NBA Stats Notebook: What happens if you don't believe the stats?

NBA Stats Notebook: What happens if you don't believe the stats?

Few people probably expected the NBA at large to be focused on a Reddit conspiracy theory for most of Saturday, but here we are.

Reddit user u/AdMassive6666 posted an elaborate investigation into the validity of Jaren Jackson Jr.'s block totals at home so far this season. The SparkNotes: This poster essentially accused the Memphis Grizzlies' scorekeeper of artificially inflating Jackson's block counts at home, leading to a massive chasm between his home and away stats. They cited examples they believed backed up the claim and then tossed out accusations of personal bias or financial motive.

The conspiracy spread like wildfire Saturday morning and the post had over 44,000 upvotes by the afternoon. Meanwhile, NBA media members across Twitter were fact-checking the claim, which looks more and more like a theory than an actual conspiracy under further scrutiny.

There are already a lot of videos and threads like Kevin O'Connor's breakdown, including this one from @swarlayzers, this one from Adam Spinella, this response from former stat-checker Neema Djavadzadeh. Most of the follow-ups reach the same conclusion: The initial poster either cherry-picked some narrative-suiting examples or was just plain wrong about their claims. 

Furthermore, the post painted a picture that some corrupt mastermind is at the center of Jackson's absurd defensive season when that simply is not how NBA statskeeping works.

Fred Katz of The Athletic gets the ball rolling with this thread, explaining that recording stats is not a one-person job anymore. In 2018, Spencer Lund of Complex took a peek at the life of an NBA statistician and the evolution of the process. This segment offers a brief explanation of gameday protocols:

"The four-man statistics crews is divided into primary and secondary inputters and callers. The primary caller does just that: calls out each play using numbers instead of names. The primary inputter marks 'a touch screen of a basketball court,' the Brooklyn statistician says. That screen is connected to the screen of the secondary inputter, who edits mistakes and double checks iffy plays. The secondary caller works the DVR, and they’re connected to NBA headquarters in Secaucus, NJ. That connection to Secaucus during the game is new this year, as is the mandate that every arena have four statisticians for a game.

Despite that connection, it’s still up to the discretion of the statisticians to decide an assist. The primary inputter makes the first read, but if the stat is unclear 'it’s kind of a consensus, majority rule,' the Nets’ statistician explains. The NBA says that they audit every stat, and they’ve always done it that way since they went digital in the late ​’80s; this season they’re just connected during the game."

The NBA backed this up in its own counter to the Reddit post:

“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” league spokesman Tim Frank told NBC Sports. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”

Today's technology also puts the NBA light-years ahead of the human error from a single set of eyeballs. "Using cameras installed in the catwalks of every NBA arena, Second Spectrum software tracks the movements of every player on the court and the basketball 25 times per second," the league's statistics database says on its tracking data. 

Still, some categories will involve judgement calls by nature. Even if some of Jackson's blocks are debatable, this isn't the first time the NBA fandom has questioned the integrity of the numbers. Matthew van Bommel and Luke Bornn conducted a massive study about scorekeeper bias in 2016The Athletic's Seth Partnow has pointed out repeatedly how the frequency of shot attempts at the rim are unusually low at Golden Warriors home games, while the volume just outside the restricted area is much higher, for both teams competing. It's not a result of some ulterior motive; there just appears a tendency by the Warriors' record-keepers to judge shot locations differently.

Assists are notoriously subjective. Folks often wonder if John Stockton really racked up his all-time record of 15,806 assists, and Andy Larsen looked into the total for the Salt Lake Tribune in 2019. Larsen's work supports Stockton, but at the same time, he noted that the very definition of an assist leaves gray areas. Zach Kram wrote for The Ringer in 2020 about how even generous assist-crediting has changed in recent years.

So why is this suddenly captivating the league again? Three words: legalized sports betting.

Most basic NBA counting stats are now linked to video via the league's official database, with help from Second Spectrum. That opens up record-keeping to public eyes, including Redditors and people with money on the line.

Professional sports leagues, in marrying themselves to sports gambling, will face barrages of criticism about judgement calls because the stakes are higher than ever for viewers. The accuracy of block counts shouldn't be that big of a deal, nor should it factor so heavily into awards consideration as it is implied with Jackson. But it does now because millions of dollars can swing sides.

Maybe technological innovation renders human statskeeping obselete one day, and computers can track literal touches of a basketball with perfect precision. We're not there yet, though (and doesn't that get kind of creepy at a certain point?).

Defining assists and steals more clearly is one obvious pathway for improved transparency. For example, I firmly believe basketball should credit assists almost like hockey. Remove any subjective time measure or scoring difficulty component and automatically give an assist to the last passer of the score, provided the pass landed in the frontcourt. That's straightforward, and "good" assists are already up for debate anyway, so what would really change?

In general, today should really challenge the NBA fan base and betting base to understand the rulebook. At most, the major league analysts settled on 3-5 Jackson home blocks that were categorized questionably. The league itself backed up every swat. Amplifying a conspiracy theory like this one not only wastes a ton of time, but it means more ears will ignore future complaints, even if they do end up having merit.

It's great to hold pro sports leagues accountable, but you better be right when you do.

THE OUTLIERS (a.k.a. other random interesting numbers I found in the void):

  • Caitlin Clark is one of the most mind-boggling scorers in the world:
  • This is just over a week old now, but a really interesting graphic from SIS Hoops. Lauri Markkanen stands out to me:
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