Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past seven years, the phrase “analytics,” has probably come in earshot. And by probably I mean definitely. As I noticed about a year ago, it has even made its way onto the sacred grounds of the barbershop. Vernacular like win shares and net rating are commonplace among today’s fans. It makes some basketball nerds drool and other former players roll their eyes. Nevertheless, it is becoming a larger part of how we consume our sports and how we live our lives. Collecting data and synthesizing it in hopes to do, understand things more efficiently.
There’s been conversation around the statistical community as to whether the traditional boxscore is, at this point, both incomplete and outdated. Don’t get me wrong the box score isn’t totally worthless, and tells a good deal of the story but there can be some noticeable holes in the narrative it conveys. There is definitely a limit to what it can show you about a player. Many enthusiasts wake up in the morning and, having missed the previous night’s game, check the box score to try and grasp what happened. Who won, who lost, who played well, who didn’t. But the box will never show the efficiency of a shooter coming off a Meyers Leonard screen and there is no metric to track when James Johnson taps a loose ball back in bounds to save a possession. Yet, maybe there should be.
Statistics help us to view and understand the game more effectively as well as the consequential impact of a particular player. But it’s important to understand some players can record big numbers without playing a winning brand of basketball. Hoops purists will speak often of the “eye test,” being the truest indicator of a players valuation. But even the most advanced of advanced stats fall short of measuring the greatness of some.
Take Jimmy Butler for instance.
There are the stat-stuffing point guards and volume shooters, with ridiculous usage rates that post gaudy numbers on a nightly basis, that grab most of the headlines. Then there are players like Jimmy Butler whose impact may not always show up on the box score. Screening, defending, effort, awareness, leadership - just a few things you can’t quantify through counting stats. Some contributions to winning are more easily identified by the casual fan than others.
Butler is used to being undervalued. If you’ve never heard the story about him faxing his acceptance letter to Marquette from a McDonalds, you should look it up. Stuff of legend. Anyway, he had no D-I offers out of high school. So it comes as no surprise that everyone can’t see the true worth in his game even at this level.
If I could create an all anti-box score team, Jimmy Butler would most likely head the list along with guys like Patrick Beverly, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and others. Remember I mentioned the “eye test?” That will speak to you more about these players than the box score ever could. Yes, the numbers may build a house but can it all be just a house of cards? The answer is yes and no. Players that fill up the box score have their place but I think it’s time we paid more attention to the unrecognized and sometimes unquantifiable greatness of the world’s Draymond Greens and Kyle Lowrys.
All Anti-Box Score First Team
- Patrick Beverly, Guard - Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
- Marcus Smart, Guard - Boston Celtics Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
- Jimmy Butler, Forward - Miami Heat Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images
- Draymond Green, Forward - Golden State Warriors Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
- Al Horford, Center - Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
When I analyze players like these the things that stand out are:
One thing that’s so integral to succeeding at the highest level of competition is instinct. Just having a knack for playing the game. Seeing things before they develop and putting yourself and teammates in a position to produce the best outcome. It’s tough to track or estimate a players instincts even though it’s such a big part of what separates great players apart from good ones. If we could assign a degree to players instincts like in NBA2k, Draymond would be scored highly. This late-game play with each possession being so critical has a profound impact on a game’s result.
Plays that won't show up in the box score: CP3 is looking for the isolation on Looney, he has a lot of success blowing by. Draymond Green does a great job of sliding through the P.J. Tucker screen, denying switch and forcing charge via @Rockets_Insider pic.twitter.com/5KvF3vyxSb— Michael K (@michael_kawaida) November 21, 2019
Effort & Energy
Another thing that traditional stats can’t quantify is effort. Marcus Smart won’t be credited with anything for this play but it’s an amazing show of will and just headiness. With the Celtics down three points in overtime with 25 seconds left, Marcus splits between the handoff, then deflects the ball off Kawhi Leonard to give the Celtics a chance to win the game on its final possession. A play like that in a spot like that is HUGE.
Plays that won't show up in the box score: Anticipating the dribble handoff Smart positions himself between Kawhi and Lou Williams - After causing the deflection Smart knocks the ball off of Leonard to give BOS possession with a chance to win. pic.twitter.com/oh2hIAKOkq— Michael K (@michael_kawaida) November 21, 2019
It’s not always about simply putting the ball into the basket, time and situation matters. As the ante is increased and the pressure builds in a game, not every player is able to deliver. Certain individuals rise to the occasion instead of shrinking under its weight. He refer to this as being “clutch.” One of Jimmy Butler’s best attributes is his ability to produce in high leverage moments.
"Clutch" play can't always be quantified in a traditional box score: Butler shot 7/7 down the stretch of this game vs the Nets last season, scoring 18 pts in the 4th. He went a perfect 4/4 from the line, capping it all off with this game-winner. pic.twitter.com/qYQl0tARIo— Michael K (@michael_kawaida) November 21, 2019
Having a supreme understanding the game is key to succeeding in a league where everyone is physically gifted. Maximizing opportunities that most may let slip away is an underrated facet of play. When games are sometimes decided by a single possession taking advantage of these moments proves decisive once added up.
Things that don't show up in the box score: Al Horford catches Terrence Ferguson napping to set up a wide-open 3-pointer for Tobias Harris. Beautiful screen. pic.twitter.com/CCKbvbyLzt— Michael K (@michael_kawaida) November 25, 2019
Things that don't show up in the box score: Kyle Lowry is a 2-for-1 god. There is no one better in the entire NBA. He knows exactly when to try and let the ball roll to save clock and when to push on an unsuspecting defense. via @mikebosports pic.twitter.com/fAqkTuasXq— Michael K (@michael_kawaida) November 21, 2019
The audio speaks for itself. Leadership impacts winning.
Things that don't show up in the box score: A team can have all the talent in the world but without leadership, the ship won't go anywhere and will probably sink. After being criticized for his leadership style, Jimmy Butler has learned how to get the best out of his teammates. pic.twitter.com/0OGlO1dFMq— Michael K (@michael_kawaida) November 22, 2019
Erik Spoelstra had high praise for Butler during the post-game press conference earlier this month after the Heat upended the Pelicans: “Let’s just talk about when it really mattered, how many right plays did he make — that’s a quality that reminded me of Dwyane (Wade). It doesn’t matter how the game was going through 40-something minutes, when it’s closing time, clutch time. Dwyane had an ability to do that too, put everything aside and just say okay let’s go win this game. And play your best minutes and have your biggest plays then. That’s what Jimmy was able to do. Every play that needed to be made down the stretch, he made it.”
At 12-5, the Heat have quickly exceeded expectations. Perhaps this season will be Butler’s Mona Lisa, his Sistine Chapel. And we will finally really appreciate his game beyond just the traditional stats. His effort, instincts, basketball IQ, leadership and clutch gene have been on full display even on nights when he struggles shooting or amassing the “sexy” stats. Few impose their will on a game like Butler.
Last season according to Kevin Pelton of ESPN, based on a combination of my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric and ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM), Butler was projected as providing 13.9 wins above replacement, good for seventh in the NBA.
Maybe one day the league will adopt more analytics that help us appreciate what Butler and players like him add to a team. Heat legend Dwyane Wade summed it up like this when asked about Butler, “He’s a guy that wants to win. Give me a Jimmy Butler on any team in my life and I know I’ll be successful.”
So next time you check a box score think about the sometimes unsung playmakers whose big plays don’t always show up there.
Michael Kawaida covers the NBA for SBNation, follow him on Twitter @michael_kawaida