Monday, May 16, 2011

The Overvaluation of Rings in Basketball

Most basketball fans would have heard this one before: Player X has won more (championship) rings than Player Y, therefore Player X is better. Certainly the number of rings that a player has won gives some indication to how good they are - no-one wins a championship, let alone multiple championships, purely through luck. But as a method for evaluating players they are vastly over-valued.

Now I think it's true that in basketball one or two or three players can have a much larger influence on the outcome than a lot of other sports. So the amount of games a player wins does say quite a bit about a player's ability. The fact that Jordan, Magic, Bird, Tim Duncan, Shaq and Kobe have all been major contributors to teams that won championships indicates they were among the best players than the NBA has ever produced - you would have a very hard time arguing otherwise. But the difference in ability between them and a few of the players who did not win championships is not as large as often thought, and in some cases may not even exist at all.

The first reason is that a lot of basketball playoff games are very close, and there was a substantial probability that they could have turned out differently to how they did. Consider Kobe for instance - three of his championship runs involved a Game 7 that was close to going the other way: 2000 (against the Blazers), 2002 (against the Kings), and 2009 (against the Celtics). Had the Lakers lost all three he would have won "only" two rings to date. Now I'm not saying we shouldn't think of him any differently at all because he has won five rings: his team was able to win those games after all. What I'm saying is that we shouldn't think that much differently of him whether he ended up winning two championships or five, because the margin between him winning two or five championships was very slim.

The second reason is that, as dominant as the best players are, whether you win a championship or not depends to a considerable degree on your teammates. If Kobe had been an LA Clipper instead of an LA Laker, would he have won a single ring? Unlikely. But the wide disparity in results would barely be any reflection on him, rather it would be a reflection of the respective teams around him. Conversely, put Tracy McGrady (at his peak) on those Laker teams and he would have had a great chance to pick up a few rings by now. It should never be argued that a player wasn't great simply because he never won a ring. What that means is his team wasn't great. If you want to argue a player was or wasn't great, you have to have more of an argument that the number of rings he has won.

Yes it is great to win and it sucks to lose. But don't let the huge difference in emotion fool you into thinking there is a huge difference in ability. The difference is often not as large as it seems.

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