We believe the best players are the top scorers


When we think about how basketball works, we think of it like this.


Basketball is a high-scoring arms race. We love the fast pace and the points. We cheer loudest when a shot goes in.

When judging players, we apply the same logic: the player who scores the most, must be doing the most to help their team win. These stars deserve more credit for taking on more of the workload. It seems obvious.


It's natural to think this way, but there are problems with it, too.

  1. The score includes everything two teams do, but a player's points only count the good parts added to their team's offense.
  2. Teams take turns, so they get same amount of chances to score.
  3. There is only one ball shared between two teams and 10 players.

A player's points don't tell us how much they hurt their team by missing precious shots, or worse by turning the ball over without even shooting. They ignore the good teamwork of "assisting" a teammate's made shot, as well as the skill of grabbing do-overs when a teammate misses (rebounds). At best, a player's made shots make up about half of their offense.

Worse, a player's points don't tell us anything about the other half of the game they play on defense, yet it's pretty obvious all of these things impact a team's win or loss. There is a whole other team also trying to win.

What gives?

For one, we keep our eyes fixed on "points" when we turn our attention from game to player, πŸ‘€ but don't notice a sleight of hand trick we play on ourselves: we swap out 100% of the game (a two-team score) for only the good parts (made shots) of half of the action (offense) for one team. It seems like we're still talking about part of the game's total score, but a player's points only count about β…› of the workload that decided the game.

That's wild.


But don't creating shots and scoring points matter more?

Yes and no.

It helps to remember what the rules do to the game. There is only one ball and teams are forced to take turns in equal amounts. When a player shoots, they spend one of their team's 100 or so possessions for a game. It's not a free turn. The player didn't "create" it, they're spending their team's allowance. And when they spend it, it's spentβ€”next turn.

Until basketball adopts a "winner's out" rule, or rolls a dozen more balls πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€πŸ€ onto the court to play more like laser tag ("Just take as many shots as you can"), the rules create a game won by spending turns better than the other team. All it takes to win is a lead of +1 point.

We can tell that from the game score. It compares both teams and includes all of the action. We can't tell that from a player's points, which don't.

This means high scorers can dig deficits by doing more bad than good, but we don't notice because we fixate on their points. It also means low-scoring players can do more good than bad, but we don't notice because we fixate on their points.

Don't believe the best players are always the top scorers.

When we watch a scorer, we should at least count their misses.

Right, Nick? πŸ˜†