Saturday 2 April 2022

The King is an efficiency hog.

In the NBA, a ball hog is someone who you can expect will be taking the shot. You would rarely see a ball hog pass the ball once he receives it, if anyone else had touched it to begin with.
But the NBA fan can tend to heap this aspersion onto anyone whose usage rate is critical to the path to victory, not to mention worth the price of admission. Michael Jordan was called a ball hog for years. Until he won his first NBA championship in 1991, a common question was whether the league's scoring champion could win a title in the same season, because it hadn't been done in twenty years.
The thing is, if well over half of your shots are going in, it's hard to criticize your shooting the ball. Not impossible, mind you. You could scrutinize as reckless among those missed shots those that fall into a category that tend not to go in, which becomes a more reasonable viewpoint the further below fifty percent the volume shooter falls. A metric I like to use is if a player who makes under half his shots in a game has more shot attempts than his team has assists, there's a problem. It could be the quality of team, or you might just need someone who can demand the defense's attention, but can pass well and hit players for open looks.

About as long ago as Jordan's first title, either I or my brother coined the term "assist hog" to describe, if I recall correctly, John Stockton. This is before I was aware he had no left.
Anyway, an assist hog is someone who not only consistently finds the open man, but dominates his team in that category. They are almost always point guards, frequently referred to as "facilitators". While you won't find anyone else using the term, an assist hog is just a refined focus on someone otherwise referred to as a "stat padder", i.e. someone whose primary interest is accumulating personal statistics in the form of points/rebounds/assists without consideration for overall team success.

What if the point guard in question is holding/dribbling the ball until there is almost no time left on the twenty-four second shot clock, and then whipping a pass to someone who is then forced to take a shot? That might lead to as many bad shots as good ones. I am unaware of a place where one can view statistics on this. If it exists, it falls into the category of "analytics".

Analytics is a term denoting an analysis of aspects of the game — often not found in the typical box score — that strives to identify in/efficiencies in a team's play. The best way to identify these things is by watching the game, but you can save time by being able to focus on the biggest issues if you have someone to compile the accompanying data. Nothing can replace watching game film and making adjustments, but analytics are a tool. An assist. Still, a team that relies too much on that one tool is probably screwed. Never forget the wonder that motivates the biomechanical impulse.
I don't know the analytics on Russell Westbrook, a famous and infamous point guard phenom, who last season averaged a triple double for the fourth of five seasons, which had only been averaged one season prior to his run. The first season he accomplished this feat, he won that season's MVP award, a choice that was not without controversy. The award traditionally goes to a player whose team has a better record relative to the rest of the league, but clearly the voters felt his feat deserved more than its own recognition.
In fairness, his first season-average triple double resulted as well in his having the league's best rating in player efficiency, which is an advanced approximation of offensive efficiency, a metric mentioned more often by the more casual fan of analytics, otherwise known as PER. The next two seasons, the efficiency rating of his triple doubles fell dramatically. And the efficiency of last season's triple double was his worst since the beginning of his accomplished career. In other words, whatever the virtues of his remarkable playmaking skill, he was increasingly racking up statistics in the big three categories at a rate that did less and less to improve his team's prospects of winning games.

I recall when Westbrook was being criticized for stat padding during his MVP season. Some went so far as to compile video footage of his essentially stealing rebounds from his own teammates. But, again in fairness, it's hard to criticize the efficiency of the team's best passer being the first with the ball in his hands dribbling up the court, which gets the ball in scoring position more quickly, which can lead to easier shots. The valid criticism lies in the diminishing effectiveness of having too few players involved in multiple aspects of the game, which often leads to offensive stagnancy, especially when the opponent is playing high level defense. In other words, the simplest of defenses can focus attention on the point of attack, which in this case is that one player with the ball in his hands so much of the time. Alternatively, it is simpler to devise a defensive scheme to deal with such an offense.
It is more difficult to defend against an offense where more than one player is active both as a potential scorer and passer. And defending against offensive possessions that involve everyone touching the ball is complicated, because you're not just having to defend a two or three person game, where the other players are not active in its flow, but rather just kind of standing in their spot and waiting until it's their turn to shoot.
If one really wanted to criticize from an analytical standpoint Russell Westbrook's game over those seasons, one could probably find data available that track elephant-in-the-room inefficiencies in response to the response to his critics. That first triple double season, whenever he got a triple double, his team almost always won the game. The elephant-in-the-room analysis would be to likewise calculate wins vs. losses when he'd tried and failed to get a triple double, which, fair to the individual or not, probably frequently involved everything from ill-advised passes that led to turnovers, to the aforementioned shooters receiving a pass at the end of the shot clock after Westbrook had dribbled himself into a spot with sketchy options. Those options, his harshest critics say, are him making the best of what will get him points (dribbling around, looking for a decent shot), assists (tossing it to someone else for the same), and rebounds (standing back on defense with a mind foremost to grab a missed shot but not otherwise putting pressure on the opposing offense, which is another way players capitalize off of teammates' defense by grabbing steals from passing lanes while the teammate is doing all the hustle. If enough of your teammates are active defenders this works. If not, then your team is notoriously "lazy on defense".
Which brings me to one of the factors often cited in the matter of the GoaT debate. The debate regarding basketball's Greatest [player] of all Time is primarily limited to a discussion about who is was the greater player, or has the greatest accomplishments in the game, Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Jordan supporters highlight among other things his defense. I cannot find statistical data or analysis or eye test material that can conclude other than the fact that Jordan was a far superior defender at his peak and throughout his career. James has defensive strengths, but overall, he's not an elite defender, not only compared to Jordan, but also especially when measured against the discrepancy between his own offensive and defensive prowess.
And this gets to the heart of the point. For not only is his offensive prowess off the charts historically, the titular efficiency is enhanced by the energy he saves at the defensive end of the court. And unlike his current teammate Russell Westbrook, his offensive efficiency remains elite level, which basically means he scores consistently at a greater than fifty percent clip, grabs a lot of rebounds, and has nearly twice as many assists as he does turnovers. Like Westbrook at his most efficient, he makes "the right basketball play"; unlike him, his spectacular highlights are not high turnover risk dribbling and passing and poor shot selection.

It'd be hard not to conclude from both traditional and advanced statistics that he is an all time great shooter and scorer and playmaker and above average rebounder with an elite level basketball IQ, and frankly, his greatness is largely undisputed. He is currently closing in on every cumulative record he has not already broken.
However, not everyone who relativizes his greatness in the GoaT debate are simply just cherry picking in favor of Michael Jordan. And there are plenty of people cherry picking in either player's favor in this debate. So much is this the case that you can find arguments for Jordan as the GoaT over LeBron James and vice versa that quite effectively make the respective player look so superior to everyone else ever — whereby the superior player would be represented by the peak of Mount Everest and the next best player a queen pissant at its summit with all the other pissants clustered beneath — you'd easily conclude the there's no debate at all.

So let me just say that there's an accuracy to much of the debate slanted one way or the other. They do make effective points about Michael Jordan's superior knack for winning while playing all out on both sides of the ball, primarily for two similar versions of the same team, and to unprecedented success in that, at the time, more modern era. They also make an effective point about LeBron James' consistency in taking teams of relatively less consistent talent a longer way than anyone of his era, but also while racking up numbers to place him atop statistical history, which by the time he retires will speak to his being peerless in productive longevity.
I'm not here to dispute either of these viewpoints. The measure of greatness is perfectly valid in both cases. And, as many have said, it's a silly argument, which also happens to leave out other great players for GoaT consideration for whom similarly styled alternative points can be elevated above the others.
No, I am here to coin a term and use as exemplar a player who best defines it. A ball hog is a player who is always in score first mode, but he's only a ball hog if his team is lacking in other areas, which has a way of highlighting the hogginess of it all. An assist hog is a player whose pass is usually one to a player he expects to take the shot, which is the job of a primary ball handler in that kind of offense. If the shooters are hitting their shots, the handler is an assist machine, less obviously a hog.

An efficiency hog has much in common with the other two. At least THE efficiency hog does. But the fact that he's remained so efficient throughout his career lessens the control freakishness, a greed which is unavoidable nevertheless because of his usage rate. Those three players are top five all time for usage rate. That LeBron James is number five on that list and Michael Jordan number one could be seen in favor of the efficiency hog over the ball hog, and, anyway, I would think, all else being equal, the efficiency hog would be considered the more desirable player to have, the implication being he's "pass first", always looking to get teammates involved. But that's only if you ignore a particular advanced analytics of data that, as far as I know, nobody has gathered in spite of the fact that so many are motivated to denigrate certain kinds of greatness.

If you are just such a person in the form of a "LeBron hater", I propose the following:

Consider his front runner status: His critics recount his having left teams repeatedly to pursue an opportunity with other great players. The argument being, champions who stay with their team longer term face the struggle to the top and the inevitable decline, and so by jumping to teams with other all-star prospects, he's placing himself on teams that are more likely to compete for all the marbles, and spending less time than the other historical greats on teams still piecing together their winning ways or, potentially, futilely trying to repeat past success.

This bears out statistically in his having enjoyed teammates at the top of their career trajectories who relieve the need for him to take that one big shot to win the game. If they're open, he passes them the ball and gets the assist, if they're not, he gets an easy shot. But it's the stat not gathered that tells the story: How often does he shoot the ball versus pass it in a game where he is already shooting well above fifty percent versus how often he passes it first when his shooting efficiency is at risk?
I know, I know. Any player who's hot is gonna shoot, right? And if they're not, they're gonna find someone who is hot. Hence his being one of the best to do it. But our purpose here is not tout his already obvious strengths; it's to pick them apart. For this we focus on the risks he does not take. We don't look at inefficiencies he successfully identifies, but potential inefficiencies he shies away from. How much better would his finals record be if he had, say, taken more of those crucial shots at the risk of lowering his shooting percentage, instead of passing it to someone who didn't convert on the shot, which, while not increasing his efficiency, doesn't damage it either?
There's a finals he played against Dallas that many a LeBron-hater use to demonstrate his lack of killer instinct. But if you really want to wield that angle most efficiently, you'd gather all the data that would speak to the same kinds of lost opportunity throughout his otherwise magnificent career.