“Numbers don’t lie.” Every sports fan has heard that commonly used phrase before. Whether or not we agree with it is irrelevant. That is through and through a true statement. Numbers by their very nature are not biased and they always tell the truth. However, we must always take statistics with a grain of salt. Stats don’t lie, but in the NBA context is essential when evaluating players. I am going to look at three specific players to show the importance of context when you are interpreting stats.
The season is still young but we have already seen some ridiculous stat lines. Players like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Demar Derozan have all had incredible starts to the year. I’m going to go in depth mainly on Westbrook and Harden, two early favorites for the MVP award. Then at the end, I will examine a player who is numbers haven’t been so crazy. I will preface this by saying I’m not trying to put down any of these players. I am fans of all three and they are incredibly talented.
Everyone knew coming into this season that Westbrook would try to make a statement following the departure of his long time teammate Kevin Durant. We all suspected that “Angry Russ” would come out and prove that he didn’t need KD. Russ is a unique personality within the NBA and has been lauded in the past by many retired basketball greats for his incredible competitive spirit. The fans love him and they all have rallied around him in the hope that he has success on his own.
Westbrook has more than lived up to that hype as he has begun the season with monster performances. Russ is currently averaging 31.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 10.5 rebounds per game. You don’t have to be a die hard basketball fan to see these ridiculous numbers and recognize that they warrant a sense of disbelief. We have never seen a stat line like that since Oscar Robertson in the 1960’s. This season we have already seen him put up a 50 and 40 point triple double. Last year, he averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, 7.8 rebounds per game. Those are awesome numbers but not as crazy as his numbers this year.
So what changed? The answer is obvious. Russell does not have to defer to Kevin Durant anymore, who is an all time great scorer. Naturally, his numbers would go up after KD’s departure. So you have one player who over the course of two seasons is putting up very different numbers. Did Westbrook as a player change? He still has the same play style and tendencies he did last year, he is just taking more shots this year because he is the number one scoring option. All that has changed are the circumstances around him.
A casual fan could look at Westbrook’s stats this year and assume that he is the best player in the league, and maybe this year he has been. Knowing the context of the situation, however, we know that his stats shouldn’t be viewed the same because of the varied circumstances.
Another player whose evaluation requires context is James Harden. After averaging 29 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists last year, his numbers have ballooned to 28.3, 7.6, and 11.8.What has changed? Although Harden was officially moved to the point guard, he has always been the Rockets number one ball-handler so his role really hasn’t changed. His drastic increase in assists from last year can be partly attributed to the Rockets new head coach Mike D’ Antoni. D’ Antoni is known for his coaching style that is centered around the point guard. He coached the “7 Seconds or less Suns” and was their head coach when Steve Nash won both of his MVP awards. In 2003 with the Mavericks, Nash averaged 14.5 points and 8.8 assists per game. After he went to Phoenix and was under D’ Antoni, Nash’s stats improved to 15.5 points and 11.5 assists. Point guards simply thrive under D’ Antoni. This explains how Harden has been able to keep up his elite scoring while dramatically increasing his assist totals.
The last player I will look at is Draymond Green. After last year averaging 14 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.4 assists, and being named the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, Dray was an integral part of the Warriors last year. After his incredible performance in Game 7 of the Finals some people even declared him a top 10 player in the league. However this year, Draymond’s stats have dipped. He is down to 10.6 points a game, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. Casual fans would say that he is a much worse player than he was last year. This,however, is not true. Last year, Draymond was the third scoring option on the Warriors. This year with the addition of Kevin Durant, he is the number 4 guy. His team simply hasn’t asked him to score the ball as much as last year. He is still arguably the best passing big man in the league and a good perimeter shooter. But what makes Green so irreplaceable to the Warriors is his defense. His decreased offensive load has given him an opportunity to focus almost solely on D. He is the most versatile defender in the league in the sense that he can guard every position and he can do it well. With the loss of Andrew Bogut in the offseason, Dray has stepped up as the Warriors’ primary rim protector and has made himself a front runner for Defensive Player of the Year. Regardless of his stats, he is still a productive player and very valuable to his team.
Casual fans are always very quick to judge players based on solely their stats while not applying the context of that specific player’s circumstances. For example, Russell Westbrook averages very different stats as a number one scoring option than he did playing second fiddle to KD. You can not completely judge a player strictly using statistics without the proper context.