Robert Horry and Value Capture
You already know what value capture is if you’ve encountered NBA Ring Culture.
You know your cousin who says Michael Jeffrey Jordan is the Greatest of All Time (the GOAT) because he won 6 rings, even Kobe won 5, maybe he’ll change his mind when LeBron gets more than 4? (This is purely hypothetical if any actual cousins are reading.)
Along these lines, Giannis is ahead of Jokic because Giannis has 1 ring and Jokic has 0, though to be fair, things might be different in a month if Jokic wins a ring of his own.
That’s NBA Ring Culture. The best man wins, so put up or shut up.
Okay, let’s take that kind of thinking seriously for a minute. Let’s see how this single-minded logic plays out.
Zach Lowe says that if all you care about is rings, that’s great.
You can either allow no nuance, or all the nuance.
So you can think the actual number of rings a player retires with is the end-all-be-all of the GOAT Discussion. Call me when LeBron gets 6, until then, Jordan’s clearly greater.
Or, you can think we need to evaluate the context and account for all the factors that go into who does or doesn’t win the actual Championship each year. And then things get much more complicated.
If you allow no nuance, the greatest player ever is Bill Russell, with 11 rings:
But it’s not so impressive, because Russell got to play with all the other greatest players ever.
His teammate Sam Jones won 10 rings, and his teammates Tom Heinsohn, K. C. Jones, Satch Sanders, and John Havlicek all won 8. Plus, his teammates Jim Lostocuff and Frank Ramsay won 7.
Finally we arrive at the greatest player of the last fifty years, Robert Horry, who also won 7 rings:
So Robert Horry (7) is the greatest player this side of color TV.
As a kid I admit I was in awe of Robert Horry. He was what I wasn’t: Clutch. I watched him launch a halfcourt buzzer beater in a playoff game against the Suns(?) and thought, “Oh my God, is he gonna make that?” (I can’t find this clip on YouTube anymore.)
He missed that one, but even so, Big Shot Bob made a ton of iconic shots:
But weirdly, he was never an All-Star and mostly came off the bench behind lesser greats like Hakeem (2) and Shaq (4) and Kobe (5) and Duncan (5).
Okay, let’s be real. Robert Horry was a very nice role-player who hit some big shots. You trusted him to take them at the end of playoff games, and expected most or all of them to go in.
But Robert Horry isn’t greater than Michael Jordan, the guy your cousin was originally arguing for.
So let's try this: There are Stars, the greatest players on their teams, and there are role-players. Michael Jordan was a Star. Robert Horry was just a role-player. Stars should get more credit than role-players, so Jordan was greater than Horry.
That sounds reasonable, but notice that we've introduced the tiniest bit of nuance. Now there are two kinds of players who we're evaluating by different rules. But Lowe's claim is that if we're really going to take this exercise seriously, every bit of nuance we can add to our reasoning helps.
Let's start out nice and simple: Maybe all the championship credit should go to the Star?
That won't work. What about when Shaq and Kobe played together? Shaq was the undisputed #1 on that team. Does that mean Kobe only has two rings that really count?
He’s 40% of Tim Duncan?
That doesn’t make any sense. I’m not going to rank greatness with whole numbers, which means the Star can't get all the credit.
So, how much credit should Stars and role-players get?
Well, once we notice that Robert Horry had a very long career moving from one historically great team to another, we might only credit him for some percentage of those 7 rings. Let’s be nice and arbitrarily say that 20% of the 7 rings were his doing. We can say his ring share is 1.4 rings. (Remember, this is a guy who averaged 12 points per game in the playoffs exactly twice.)
Once we start trying to add even a little nuance like this, it's really hard to stop. Here's something obvious. Sometimes one shot basically separates two really evenly-matched teams in the Finals:
If a championship could plausibly come down to one shot like this, why give all the shine to the champions? After all, the runners-up must be pretty great just to be in the Finals.
Now we can give Charles Barkley, who never won a ring, at least a little credit for losing to Michael Jordan.
But the same was true the round before. Sometimes one shot basically separates two really evenly-matched teams in the Conference Finals:
Now even players like Steve Nash, who never made the Finals, can still get some credit for making the Conference Finals four times. It's not his fault he ran into buzzsaw teams starring Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant.
(And by the way, Steve Nash is closer to being the GOAT than Robert Horry, so he’d better have more than 1.4 ring shares.)
Note that we can keep reasoning this way. Sometimes, one shot basically separates two really evenly-matched teams in the Conference Semifinals:
Or even gets you into the playoffs:
So there's gonna be a lot of championship credit to spread across the 'losers,' and we'll want to do so in increasingly sophisticated ways that account for injuries, coaching, roster construction, matchups...
Oh right, I gotta get to value capture.
Sorry I’m always quoting C. Thi Nguyen, but I did highlight his book Games: Agency as Art 819 times, so at one blog post a week that’s content for over fifteen years before we have to dip into Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (2645).
Anyway, here’s what he says about value capture:
Value capture occurs when: 1. Our values are, at first, rich and subtle. 2. We encounter simplified (often quantified) versions of those values. 3. Those simplified versions take the place of our richer values in our reasoning and motivation. 4. Our lives get worse.
In value capture, we fixate and obsess over simplified versions of our values, to our own detriment.
It’s value capture when you obsess over your weight or step count or calories and lose sight of your health. Good health is a bundle of lots of subtle things, not one or two fluctuating numbers on your phone.
It’s value capture when you obsess over your grades and lose sight of your learning. Learning has lots of valuable dimensions: how deeply you understand, how well you can generalize and apply, how accurately you’ll recall later...and it can’t be grokked as a letter or percentage scrawled on the test you just crammed for.
It’s value capture when I obsess over my bank balance as a measure of how well my career (and maybe my life?) is going, or when I obsess over how many likes and views each of these blog posts gets. Even the autogenerated note at the top of this article that says it's a 7 minute read really weirds me out. I feel a lot of pressure to keep that number small because I think that will probably drive another metric—view count—up. So today, I’m intentionally trying to go a little longer.
Because value capture is bad for us.
Nguyen clarifies that “The argument, as stated, presumes that values are naturally rich and inchoate, and are better because they are so.”
We can already see this talking to your cousin.
First, he's reducing greatness to number of rings, which is far too simple, and doesn't give him any sort of deeper understanding or appreciation of the players he's supposedly evaluating. It's a conversation-ending level of analysis.
Even if he adds enough nuance to appeal to some bizarro stat like ring shares, that still isn't enough. We care about a lot of other things when we think about greatness in sports.
We don't just care about how great players were at contributing to championship-level play, or how high they could raise the ceiling of already good teams. Doesn’t the ability to give a bad team a chance with your floor-raising matter? How about leaving your mark on the game like Allen Iverson or Steph Curry? Maybe even things like Russell and Kareem’s civil rights legacies should count for something?
Our criteria for basketball greatness are rich and inchoate. They can't be fully specified or (God forbid) quantified in a way that could cover every conceivable scenario in advance.
Say LeBron joined the Warriors in 2014 to create a superduperteam and retired with 9 rings. Would he be the GOAT then?
What if he got 12?
How much would that number change your evaluation of LeBron's greatness as a player? (Remember, he's the same guy.)
Greatness isn't just about rings.
Also, reducing something incredibly subtle like greatness to 1.4 is ridiculous. Our values aren’t so neat and tidy that you can assign each player’s greatness a meaningful decimal value.
Greatness isn't quantifiable.
But when we act as though our values are so neat and tidy, we might end up undercutting, limiting, or harming the things that really matter in pursuit of metrics that really don’t.
Trying to make my blog posts shorter means I lose sight of making them better. I miss out on experimenting with the extended depth that can only really be achieved in longer pieces. If I'm trying to write better stuff, worrying too much about how many minutes a mysterious formula estimates it will take the average person to read focuses my attention on something not just irrelevant, but potentially stultifying.
Similarly, trying to win more rings or increase your ring share could mean losing sight of greatness. Generational Stars might even end up ring chasing, which most people agree seems...not so great.
LeBron's in the Conference Finals for the 12th time at age 38. What if he ends up winning his fifth ring this year? Will people finally agree that he’s the GOAT? Or does he need a sixth or even seventh to be the greatest?
When we ask questions like this, we flirt with value capture.
Of course, it’s appealing to draw clear lines and point to clear reasons, especially in the form of sense-making narratives. "Jordan is better than LeBron because 6 > 4" even has the superficial appearance of mathematical solidity.
But maybe we’re just telling ourselves an oversimplified story in which one or two more rings make all the difference.
Maybe we’re obsessing over rings and losing sight of greatness.
If so, that’s value capture.
Hey, if you'd like more free philosophy in your life, I'm helping to organize a free Zoom conference on AI ethics called Who's Responsible For ChatGPT? and you can check it out at www.philosophyforhumans.com.
We even managed to get C. Thi Nguyen as the keynote speaker!
I'd love to see you there, and please do consider pitching at least a "lightning talk" if LLMs like ChatGPT have started to find their way into your personal or professional life. I'd love to hear from non-philosophers especially, because we philosophers don't know everything. (And the really good ones don't know anything.)
P.S. Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone's a philosopher. You know what I mean.