The NBA Heizenberg Principle – Bias in Basketball Blogging


I’ve received a lot of comments over the years telling why this comparison of these two players is biased, usually from people who would rather I posted a “win” for the player on the “losing” end of the comparison. The truth is, the commentators are all right. Everything I write is biased, whether it’s a statistical comparison, a historical ranking, a player profile, or a simple game recap.

There’s a myth in journalism that the journalist (I’m not really a journalist, but we’ll get to that in a later post) is an objective observer using prose or film or audio reports to transmit an exact account of the facts to the consumer. This is not true, ever. The writer’s personal experience of the event he’s reporting will always color his finding of the facts. This is why two news casts can report on the same political event and present their viewers with not only different outcomes but completely different accounts, as though they witnessed separate events. It crops up in everything.

Watch a nationally televised NBA broadcast and put the local radio broadcast on in the background. Listen to both play-by-play announcers, and you’ll notice a lot of incongruity. What one announcer calls a delayed fastbreak and credits to the point guard in a play the other might call a great cut and finish by the wing player. Neither is right or wrong exactly but both are coloring what they say based on a personal experience of the game, the particular players involved, or their understanding of the team’s strategies. Speaking of color, listen to the different color commentators. They might sound like they are watching completely different games with one agreeing with the refs on a no-call and the other calling them out on a terrible missed call.

But that’s an obvious example. Anyone can see that sort of bias. There’s also a bias in simple reporting. If a war reporter is horrified by human suffering, he will have a different account of a battle than a reporter who is inured to the pain of others. Neither has a particular agenda, but both have internal lenses that show them different aspects of the same event, and they can only report on the aspects that they actually noticed. There is no great, unblinking eye recording the truth.

Even a camera doesn’t give both sides of every story. Where the device is placed, when the recording begins, how the film is edited and displayed all compromise the objectivity of the video report. Think of an altercation on an NBA court like the Malice in the Palace. There are just enough odd cuts in the footage to create confusion that we wind up with some commentators blaming the whole thing on Ben Wallace and others on the fan and others on the artist formerly known as Ron Artest and still others on the escalation of the conflict by Stephen Jackson.

The point being that you’re never going to get away from a bias, which really just means a preference in this context, in sports blogging. So please by all means call me out when you see me go too far in one direction or another to the point that it jaundices the entire story, but be aware that there’s always going to be SOME coloring of the facts by the nature of the post.

For example, when I compare two players I try to select a range of dates or ages that make the comparison apt in my mind. If one player has played 5 more years than the other I might compare the players over the age span that overlaps between the two players.

When comparing Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant I omitted Kobe’s first few years (Wade’s first year came at age 22) and also Kobe’s last few years (Wade is significantly younger than Kobe). Is this fair to Wade? I just dumped some Kobe’s worst statistical seasons. An argument could be made either way. Someone who wants to see Wade come out on top of the comparison is going to say that year 1 through year 10 is the fair way to do it. But in that case, we ignore the fact that Wade will never go back and play NBA basketball at age 18, 19, 20, and 21, which may or may not be fair to Bryant. A motivated Kobe fan might actually recommend that instead of just taking the same age range, to be fair I should take Kobe’s best ten seasons regardless of when they fell and match those against Wade’s ten best seasons which would happen to also be his entire career. Both views show a bias, but neither is indisputably right or wrong.

In this particular article my whole objective was to see if I could show that the statistical advantage that Wade tends to enjoy in the comparison with Bryant is overblown by looking at total games played at the listed ages, the difference between FG% and TS%, and standard box-score stats. The results basically showed that the efficiencies of the two players are closer than the popular metrics might suggest, BUT I manipulated the seasons being observed and the statistical points being raised in order to reach that result. I would never deny it.

In a post about Michael Jordan’s fiftieth birthday, I end with a comparison between MJ and LeBron James, and I use the same measure, cutting off LeBron’s early years and in this case cutting off Jordan’s later years so that the age range is 21-28 (Jordan at his youngest in the NBA and LeBron at his oldest in the NBA). To me that was fair and would give me the chance to make the point that even cutting out LeBron’s worst seasons, Jordan was better at the same ages. Now if I’d wanted to hammer home that Jordan was drastically better, I could have made the comparison between both players’ first ten seasons since Jordan ages 23-32 would be significantly better than LeBron ages 18-27. Or if I wanted to give LeBron an edge I could have factored in Jordan’s Wizard years to try to drag his averages down.

In fact any comparison of players is going to factor in longevity vs. average production. For a player like Larry Bird or Shaquille O’Neal who each had a great 5-6 year peak, I might look specifically at players’ best 6 consecutive seasons because the point is to write a compelling story, not to reach an unreachable “true” conclusion. Is a career comparison a more valid way to rank players than a top 6 consecutive years comparison? Why? When we compare great players, we tend to think of them at their best, when year after year they make the MVP argument and headline the All-NBA team selection. I don’t want to know how hard it was for Larry Bird to maintain consistent shooting in the 1990s with spine problems or how awful LeBron’s jump-shot form was at age 19. That’s not indicative of the great players that they had been or would become. And if the point is to try to win championships then a player’s contribution over his best few seasons is probably more important than over the full span of his years (unless he’s one of those ageless wonders). Another writer might specifically want to make the case that Tim Duncan is better than Larry Bird because he hasn’t gotten hurt and has maintained a high level of play over a longer time period. Good point, but again, we’re both making cases and presenting what we consider, or want the reader to consider, pertinent facts. Neither of us has a claim to be “right.” Though if we each think that we do, we could argue the point forever.

That’s what sports blogging is, finding a story that appeals to people (hopefully) and making a case that is hopefully compelling enough to elicit a response. If you disagree with my case, please tell me. The passion and interest of other fans is why I write in the first place.


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