Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Ginobili Condundrum

When I posted about the MVP race on Tuesday morning, I expected to receive a few emails. It went with the territory that Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett supporters might want to mix it up a little bit and tell me how wrong I was in naming Kobe as the lead dog. So imagine my surprise when all the emails were from Spurs fans. And they weren't even about Tim Duncan!

No, the good people of San Antonio seem to believe wholeheartedly that Manu Ginobili is the most valuable player in the NBA.

Even at first blush, this is ridiculous. Duncan is still the MVP of the Spurs (he has proved that more than ever during their recent 10-game winning streak), which is pretty damaging to the claim that Ginobili is the MVP of the entire league. That said, there is no doubt in my mind that Ginobili is underrated in most NBA circles (although he sort of deserves this fate for being a gigantic flopper). John Hollinger of ESPN - through both his PER analysis and columns - has probably done the best job of pointing this out. He has Ginobili fourth in the league in PER, behind only LeBron (who is off the charts), Paul (having the best PER season by a point guard in several decades), and Amare (not exactly a defensive stopper). So you could argue that but for James and Paul having historically good seasons, Ginobili might actually top the list of most productive players in the league. Heady stuff.

The problem that my esteemed emailers are running into is one of faulty logic. Here is the thought process: "John Hollinger has proven that Ginobili is one of the very best players in the league. Manu plays for the defending champs and current top seed in the West. Therefore, he must be the most valuable player in the league."

False. This is the type of logic that can cause a student to miss points on the SAT or LSAT or GMAT, or whatever standardized test they are currently taking. This is critical reasoning 101, people!

Even if you adhere to Hollinger's PER stats with 100 percent certainty, there is still a big jump one must take to go from calling someone "best" to "most valuable," because it ignores an important variable - time. PER measures player stats on a per minute basis, which is actually very helpful in determining quality and efficiency among players with different raw numbers (effected by total minutes played). That said, there is obviously a corollary effect between how long a good player is on the court and how his team typically performs.

The problem with taking Hollinger's stats and using them as an argument for Ginobili's MVP candidacy is that it ignores this key variable. I don't blame Manu for playing fewer minutes than other elite players, nor do I necessarily think Popovich is doing something wrong with his rotations. I don't even think there is anything wrong with Hollinger's system. But you don't even see Hollinger contending that Ginobili is as valuable as LeBron, Paul, or Kobe. That's because they are on the court for different amounts of time.

Since we (okay, I) already ushered in the idea of standardized testing earlier in the post, allow me to use that as an example. (Prepare for shameless promotion of my employer.) Veritas Prep is a test preparation and admission consulting company that specializes in the GMAT. When deciding to enter a crowded market, the founders - Chad Troutwine and Markus Moberg - believed that by offering more hours of test prep, from superior instructors, they could offer an entirely new level of service. They were correct, as they have built the fastest-growing GMAT test prep company in the United States.

One of the chief selling points is that the courses are 42 hours in length. This, compared to 20-to-27 hours from most of their chief competitors. Now, it is very hard to prove cause and effect on something like this, but most studies prove that there is at least a corollary effect between the amount of time students spends preparing for a test like the GMAT and how well they will do. If all other things are equal (and I would argue that Veritas also has superior materials and instructors), then it would stand to reason that students would benefit more from the longer course. Again, if everything else was the same, there would be a larger impact purely by spending more time doing it.

If this is true in test prep, than it certainly seems true in professional basketball. Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili may have similar "per 40 minute" numbers (as Hollinger recently noted), but only Bryant is actually playing close to 40 minutes per game. The Lakers benefit from those fantastic statistics for over 38 minutes every contest, while the Spurs only reap the rewards of Manu's play for just 31 minutes per game. This isn't an issue? Really?

Put it another way. If a household had two wage earners that both made $100 an hour (pretty good, I know) and one worked 31 hours a week and the other worked 38, which would he the "better", or more skilled, worker? They would be equal, based on how much their performance warranted on an hourly basis. But if you were to ask which was more valuable to the household as an earner, clearly it would be the individual working 38 hours a week. That person is bringing home $700 more dollars per week and over $35,000 more dollars each year. It isn't even close.

This MVP discussion isn't close either. I'm not suggesting that Ginobili isn't great. Or that Kobe Bryant is that much better than he is. But there is no way in hell that Manu is as valuable. And don't even get me started on LeBron James or Chris Paul (both of whom are "better" than Ginobili anyway, based on Hollinger's PER system, disregarding the fact that they play nine and six more minutes every night).

Sorry, emailers.


Sam Scorup said...

Well, said. I actually do love Ginobili's game, unlike some who choose to only see flopping and "foreignity," rather than effort, talent, creativity and unique playing style, but I have to agree that while Ginobili is great, he is not a real MVP candidate this season. It's gotta be between Kobe, LeBron and CP3. Manu maybe gets into the Top 10 MVP vote discussion.

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