How Do We Know That We’re Watching a Great Player?
Intuition, statistics, and athletic excellence
at The New Yorker
Suppose that we wanted to measure something in the real world, like the relative skill of New York City’s heart surgeons. One obvious way would be to compare the mortality rates of the patients on whom they operate—except that substandard care isn’t necessarily fatal, so a more accurate measure might be how quickly patients get better or how few complications they have after surgery. But recovery time is a function as well of how a patient is treated in the intensive-care unit, which reflects the capabilities not just of the doctor but of the nurses in the I.C.U. So now we have to adjust for nurse quality in our assessment of surgeon quality. We’d also better adjust for how sick the patients were in the first place, and since well-regarded surgeons often treat the most difficult cases, the best surgeons might well have the poorest patient recovery rates. In order to measure something you thought was fairly straightforward, you really have to take into account a series of things that aren’t so straightforward.
Basketball presents many of the same kinds of problems. The fact that Allen Iverson has been one of the league’s most prolific scorers over the past decade, for instance, could mean that he is a brilliant player. It could mean that he’s selfish and takes shots rather than passing the ball to his teammates. It could mean that he plays for a team that races up and down the court and plays so quickly that he has the opportunity to take many more shots than he would on a team that plays more deliberately. Or he might be the equivalent of an average surgeon with a first-rate I.C.U.: maybe his success reflects the fact that everyone else on his team excels at getting rebounds and forcing the other team to turn over the ball. Nor does the number of points that Iverson scores tell us anything about his tendency to do other things that contribute to winning and losing games; it doesn’t tell us how often he makes a mistake and loses the ball to the other team, or commits a foul, or blocks a shot, or rebounds the ball. Figuring whether one basketball player is better than another is a challenge similar to figuring out whether one heart surgeon is better than another: you have to find a way to interpret someone’s individual statistics in the context of the team that they’re on and the task that they are performing.