What’s in a rating?

by

Yesterday Twitter and the internet were aflutter with debate after a few websites started releasing many of the player rankings for the upcoming NBA 2K12 videogame. This, and a summer of rating and ranking every NBA player just goes to show how much we love to read lists and attribute numerical value to things.

For those curious, the following are the overall ratings for the San Antonio Spurs stars:

Tim Duncan 84
Manu Ginobili 85
Tony Parker 80

Debating these ratings can be a fun exercise, but it also offers an insightful glimpse into how we view players and perhaps an opportunity to reassess those views.

Never mistake activity for achievement

The biggest firestorms of the year seem to revolve around LeBron James (98 overall) being the highest rated player in the NBA despite coming off of a less than stellar Finals performance, and Dirk Nowitzki, the Finals hero, slumming it with an 85 rating.

Looking at overall ratings is a simplistic analysis, and any arguments based off them are fruitless. Obviously Nowitzki is currently one of the top 10 players in the NBA, and a 13 point gap between he and James seems silly given what we watched this summer. But it does underscore just how incomplete a player Nowitzki can be, and ultimately, how little that matters. [pullquote]But it does underscore just how incomplete a player Nowitzki can be, and ultimately, how little that matters. [/pullquote]The emphasis should not be on Nowitzki being rated so lowly at 85. It should be on how he’s rated so highly on the strength of just his offense, and even then, just one aspect of offense.

LeBron James is the best player in the NBA today because there is no one that can match his combination of size, athleticism, and overall skill set. Nowitzki closed that gap, and even surpassed him at times, because he honed one or two skills to elite levels and utilized them perfectly.

And this realization, I think, can quell a lot of angst over these debates. The most well rounded players are not always the best overall players. Glaring weaknesses or mediocrity in certain aspects of the game, such as Nowtizki’s defense and rebounding, can be offset by elite performances in other areas. In short, it’s better to be really good at one or two things than simply good at everything.

Tony Parker in the great point guard debates

Tony Parker is a flawed point guard. But that does not mean he isn’t one of the best. There were times through his plantar fasciitis stricken season when many thought George Hill would be enough to replace Parker in order to shore up other weaknesses through a trade. Hill, after all, was a capable point guard that could also defend and shoot with range.

In NBA 2k12, both are rated at 80, but as we know, not all 80s are the same. There are plenty of point guards with more to offer. For example, Kyle Lowry is probably a more solid, better overall point guard than Parker. Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers first pick, might have more tools. But none of that guarantees them the success Parker has had.

Parker is not Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or Derrick Rose. He is not the best passer, does not possess the best shot, and quite frankly, he’s not even the quickest or fastest point guard (though he is very fast). But his ability to penetrate off the dribble and finish at the rim is second to none. Furthermore, his ability to penetrate and finish are perfectly synced, as opposed to if Parker were simply fast with a jumper.

More than passing, shooting, or scoring, breaking down a defense is the most important aspect of a star point guard (case in point, Jason Kidd remains a superior passer and an improved shooter, but no longer creates those shots or passing lanes). Parker at least excels here. So while he might not consistently exude the greatness of those three, these two elite skill sets allows him, on any given night, to offset  or surpass their production—as we saw in the classic playoffs series between Paul and Parker.

As history has shown us, it’s not how many things you are good at; it’s what you’re good at and how good you are at them. For example…

Kevin Garnett was a better overall player than Tim Duncan, but he wasn’t a better player

Using the ratings system NBA 2K now employs, Kevin Garnett would undoubtedly be rated higher than Tim Duncan in their primes. Garnett simply did more. But he was never a better player. Garnett is an elite player, but offensively, he lacked elite skills.

Garnett was (and remains) an elite defender and rebounder. And offensively he was far from a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none. He was very good in almost every aspect of offense. However, he lacked any one dominant skill. He was an amazing ball handler and passer for a big man, but it’s not like he controlled the game like Steve Nash. He could shoot, but not to the degree that players like Nowitzki, Ray Allen, or Reggie Miller used to build entire offensive games around. And he was a good post player, but not on the level of the Shaqs, Duncans, Hakeems, or McHales of the world.

Offensively, there was no one skill that made Garnett an elite player, just a combination of very good ones. That made him a great player, but also held him back, sort of like a 7-foot version of Scottie Pippen.

Simplified to a 1-10 scale, if Garnett was a 10 in defense, and a 10 in rebounding, and eights everywhere else, then Duncan matches him in defense and rebounding, drops to sixes and sevens everywhere else, but still emerges the more impactful player because the one aspect of his offensive game he was better than Garnett at, post scoring, he was one of the top two in the NBA at.

Ratings are overrated

A limited player can still be a highly effective one. It’s a matter of honing one’s strengths to their highest levels and knowing how to properly put those strengths together in a package that comes out greater than the sum of their parts, as is the case with Nowitzki or Parker. Context is also everything.

Before Tyson Chandler, Nowitzki was a limited superstar whose lack of defense and rebounding found him wanting. Today, he is celebrated as one of the five best players in the NBA. Whether you’re an NBA general manager waiting for the lockout to end, or a fan waiting for NBA 2k12 to be released, quit worrying over the stature of where a player is ranked and start focusing on how his skill sets can suit your needs.

  • The Beat Counselor

    Wow, I never thought I’d read an article like this on this site…

    Awesome.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Sorry, Jesse, but you might want to rethink some of this, particularly the following quote: “…but also held him back, sort of like a 7-foot version of Scottie Pippen.” It would be difficult for me to think of a more effective way to compliment a basketball player than to say just that. (About the only one that comes to mind is to say he was “like a 7-foot version of Michael Jordan.”) But last time I checked, Pippen was widely regarded as one of the fifty best players of all time, arguably the best perimeter defender of all time, and one of only three common denominators (along with Jordan and Phil Jackson) on six Bulls champions–including probably the two greatest single teams in history. Your comment suggests that not only was Garnett equivalent to that but that he was even greater–Scottie Pippen with four extra inches. I should be so lucky as to get a few backhanded compliments like that!

    Also, I think your description implicitly criticizes Tim Duncan, unfairly so. The artificial ceiling you’ve put on your point system by rating Garnett as a 10 out of 10 in defense and rebounding does this because, frankly, Garnett at his peak never matched Duncan at his peak in either aspect. Further, I think you’re really downplaying Duncan’s skills in other areas where he was effective but far less flashy. Passing is a good example.

    The problem with all of this is not describing Garnett as a more rounded player, it’s the obsession we seem to have with quantitative labelling as a substitute for… judgment. I’m all for the new wave of analytical tools to measure performance. But frankly any good mathematician would tell you that they are all inherently oversimplifications. Understanding limitations is crucial to the use of any analytical tool.

    Ultimately, though, any measurement worth using would suggest that a 7-foot version of Scottie Pippen is a spectacularly good player.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jesse-Blanchard/516723302 Jesse Blanchard

    Tim, I meant it as a compliment. BUT…I think the difference between Garnett and Duncan is also what separated Pippen and Jordan. One is THE go-to guy. The other is better suited to playing a secondary role. I love Pippen. And KG. Great, great players.

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  • Hunter

    I dont get that @facebook-516723302:disqus  .Tim took a franchise that won 20 games 1 year and turned it into 1 56 win he next year. Tim Took the same team to a Championship next year, something a great center like David robinson never accomplished. Duncan was the best player in the NBA from 1999-2005 and the second best until 2008. Duncan was the focal point of a Title winning offense for 4 years and a Contending offense every year he’s been in the league. Garnet played for a T-wolves team that was compettive for about 6 years at best compared to Duncan’s 10 years untill the trade. Duncan also won 4 titles in that span and Garnet won 0. His 1 title Garnet was the 2nd man on offense on a celtic team that collapsed the next year. Compared to Duncan’s Skills and resume Garnet just doesn’t Stack up

  • NYC

    Hunter,

    He’s not saying Garnett was Jordan, just the opposite. Duncan is the go-to guy in his analogy, and Garnett forever the bride’s maid, a Robin to Duncan’s Batman, Pippen to Jordan….

  • mac

    Shaq was the best player in the game during his threepeat run. Despite being lazier overall, and a less motivated defender and rebounder, O’Neal was embarrassingly effective.

  • Sideswipe50

    I don’t think that this is a good sign for us….

    http://www.graveyardmall.com/tim-duncan-fathead/