NBA Awards and the “Media Doesn’t Watch Games” Argument

Every time the question of analytics and the “eye test” comes up, someone starts in with the “these media guys never played the game” argument, suggesting that you have to play the game at a high level to fully understand it.

Now, I don’t buy that argument for a variety of reasons.

For one, most former NBA players who get into coaching tend to be awful at it. Sure, they’re great at the management of egos and the team cohesion side of the job, but when it comes to the Xs and Os, most former players revert to the style of basketball that they played during their own careers, and that’s how Byron Scott and Wes Unseld and Kurt Rambis got their names etched into the infamy books and how Nate McMillan is constantly in the crosshairs of Pacers fans’ ire.

There are exceptions—Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, just for example—but it seems no more likely to be successful with a former player at the helm than it is with guys like Mike Budenholzer, Brad Stevens, and Gregg Popovich, none of whom played one minute of NBA basketball.

For another, we live in an analytics-based basketball (and sports in general) world now. Sheed’s Law is the supreme law of the land in the NBA. Ball don’t lie. When it comes to statistical analysis, I’ll take a guy like Daryl Morey, who has a master’s degree in business, over some former player who had a grad student take his tests for him in college because his grasp of math is, at best, counting by three.

But there is one case where the former players who razz the media seem to be uniformly correct:

Nobody in the media knows a damn thing about defense.

Now bear in mind everything you’re about to read is written by a Pacers fan.

But HOW ON THE GODS’ EARTH DO YOU LEAVE MYLES TURNER OFF THE ALL-DEFENSIVE TEAMS?

Your finalists for Defensive Player of the Year are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, and Rudy Gobert.

Gobert is elite and everyone knows it, and he’s a fine candidate for the award.

Giannis was the best player on the top-ranked defensive team in the league, was 12th in the league in rebounding percentage, second in defensive rating, third in defensive win shares, second in defensive box plus-minus, and once again, the Bucks were the best defensive team in the league during the regular season and “best player on the best team” is as valid defensively as it is in the MVP voting—one reason Giannis is the top candidate for that award as well.

George’s case is a bit harder to make. The Thunder were fourth in defensive rating, but PG13 posted a mediocre 0.7 DBPM and wasn’t the best defensive player on his own team—that would be Steven Adams, and even Russell Westbrook posted better defensive advanced stats than George did. Russ is an underrated defender, but that’s a story for another day.

The point is, the first two finalists were brutally obvious. But Paul George? Really? Did the media members who form the voting committee for the All-NBA teams and the “of the year” awards not watch a single Pacers game this year?

Or, and this is the more disturbing thought, they watched the games but, lacking a grounding in the way the sport actually works, failed to understand how defense actually works, leaving them unable to correctly judge what makes a good defender and what makes a bad one, so they just scrambled to Basketball Reference or picked the biggest name or both.

Now, this doesn’t apply to all media members. Gods know I’m a terrible film guy myself, nowhere near the equal of a guy like Zach Lowe, whose breakdowns are indispensable for understanding the action on the floor that leads to the numbers that end up in the box score.

But I can watch the way the Pacers played defense at an elite level with Turner on the floor and the way they couldn’t guard my dead grandmother when Turner sat—I love Domantas Sabonis as much as the next guy, but the dropoff from Turner to Sabonis defensively was obvious to anyone who watched one minute of Pacers basketball with each guy playing.

The problem is that most media members don’t understand beyond-the-box-score action. They don’t know how to watch players move without the ball. They don’t understand how outstanding rim protectors take away driving lanes unless a team is being particularly stubborn in its game plan and getting continually rejected (every big Turner game with 3+ blocked shots fits this category.)

Or they confuse on-ball defense with overall defensive prowess—this is how Klay Thompson made Second Team All-Defensive despite atrocious defensive advanced stats that showed how easily he gets beaten by cutters, motion offenses, and any other situation that requires him to defend as part of a team concept rather than shutting down a guy in isolation. Put Thompson on James Harden or Russell Westbrook and he shines. Make him guard Bojan Bogdanovic and Bogey’s beating him to the basket for backdoor-cut layups three or four times a game.

Or they name-check Joel Embiid (Second Team All-Defensive at center ahead of Turner) because he’s a name, even though he was a defender of no particularly outstanding merit on a league-average defensive team while Turner anchored the third-best defense in the league even without Victor Oladipo.

In a world where All-NBA and All-Defensive honors have real implications—the supermax contract extension is award-dependent, for example—media members who know nothing about how the game of basketball is played beyond the box score shouldn’t be voting for those awards.

Even if there’s no actual conflict of interest in terms of the media playing financial kingmaker, it de-legitimizes the awards themselves, creating a vicious cycle of awards defining free agency and teams making contract decisions based on flawed information.

We’re not going to eliminate the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams entirely, nor should we. But at the very minimum, let’s get a lot more selective about who we let into the club of people with a ballot.

Because I bet I could point at those 100 voters, pick the list apart, and find at least 50 of them who are less deserving of a ballot than, say, some guy in Seattle shouting into the ether about why a player on his favorite team got snubbed. At least I watch the games that aren’t just the ones on ESPN or TNT.

And if I can say that, the system is broken.