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NBA PM: Round-Number Psychology and Triple-Doubles

Russell Westbrook deserves his MVP buzz – but not due to triple-doubles. Ben Dowsett explains.

Ben Dowsett

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Human obsession with round numbers occupies a curious corner of psychological study. It’s a phenomenon that dates back millennia, with applications in some of the most visible areas of history. If they were called the Nine Commandments, would they occupy quite the same level of historical significance?

Research suggests the answer is no, and also tells us several other fascinating things about the mind’s desire for stability within numerical patterns.

A study at Pace University displayed a pair of digits on a screen, and asked responders to press a button in front of them only if both numbers were even or both numbers were odd, and therefore not if one was even and the other was odd. It took subjects an average of 20 percent longer to press the button when a pair of odd numbers came up compared to a pair of even numbers, suggesting what researcher Terence Hines called “the odd effect” – it literally takes the average human mind longer to process odd numbers.

In the consumer world, the effect shows a little differently. It’s well known within sales industries that prices ending in “.99” have been proven to lead to higher purchasing rates, but a 2015 study gave us more context:

Rounded prices ($100, $10, $5) are processed more fluidly by the brain, leading to more reliance on feelings and emotion within purchasing decisions. Non-rounded prices ($13.99, $199.99), though, are processed less fluidly, and therefore produce a higher subconscious reliance on cognition and reason.

Best of all, though, is the human response when we know we influence these numbers in our lives. A 2010 study found that we will exert ourselves far above normal levels to perform just above a certain round numerical threshold, rather than just below it. Professional baseball players are about four times more likely to finish with a batting average of .300 than an average of .299; high schoolers taking the SAT test are more likely to retake it if they fall just below a round number than if they fall just above one.

There’s no question the human mind carries a distinct, subconscious attachment to the emotional significance of certain numbers. These psychological roots form the basis for superstitions, laws and even life or death in some cultures. They’re deep, and they’re visible everywhere.

* * * * * *

Nowhere in sports is this phenomenon more obvious than with basketball’s triple-double.

The basis for this one goes back about as far as human records exist. The vast majority of human societies (with a few exceptions) have operated using a base-10 numerical system, with most psychologists in general agreement about the source: The number of fingers we have. Yep, it’s that simple.

And on its face, the triple-double is a great way to get that psychological kitten purring. Three numbers all at 10 or higher is much more powerful to the brain than just one or two, and the fact that most triple-doubles represent a distinctly positive team contribution by the player in question just reinforces the association.

Here’s the equally logical reason why our growing obsession with the stat is fundamentally flawed, though: Exactly how positive a contribution they represent is an incredibly variable factor, and there’s even evidence that certain triple-doubles do not represent a cumulative positive.

To prove it, let’s turn to the numbers.

Before John Hollinger was the Executive VP of Basketball Operation for the Memphis Grizzlies, he was a savant-like journalist/analyst who created a number of metrics. The most popular is likely PER (Player Efficiency Rating), but another that has several practical uses is Game Score.

Game Score, still housed on basketball-reference.com, is a stat designed to give a single numerical representation of a player’s statistical productivity in a single game. This is naturally a number that leans heavily toward offensive contributions, since most box score elements track offensive events (and the ones that don’t are limited indicators of defensive contributions). This is fine for triple-doubles, though, since they’re generally far more weighted to the offensive end anyway.

Using Hollinger’s Game Score, we can aggregate the 350 or so “best” NBA games played since 1983-84. Exactly 378 games have been played with a Game Score of 40 or higher, if we’re satisfying our mind’s desire for round numbers. From a statistical standpoint, nearly all of these games would rank among any objective list of the 400 or 500 best games played in this time period by a single player.

Know how many of these 378 games were triple-doubles? Twenty-one. That’s roughly 5.5 percent.

Yes, barely one in 20 of the best statistical performances over the last 30-plus years was a triple-double. These figures hold for more recent timelines. In fact, they even drop below 5 percent since 2000. If you’re ranking each of these games in order of Game Score, you have to scroll down all the way to row 22 to find the first one that was a triple-double.

Okay, so it’s not all so gloomy. Teams featuring a player recording a triple-double win about 75 percent of their games over this same time span. This is a fantastic percentage, without question.

But is an event truly worthy of jaw-dropping amazement when the team in question still loses once every four times? What about if that number drops to 55 percent when the player in question attempts at least 25 shots (it does)? What if it drops well below 50 percent when the player takes at least 25 shots, but makes 40 percent or fewer of them? Is that still a great game deserving of endless platitudes?

* * * * * *

If you’ve made it this far, you can probably see where this is going.

In a season where the triple-double’s Q-score has no doubt skyrocketed, Russell Westbrook has nearly become synonymous with the term. He’s set to average one, and produces the feat more regularly than we’ve ever seen in the modern era.

Let’s get one thing straight right away: This is not an indictment of Russ, or his case for the league’s biggest award. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – an indictment of the obsessive mindset that’s reduced his MVP candidacy to a single, arbitrary statistic.

It’s not Westbrook himself who brought on the obsession, either. The guy was getting sick of it three full months ago. Does he stat-chase sometimes? Absolutely. So does virtually every star (virtually every player) in the league. Does it mean he’s more focused on it than he should be? Almost certainly not.

Everyone discussing it sure is, though. Nearly every big feature written about Westbrook this season features the term in the title or the lede. A Google News search for “triple-double” yields about as many first-page results for Russ as all other players combined, depending on which day you type it in. NBATV is currently airing a show called The Art of the Triple Double, surely in no small part due to Westbrook’s charge at history.

This is selling Westbrook woefully short. Defining his ridiculous season based on such a lazy, easy crutch ignores all the more complex ways he’s dominating.

For starters, another half-dozen healthy games will give Russ a case for having completed the most physically taxing season in NBA history – and surely one of the most exhausting in the annals of modern team sports.

Before this year, just 18 guys had finished a full season using at least 35 percent of team possessions while on the floor, per basketball-reference.com. Under half managed to do so while missing fewer than 10 games, and Russ would become just the third – joining Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – to play all 82 while pulling this off.

He’d do it while setting the NBA record for usage percentage. He’ll have run nearly 200 miles during NBA gameplay since the beginning of the season, per SportVU figures extrapolated at his current averages.

Through this lens, his effectiveness-to-volume ratio is pure insanity. Just five of those 18 guys through history with uber-high usage figures managed a better team winning percentage than Westbrook’s Thunder are on track to post, and that’s without considering supporting casts or a cupcake schedule over the final few weeks of the year.

If you absolutely must find meaning in triple-doubles, find it in a similar team theme. Remember those figures we cited above, showing how much worse the team record in triple-doubles gets when the guy in question is chucking mercilessly?

Not with Russ. Other guys through history have won 55 percent of their triple-double games with at least 25 shots attempted; Westbrook has won 75 percent of such games this season. Many of these aren’t just chucking for chucking’s sake – the Thunder needed those ridiculously burdensome performances. Oklahoma City wins games where Russ manages a triple-double at a significantly higher rate than the league throughout history.

If you’re obsessed with unique historical numbers, all of this is barely scratching the surface. We could double the length of this article simply listing the various, volume-related statistical crevices in which Westbrook is either all alone or in short, illustrious company.

In the interest of transparency: If this pen filled out an MVP ballot, Russ wouldn’t currently occupy the top spot. He might be as low as fourth.

Anyone with a serious objection to Westbrook winning, though, either hates fun or roots for the Cavs, Spurs or Rockets. There isn’t enough separation between the top four guys, especially not when parsing out who deserves an award the NBA intentionally defines ambiguously to stoke the fire on debates like these.

If he does win, though, here’s hoping it’s due to more than a deep-seated obsession with round numbers. Ask any smart statistician, and they’ll tell you: You can prove virtually anything if you manipulate the data the right way. Using the right statistical thresholds, anyone with internet access can find several examples of how LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden are posting historically unique seasons this year.

Westbrook deserves it as much as any of these guys, but not because his uniqueness conforms more to your brain’s natural tendencies than the others. Count this as a plea that those with a vote come April think a little better of their base nature, and look a little deeper.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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