Massarotti: The NBA Stat Explosion

By Tony Massarotti

So here’s the question: are we in a Golden Age of the NBA, where the talent is greater than ever before? Or is this merely a statistical aberration that, for a lack of a better comparison, is similar to baseball’s steroid era?

I vote for Option B.

So with all due respect to Russell Westbrook, whose 58 points on Tuesday marked the highest total in the NBA this season, it might be time to put an asterisk next to the individual totals that are starting to strain believability. For example: on Wednesday, Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle posted the 80th triple-double in the NBA this season, further extending a league record set over the weekend. Toss in a performance by Golden State’s Draymond Green, in which he posted an unconventional triple-double with steals, rebounds and assists, and the number is actually 81.

Is that impressive?

Well, yes. And no.

I mean, how can something be special if it happens with great regularity?

As for the 50-point games, well, those have increased, too. Three years ago, there were a total of six in the NBA. Last year, there were 11. This year, the league is on pace for 13 or so, though I’m willing to bet the number finishes higher. (Earlier-season projections had the number placed as high as 19.) There are lots of reasons for this, from the explosion of 3-pointers taken (and made) to bad defense, but the greater point remains unchanged.

If we’re seeing more of them, well, they’re just not as valuable.

It’s simple supply and demand.

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For mathematical purposes, let’s go back to baseball. In 2001, former Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon hit 27 home runs, the second-highest total of his career. At face value, that sounds like a solid number. The only problem is that the major league leader that year hit a whopping 73, which put Nixon at slightly more than one-third the production of the best slugger in the game.

Translation: if Barry Bonds had hit, say, 40 homers in 2001, Nixon’s total would have been 15. Suddenly, that sounds rather ordinary.

Look, I understand. With regard to triple-doubles, in particular, a good part of the explosion is attributable solely to Westbrook, who is having a historic season. He might very well be the 2016-17 NBA Most Valuable Player. But the problem with numbers — especially in basketball — is that they don’t measure a player’s value so much as they measure his raw production. Individual productivity in the NBA can often be the result of selfishness, a label that may or may not apply to Westbrook, who by all accounts is a competitor. There have been plenty of players who pass up easy shots because they’re focused on getting an assist, which can be every bit as selfish as a pull-up 3.

In the NBA, after all, the truly great players make the others around them better, which is a difficult thing to quantify.

Does that make Westbrook or James Harden a bum? Of course not. It just means you have to put the raw numbers into context.

Which is a nicer way of saying they’re not what they’re cracked up to be.

Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.

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