Turn Off The ‘Lights

Discussing players a team can acquire through trades, free agency, and the draft has become a staple of sports fans.

It is impossible to watch every game of every sport. The average sports fan watches their local team’s games and some national games. Really intense fans may pay for a package to have access to all games to watch 1-2 extra games a night. But that still falls far short, especially when it comes to boring teams that nobody wants to watch. In the end, few people watch more than a handful of games not including their local teams.

So a rumor comes out. Your team is interested in some player on a going-nowhere team or perhaps a player who “just can’t find playing time” on his current team. Or word is that your team is targeting a specific player in the draft. Maybe they’ll even trade up for him.

What happens next? YouTube. Maybe somebody posts a 5-minute reel on Twitter. Perhaps there was a supercut posted on reddit showing 10 minutes of specific, hand-picked plays.

Based on these clips, an opinion is formed. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that much. A memory of that player just destroying your team that one time. Somebody you follow declaring him good or bad. He went to a college you don’t like. This can happen even (or especially) with players that fans watch often. If fans like a player, the highlights are extolled at the expense of all else. If fans dislike a player, the lowlights are held up as proof regardless of all else.

Judging a player off of highlights or lowlights is not judging the player at all.

In an average NBA game, there are 100 offensive and 100 defensive possessions for each team, 82 games a year. In an average NFL game, there are 63.5 offensive and 63.5 defensive plays for each team, roughly 60% passing and 40% rushing, 16 games a year. A season highlight reel will often show less than 5% of a player’s plays from a given season, selected to show the absolute best or worst ones.

A 25% 3P shooter can look like a sharpshooting god if only the makes are shown. A steal artist can look like a dope if only his failures are shown. A terrible QB can look like a Hall of Famer if only his best completions are shown. An elite pass rusher can look useless if his bad reps are isolated. None of these would be representative of the player, yet these are exactly how players are judged.

What makes a player good is not what he can do, but how consistently he can do it.

Most possessions are not top 5% or bottom 5% possessions. They are a bell curve, with most possessions reflecting a player’s average overall quality.

Many highlights, especially in basketball, are of plays that are not worth any more or less than an average play. Blocking a shot into the 3rd row is awesome, but contesting a shot and rebounding the miss is a better play. A breakaway windmill jam can pop a crowd, but it’s not worth any more than a simple layup. Many highlights, especially in football, are special plays unlikely to be recreated. Many lowlights happen simply because humans aren’t perfect, so every player has bad plays that can be cherrypicked.

While these plays are all more memorable than the average play, they are also far rarer. For every play you remember, there are thousands you forget. But over the course of a season, those forgettable plays are really what determines how good a player is.

So turn off the ‘lights. Pay attention to the plays that don’t stand out. Ignore the ones that do. And you may find yourself developing quite a different view.