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Where's the Fun? The Problem With Analytics in the NBA

As the HQ prepares to enter a period of analysis and insight regarding the Toronto Raptors and the upcoming NBA season, Braedon Clark hopes that we don't forget why we love the game of basketball in the first place...

"Easy Kobe, I wasn't even born when you dropped 81..."
"Easy Kobe, I wasn't even born when you dropped 81..."

Analytics has irreversibly transformed the way we watch, write about and discuss the NBA. Terms like PER, Win Shares and True Shooting Percentage are now part of the lexicon, while judging a player on something so basic as his points per game average is close to heresy. For the most part, the statistical revolution has been a good thing for fans, the media and NBA teams alike; the average fan in 2013 has access to a virtually unlimited supply of data that can tell them almost anything, from how well their team's center defends the pick-and-roll to which five-man lineup performs best.

There are countless blogs and websites that cater to the statistically inclined, and even mainstream outfits are stuffed with stat geeks. Again, these developments are positive.

Analytics aren't perfect and work best in tandem with more traditional types of evaluation, but they have undoubtedly changed the relative importance of different parts of the game. When the three-point line was introduced prior to the 1979-80 season, it was seen as little more than a gimmick, a tool to be used only in desperate situations. Today it has become the most important shot in the game and the players who shoot it best are more and more valuable.

Advanced stats have changed the way we view many players: some have looked better under the glare of analytics (Shane Battier, Paul Millsap), while others have become analytical pariahs (Rudy Gay, Monta Ellis). These days it's hard to find much written about the NBA that doesn't incorporate some element of analytics. Again, this is mostly a good thing, but there is a bit of a problem; writing and reading about basketball has become an overtly serious occupation. It often drips with endless layers of analysis and paragraphs choked with glaze-inducing numbers.

Lost in all of the (justifiable) hoopla surrounding the analytical revolution is one dirty little fact, one unpleasant little secret: analytics makes watching the NBA less fun. The plays that often make watching the NBA so great - an impossible fadeaway jumper, a driving layup around three defenders - are in many cases the same plays that analytics tell us should be avoided. Fans want to see Hakeem Olajuwon spinning his way through the lane like a seven-foot ballet dancer, or Derrick Rose contorting his body like a pretzel, or Kobe sending home a game winner as if the ball is a heat-seeking missile. Some of these plays might be inefficient, to borrow an analytics buzzword, but so what? Most of us are watching basketball because it's entertaining as hell, not because we want every possession to end in the most efficient manner possible. We're watching basketball, not producing pins. The game should always be more art than science, more improvisational jazz than scripted symphony.

Should Kobe pass up that contested fadeaway to give Nick Young or Steve Blake an open look at a potential game winner? Yes, if all we care about is maximizing the likelihood that the shot will go in. But is that all we really care about? If so, basketball analysis has become as sterile as an Eric Spoelstra press conference.

As a diehard Raptors fan, I was lucky enough to be watching on Jan. 22, 2006, when my hapless Raptors took on the Los Angeles Lakers. That, of course, was the night Kobe scored 81 points, including a 55-point second half that ranks as the greatest thing I've ever seen on a basketball court. Kobe's shot selection that night was, to be kind, not the greatest. There were many threes off the dribble and some impossible midrange jumpers, the kind of shots that make stat geeks queasy. I'm sure Smush Parker was open on many of those plays and I'm also sure that I didn't care.

I was watching the game in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and it ended at around 2 a.m. I didn't know what to do or how to react, so I ran upstairs to the kitchen and scribbled a note out to my parents, sound asleep and oblivious. I can't remember exactly what the note said, but my intent was to convey the following: "81 POINTS KOBE OHMYGODWTF SEE YOU IN THE MORNING".

The point of relaying that story? Sometimes great performances demand no analysis beyond, "Wow, that was amazing." Sometimes there's no need to mention regression to the mean or efficiency or value or any of the other terms that have become so commonplace. Sometimes we should just appreciate brilliance and not worry about its sustainability.

No one should hate analytics. The benefits are obvious and it's been good for the game. Let's just not forget why we all care about basketball in the first place. No kid at the park is inspired by the mechanical efficiency of James Harden's endless trips to the free throw line. The way he splits the double team or the gentle arc of his three-point shot are more aesthetically pleasing, if not always analytically sound.

In the end, let's not lose sight of the forest for the value-laden trees. Sometimes the game makes you scribble notes to your sleeping parents, efficiency be damned.