People have been conflating team success with individual success in sports forever –81% in this decidedly unscientific poll. And it’s most frequently seen in basketball because one player can have such a large impact on a game. But even if it were once a decent correlative measure of a player back in the 50s and 60s, in a larger league with a larger talent pool, there are problems with it:
- There are fewer and fewer opportunities for individuals to even play on a legitimate championship contender.
- If they do, a dynasty can completely muck up the situation because the 2nd, 3rd, 4th…nth best player basically never wins. (See: Barkley, Malone, Ewing, Chamberlain, West, Robertson and so on.)
- Even elite teams vary in strength
At the heart of individual player analysis is how much a player impacts the game and raises the probability his team will win. Again, that’s probabalistic, not dichotomous. Good players increase the chance of winning, just like good shooters increase the chance the shot goes in. It’s not black and white. No one shoots 100%.
Figuring out who is the best is a “bottom-up” process. We examine all the factors involved and conclude a result. But using championships is top-down. It starts with an individual winning and assigns credit from that result, all the while ignoring the massive confounds of teammates, competition, coaching and injuries.
There shouldn’t be some magical rankings boost given to a player because he was traded to a team with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. You had to be living under a rock if you couldn’t see that pairing Kevin Garnett with good players wouldn’t instantly create a championship-level team. Yet KG was labeled as a choker and loser during his best years in Minnesota, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
In our minds, which are constantly subject to cognitive biases, winning maximizes strengths and losing exposes weaknesses. And we shine a light on both.
When a player develops a reputation, we remember it and actually look to affirm it in the future. Kobe misses more late-game shots than anyone, but he’s made a boatload too by virtue of taking so many, so people remember the ones he made. And they just ignore the ones he misses. Skip Bayless still seems to be under the impression that LeBron James isn’t good at the end of the games. Probably because of one or two readily accessible memories from the past. Similarly, most people were shocked by these results.
The media sells stories. Winners and loser. Good and bad. Make a key play at the end of the game, and you’re the hero — nothing else matters. Mess up at the end of the game, you’re the goat, nothing else matters. (That’s goat, the animal not the acronym.)
In the big picture, I have no problem saying Player A might “add 15-20 wins” to his team, or even any team on average. That’s kind of the Rosetta Stone of player value estimations. But to look at the extremely small sample size of the playoffs, ignore matchups, injuries and other circumstance and use the single championship every year in player analysis is just so far removed from the relationship to how good a player is, it seems, quite literally, useless.