Let’s get this out of the way immediately: if your reaction to seeing Anthony Edwards’ dunk last week was to complain that it was “all over Twitter” but also note that he was 0-for-7 on three-pointers, you’re either an idiot, a serious killjoy, trolling for attention, or some combination of the three.
I don’t know Nate Duncan, so I can’t say what his purpose was in looking at Edwards’ amazing jam and raising a finger to tell the world: “Excuse me, he hasn’t actually had a good game.” It doesn’t matter, though, because once that hot take was in the world, it launched NBA Twitter into the latest round of sports’ long-running drama, Nerds vs. Fun.
Enter Master Tesfatsion and a video posted Thursday by Bleacher Report.
“There’s a time and place for analytics,” Tesfatsion says, and he’s right. But what he said before that was wrong.
“For every person going wild on the timeline, there was another nerd complaining about efficiency.”
That’s just not true. Maybe there were a few more wet blankets like Duncan, but it’s worth noting that as Tesfatsion railed against reliance on PER, the creator of that statistic, John Hollinger, handled the situation well, noting that Edwards does miss a lot of shots, and since he’s so good at dunking, he should probably do more of it.
An analytic approach to basketball generally loves dunks. What’s more efficient, after all, than putting the ball directly in the hoop? But this isn’t about Edwards specifically, or Duncan specifically, or even Tesfatsion’s reaction to Duncan specifically. It’s about the Nerds vs. Fun archetype itself, which is even more tired than posting contrarian takes online to get a reaction.
The idea that analytics diminish Kobe Bryant’s legacy because he wasn’t efficient enough? That’s just not true, because even during Bryant’s career, he took heat for exactly that, even before “efficiency” was an NBA buzzword. In a Bleacher Report piece in 2013 titled “4 Things Even Lakers Fans Hate About Kobe,” number three was “Continues to Shoot, Even If It Isn’t Falling,” which could be directly connected to number four, “His Ego.”
Bryant was a shooter, and shooters shoot, but the same thing that gets you an 81-point game can also get you nights like Game 4 of the 2008 Western Conference semifinals, when Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were having their way with the Jazz inside, combining to shoot 21-for-34 with 49 points, Derek Fisher was 4-for-5 on threes, and Bryant shot 1-for-10 from downtown, 13-for-33 overall, and despite racking up 33 points while coming two rebounds short of a triple-double, the Lakers lost, 123-115.
Michael Jordan played in 179 playoff games, and shot worse than 13-for-33 (39.3%) in 28 of them. Bryant did it 69 times in 218 playoff games where he attempted a shot (he played two games early in his career where he didn’t shoot). LeBron James, meanwhile, has had 46 shooting games that bad out of 260 appearances. This isn’t about analytics, it’s about what separates Bryant, on the legend tier, from Jordan and James in the GOAT debate, and whether you’re using complicated formulae or just your eyeballs, you knew while Bryant was playing that he had this weakness.
Does that take away from all the amazing things that Bryant did on the court? Absolutely not. In the same vein, Aaron Judge strikes out a ton. He also regularly launches balls into outer space. Some people complain about the strikeouts, some tout the dingers, and most accept that it’s all part of a package with a great player who, yeah, isn’t quite at the level of Mike Trout.
What’s really frustrating is that Nerds vs. Fun takes extreme views and applies them way too broadly. Most people who are into crunching numbers on sports do so because they absolutely love the game, whether it’s basketball, baseball, hockey, or anywhere else that this situation has played out.
A couple of years ago, ESPN launched an alternate broadcast for the National League wild card game, featuring play-by-play man Jason Benetti, former major leaguer Eduardo Perez, and MLB.com stat guru Mike Petriello. It was a hit, because you could tell that the voices love baseball, and they adeptly used stats to illustrate points and advance conversation. Meanwhile, the nicest thing anyone has to say about the main analyst for the last seven World Series is, “John Smoltz doesn’t hate baseball. He just sounds that way.”
In baseball, it’s regularly the statheads who proclaim their love of bat flips, while the “get your nose out of the spreadsheets” crowd brays against on-field displays of emotion and passion for the game. In hockey, the louts who scream “shoooooooot” every time their team is on the power play tend to be luddites who would be surprised to learn that a huge part of that sport’s analytics is about maximizing shots on goal. Yet in both sports, there’s the same framing of Nerds vs. Fun. It isn’t accurate and never has been, because most people recognize that there’s enough in the game to appreciate both with eyes and with numbers, but it’s the extreme takes that get highlighted.
Now we’ve arrived here in the NBA. It does not have to go the same way. There is a time and a place for analytics, and the vast majority of people know that Edwards’ dunk wasn’t it. We don’t have to feed the same tired narratives just because of a tweet by someone most of us had never heard of before he hit send on a bad take.
Or, to put it in analytics terms, Duncan is an outlier, and his tweet can be dismissed as such.