The Long Two: Nets upgrades and the value of individual scoring

Self-generated scoring is the most visible on-court component of basketball, but how important is it to a player’s overall value?

The start of a new NBA season is just over five weeks away, which means we’re even closer than that to another long-held basketball tradition: ranking the best players in the league (and inevitably fighting over those rankings). But more important than who belongs at the top of those lists or whether one player really is marginally better than another is the question of what these rankings actually reflect and how we collectively define player quality.

In his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains how two “systems” within the human brain influence the way we think and points out some of the resulting traps, fallacies and biases into which those systems lead us. One such trap is what Kahneman calls “substitution” — a heuristic (or mental shortcut) that involves replacing a complex question with a simpler one, often without the thinker even realizing it.

“If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 [the fast, intuitive side of the brain] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it,” Kahneman writes. “The target question is the assessment you intend to produce. The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead.”

In basketball discourse, this simplification is most common in individual player evaluation, where scoring often takes precedence over all other attributes. The result is what basketball analyst and cognitive scientist Ben Taylor calls “scoring blindness” — or, “the tendency to focus on an individual’s scoring while overlooking his other actions that influence the overall team score.” Basketball has so many complicated machinations, many of which are difficult to notice, let alone rigorously evaluate. So we often substitute a complex question for an easier one, using individual scoring as a proxy for overall basketball ability. In exercises of direct comparisons between players, the question, “Who is the better basketball player?” too often gets simplified into, “Who is the better scorer?” That substitution can be a handy time-saver, but it doesn’t actually answer the question at hand, which can produce flawed thought processes and thus flawed conclusions.

Scoring — particularly self-generated scoring — is the most visible on-court component of basketball and the trait that has been glorified over all else for most of the game’s history. As viewers, we’ve been conditioned to notice who scores, to appreciate high-scoring players and to value scoring as the game’s most crucial tenet. This thinking, however, may have more to do with how the brain processes information than the actual value of scoring. It’s hard to keep track of 10 players moving in different directions around a basketball court, but quite easy to notice where the ball is, who has it, and who put it through the net, especially if it was done so in an abnormally difficult or skillful way. And the more one becomes anchored to what happens on the ball, the harder it becomes to notice everything else going on around it.

We often cite a player’s scoring output as evidence of a good or bad performance, and volume scorers are generally the league’s highest-paid and most recognized players. That would all seem to make sense given that the general goal of basketball is to score more points than the opponent, but that goal is also accomplished through passing, decision-making, off-ball gravity, screening, help defense and the myriad other skills that affect a game’s outcome. These are colloquially referred to as “little things,” but their impact can be massive, even if their visibility isn’t. When players “make their teammates better” or teams coalesce into “more than the sum of their parts”, it’s because they make the kinds of plays that aren’t easy to see and are therefore discussed in nondescript aphorisms instead of essential functions. Maybe it’s not that a group of players amounts to more than the sum of its parts, but that we don’t properly evaluate the worth of each part.

This isn’t to say that individual scoring isn’t important, or that those who hold it in high regard are wrong for doing so. Bucket-getters like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Khris Middleton have repeatedly demonstrated the value in being able to get to a spot, rise up and score at will. That sort of resilient scoring is an important part of the game, but the spectacle of individual shot-creation can often outweigh the actual value because the production is confined to one player on one end of the floor. There’s also context behind every player’s scoring output — efficiency, versatility, and ball-dominance, for instance — that can augment or diminish the value of their raw production. It’s reasonable to conclude that the best scorers in the league really do have such outsized value that a relatively one-dimensional skill set can outweigh a more varied one. But that conclusion should come from an intellectually honest methodology that accounts for all relevant evidence rather than one that simply points out what’s most easily noticed.

Nets upgrade depth with Millsap and Aldridge

The Brooklyn Nets continued to bolster the edges of their roster this week, signing Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge before trading DeAndre Jordan to the Pistons for Sekou Doumbouya, Jahlil Okafor and four second-round picks. These moves are a continuation of what had already been a strong offseason for Brooklyn, who has surrounded its trio of stars with the depth to endure a long regular season and increase Steve Nash’s lineup flexibility in the postseason. Neither Okafor nor Doumbouya appears likely to crack the rotation in Brooklyn, but effectively swapping Jordan for Millsap and Aldridge is a clear net positive.

While both have moved into veteran journeyman territory, Millsap and Aldridge remain viable backups who, along with Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton, give Brooklyn multiple options in the frontcourt. Griffin is the most skilled of the bunch, combining a viable jumpshot with a connective floor game that improves the flow of an already lethal offense. Millsap isn’t quite as dynamic a shooter or passer and has lost a step since his peak, but should provide a welcome back-line presence on a team almost completely bereft of defensive talent. Aldridge remains a reliable, yet redundant, scorer off the bench while Claxton offers intriguing upside as a switchable perimeter defender and rim protector. It’s not ideal to enter a season counting on three aging centers and a 22-year-old with 47 games of NBA experience to anchor your frontcourt rotation, but Brooklyn has enough offensive firepower and backcourt depth to compensate for any deterioration of its minimum-salary players. These additions are luxuries, not necessities.

Jordan, meanwhile, will join a crowded center rotation in Los Angeles, where it’s hard to see how he fits into the Lakers’ pursuit of another NBA title. The best way to maximize LeBron James and Russell Westbrook is by playing small more often than the Lakers have over the last two seasons — a fact those three reportedly discussed when they decided to team up. Yet the presence of Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, and now Jordan on L.A.’s roster could make that difficult to do. Even with Davis at center, the Lakers will have relatively little shooting in their starting and closing lineups; placing another big on the court would leave precious little space for James and Westbrook to get downhill or Davis to attack overmatched one-on-one matchups without encountering help defenders,

None of Jordan, Howard and Gasol are so good as to preclude Frank Vogel from going small, but it seems strange to fill so many roster spots with centers on a team built around James, Davis and Westbrook, and it’s unclear what Jordan will add that Gasol and Howard couldn’t. Shelving those plodding bigs in a playoff series may help unclog the Lakers’ offense and remove weak links from its defense, but it won’t undo the moves that cost them depth at more important positions.