend is team success. If your team sucks, you won’t win MVP.

      Personally, I don’t know if I see a way around this completely. When KG’s T-Wolves are winning 30 games, I tend to look at the fact that winning 30 games doesn’t really do anything for the franchise. Your deep in the lottery, how much worse can things get?

      To me as an analyst, the takeaway with that thinking is not that the MVP voting is wrong, but that rating players careers simply by their collection of MVPs finishes is not a good enough estimate of how good they were.

      Matt Johnson

      April 7, 2011 at 11:30 am

  3. MVP is a risky accolade to hang analysis on because, as you say, it’s dependent on people’s yearning for a narrative that explains their world and which panders to their asumptions. If a team wins a lot of games, it must be due to them having the best player in the league, right? This best player must be a flashy scorer or hyper-athletic big man, right?

    Humans are constantly on the lookout for mental shortcuts. Nothing morally wrong wth that, and it’s probably a LITTLE bit impractical to ask voters to review a couple of hundred game tapes. But it presents difficulties when you do actually need to step back and (to an extent) ignore team records and (to an extent) ignore what your eyes are telling you.

    For MVP, I’d love to see a week-by-week voting system, which does away (to an extent) with the need to “wrap things up” at the end of the season, and use a single award vote as the summary of a voter’s analysis of “what went right” with the distorting effects of 30/20 hindsight.


    April 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    • As long as the media is voting it’s going to be as much about team expectations, marketing and off-court ephemera as it is about the players’ play. I don’t know if you can fix that by changing the voting scheme.

      If you think this year has been contentious, wait until next year! Once the apebear response is expected and a backlash is already in the background, simmering, all bets will be off.


      April 7, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      • Maybe the referees should be the voters. They’re (at least nominally) independent.

        (and yes, there are a lot of problems with that model too!)


        April 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm

      • I’d love to see what the referees think about the MVP race. You certainly can’t accuse them of not watching the games!


        April 8, 2011 at 9:55 am

      • I love seeing what different groups of people think in sports. Utterly fascinating. Greyberger you’re new here so you probably didn’t see my breakdown of Ballon d’or voting a few months back. There we actually got the unique opportunity to see what media vs player vs coaches would do with the exact same criteria. Links:


        Matt Johnson

        April 10, 2011 at 11:38 am

    • “Humans are constantly on the lookout for mental shortcuts. Nothing morally wrong wth that,”

      I’ve often noted that the difference between laziness and efficiency is often only in perception.

      As you say, the tendencies that help make human beings able to accomplish so much also get us in to trouble.

      Matt Johnson

      April 10, 2011 at 11:36 am

      • Your own post on the adoption of APM was… well you were looking for a statistical measure that explained what your eyes told you with Nash, and APM had good explanatory power for what you wanted to do with that.

        And yeah, the human tendence pattern recognition is as much curse as blessing. It allows an incredible ability to match patterns in differnet situations (and to identify discrepancies), but also means that FALSE pattern identification occurs more often than not. Carl Sagan’s “The Demon Haunted World” offers a really good summary of the problem.

        Though I’m not sure whether Carl was an NBA fan or not. It’s possible we prefer a different music of the “spheres”. 😉


        April 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm

  4. OK, I’m not a statistician, but I think I’ve identified something I would like to know. Is there a statistic that compares the offensive efficiency of possessions in which a given player touches the ball? Of course, this could only compare players against others at their position, since the PG’s # would basically equal the teams #. But it would basically subtract from consideration any possession in which the player didn’t touch the ball at all, and would count, in some way, the player’s involvement, while normally they aren’t credited with an assist if, for instance, no turnover occured but they handled the ball two or three times.


    April 8, 2011 at 12:31 am

    • I’m not aware of anything like this, but it would be fun to see It definitely falls into the category of “time intensive enough to track that likely no one has done it”.

      If you aren’t award of +/- statistics though, these stats work based on how well the team does just win the player is on the floor. To some degree, when I look at this information, I mentally decrease the standard error for the stars and increase it for others with the feeling that for better or for worse, it is the stars dictating how the possessions go (particularly on offense). Sites you might want to look at:


      Matt Johnson

      April 10, 2011 at 11:43 am

  5. […] this analysis is supplying a layer of causal narrative on top of observations and stats, which is something I elaborated on last week here. We do however, have evidence that we can use supporting the […]

  6. Missed the initial discussion, but figured I’d still chime in for posterity sake. I also wrote an article a few weeks ago decrying the perceived inevitability of a Rose MVP because I don’t think he was either the best (that’d be LeBron) or the most impactful (would lean towards Dwight) player this season, he simply had the best narrative. Also, there’s an echo-chamber and momentum that drives these votes that makes my teeth ache (at least in part because I don’t have a voice loud enough to get into the discussion). The tendency in the media towards the development of talking points…when those points are wrong (or at least not fully fleshed out) they can mislead as often as they illuminate.

    Much more dangerous than over-reliance on stats or over-reliance on “inside information”, over-reliance on the quick narrative and propagating it moving forward is one of the real dangers to good basketball analysis IMO. And ultimately, I think that will play a larger part in Rose winning the MVP than anything else.


    April 15, 2011 at 8:54 pm

  7. […] Rose vs Howard and the Inescapability of Narrative (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

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