Sports leagues run on narratives because of the media’s need to remain relevant at all points in time. The average NBA fan’s pick for MVP, opinion on LeBron, and idolization of Michael Jordan is shaped this way. This is not to blame the fan, however, as fandom in any sport begins from the bottom up. The fan first learns the sport, drawing from the media or friends. This is the only way to reach a level of engagement with the sport that then inspires personal investigation.
The amount of data available on the NBA is constantly rising. While I am not here to discuss every statistic, I want to point out an example of a recent advance that allows for even more understanding and the development of a personal conclusion. While no data is perfect, and some is more flawed than other, my goal is to present the argument that any research is preferable to only following the news.
Basketball Reference has recently added a feature that allows you to name a player and see his teammates as well as opponents throughout his career through certain basic statistics.
This particular feature by no means can establish something like the true GOAT, but it can provide tangible insight on a players career that carries more meaning than simply being told the fact. In the time I have spent tinkering with this feature, I got the sense that there are two levels of insight that can come out of the results; interesting tidbits and fundamental knowledge. It’s important to not enter seeking a conclusion, and instead take what the data gives.
An interesting tidbit is something that may challenge an implicit notion you had, but the realization is by no means groundbreaking or essential to the NBA. It may involve a relatively fringe player. For example, DeMar DeRozan is known for his time spent with Kyle Lowry as a duo. It may be surprising to know that DeRozan’s longest tenured teammate is Jonas Valanciunas.
More significantly, fundamental insight can lead to some more important conceptual understanding of NBA timeframes. Kevin Durant played more career games with James Harden than with anyone on the Golden State Warriors (259 with Harden, 247 with Klay Thompson). For a 20 year old fan today, this is a tangible way to understand that Oklahoma City held its big three together for about the same time the superteam Golden State Warriors did. Jeff Green played even more games with Durant than James Harden, but his 40.8 win percentage with Durant correctly indicates that their partnership was in Durant’s early years.
Shifting gears, LeBron James is sometimes discredited for reaching the NBA finals by virtue of having played in the easier eastern conference. Instead of writing off the entire conference, we can look at what teams gave him relatively more trouble. Holding a barely above .500 record against Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo, we can see that the Boston Celtics of that era were a worthy competitor. These three players are also in LeBron’s top seven most commonly faced opponents, showing their longevity in competition. LeBron holds a roughly 60-65% win rate against players like Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, and Taj Gibson, while facing them less often than the Celtic players. This suggests the Chicago Bulls of that time possessed less longevity, while also being less competitive against LeBron. The notable high volume players who LeBron most frequently beats are Al Horford and DeMar DeRozan, both of which lose to James about 80% of the time. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors were swept out of the playoffs by LeBron at various points.
Looking at his matchups against the Western Conference, LeBron wins about 40% of games against Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan. He performs even worse against the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. These particular dynasties out of the west have given LeBron the most trouble throughout his career, so it could be reasonable to say LeBron would have been more pressed to make the finals if operating out of the west. Interestingly enough, over a large span of games, Kevin Durant performs significantly better against the members of the dynastic Spurs, yet has a losing record against LeBron. This demonstrates the rock-paper-scissors dynamic that exists within the league.
Historical insights are intriguing because they uncover information that has been lost in the collective conscience, as history is naturally more fuzzy the further you go back. If talking history, the natural place to begin is Michael Jordan. Jordan played 859 games with Scottie Pippen, with distant second place John Paxson teaming up for 657. In fact, only six players exceeded 400 games played with Jordan, which suggests there was great roster turmoil despite the dynastic Bulls winning six titles in eight years.
History also tends to forget certain player matchups. Jordan faced Reggie Miller 56 times, which is the 14th most out of any opponent. However, it is less known than his matchups against the bad boy Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, or New York Knicks. This can be attributed to their lack of playoff matchups, having played only seven games (one series). This playoff total ranks last out of the top twenty opponents by total games played, with most others having faced Jordan over 20 times. Jordan’s lowest win rate against high volume opponents is against members of the Pistons, hovering around 45% for most members. This confirms that, by combination of challenge and longevity, the Pistons were the single largest roadblock to Jordan’s success.
Going back to LeBron, we can now see how having your main competitor be within your conference instead of the other conference can influence your finals record. LeBron, with chronic struggle against particular opponents in the other conference, sees it reflected in his finals record. Jordan, by virtue of losing earlier in the playoffs against his nemesis, escapes with a 6-0 finals record. This happenstance alone drives the greatest of all time debate heavily, and will continue to do so as LeBron’s career progresses.
This large master list of player opponents is also a way to measure sustained dominance. As opponents differ by quantities of games played as well as team and portion of career in which they match up, a higher blanket win rate vs all of them suggests career longevity. This is different from a successful peak. Jordan and Stephen Curry each have a peak of many years that set countless standards. Yet, each player has a losing record against some of their frequently faced opponents, suggesting noteworthy struggles at some point.
One player who amazingly does not have this is Magic Johnson. Magic faced 122 distinct opponents at least 28 times. He has a winning record against all of them. Only at 123rd place does Bobby Jones have a 14-13 record against Magic. By seeing that Bobby Jones played for the Philadelphia 76ers in the first half of the 1980’s, we can see that the 76ers of that particular time were the biggest challenge to Magic in his career.
The closest modern-day version of this setup is Tony Parker. Like Magic Johnson, he was added to the team a few years after a dominant front court player, meaning the team was good upon his arrival. Like the Lakers, the Spurs made the playoffs every season and won titles in a spread-out manner instead of consecutively. Finally, like Magic, Parker retired from a team that was still a playoff contender. Out of his top 100 opponents by total matchups, Parker has a winning record against all except Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins, and Serge Ibaka. One can intuitively imagine that a streak like Magic’s or Parker’s will never happen again (if looking at big name players). The NBA has reached the pinnacle of player movement, meaning dissatisfied players who are consistently losing against others will look to team up in superteams (or dynamic duos in this past season), which then cyclically inflicts head to head losses on the next round of dissatisfied stars. As a result, the landscape now churns too often to generate dynasties with permanent blanket winning records against absolutely everyone else. 57% of minutes played in 2019 were by players who were on that same team in 2018. That number a decade ago was 70%, and has been, in fact, declining since the 1960’s. For context, Magic Johnson played when the minute retention rate was oscillating between 75%-85%.
This was just a small example of a journey you could take in the sea of data that is available. If you were surprised or intrigued by anything I said, your own discoveries and revelations could be a website away.