At a really (really) high level, performance is a function of
what you bring to the table (we’ll call that talent), and
and how you can leverage that here (we’ll call that fit)
Sports make this clear.
Here’s the future of basketball: The tallest people alive can pass, shoot, and dribble, and they’re competing to be Rookie of the Year.
7’4” Victor Wembanyama was the generational #1 pick in the draft, and he plays the way I do on a Fisher Price goal. Check out this ridiculous swipe and slam:
But his team is a mess. The Spurs are 6-30, and Coach Pop seems so intent on tanking for a good draft pick he won’t play Victor with anyone who might pass him the ball. (He made Jeremy Sochan LARP as a point guard for months before finally starting Tre Jones last week.)
As a result, Victor’s been inefficient, and the Spurs have been weirdly uncompetitive.
Meanwhile, 7’1” Chet Holmgren was last year’s #2 pick, but he missed the season after getting injured trying to guard LeBron in a summer Pro-Am game. He got a full year to work with NBA players, coaches, and trainers, and by the time he came back, the Thunder were loaded with young talent. Look how much space Chet gets to cook a smaller dude with this Dirk Nowitzki stepback:
At 26-11, the Thunder are the second seed in the West, having caught up to the Timberwolves after beating the Blazers by 52 last night. Chet has been an incredibly efficient shooter, making over 40% of his threes. He’s also passed Victor as the odds-on-favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Here are their stats head-to-head, per 100 possessions of course:
Just to help interpret those last three statistics:
True Shooting Percentage converts free throws and three-pointers into two-point shots. (After all, 40% from three is kinda like 60% from two.) On this metric, Chet is shooting 66%—better than prime Shaq, and over ten points better than Victor.
On-Court +/- means that when Chet’s on the floor, his team wins by almost 11 points per 100 possessions. When Victor’s on the floor, his team loses by 8 points per 100 possessions.
To be fair, the On/Off +/- says that the Spurs are 4.4 points better per 100 possessions when Victor’s on the floor, while the Thunder improve by 3.4 with Chet.
Victor is being asked to raise the floor of a very bad team. So he has to do way more, like replace his teammates’ terrible shots with okay ones. As a result, his turnovers are high and his percentages are low. Even so, he’s been productive at both ends.
Meanwhile, Chet is being asked to raise the ceiling of a very good team. So he can pick his spots, and turn good shots into great shots.
So who’s better? The more productive floor-raiser, or the more efficient ceiling-raiser?
Some folks jump straight to, well, what if they switched teams? If Victor was on the Thunder, I bet he’d look great. And if Chet was on the Spurs, I bet he’d struggle to create so much, too.
But I don’t like this counterfactual. I think it’s too simple, because now it puts Chet on a cartoonishly inept squad where anyone would struggle. But good teams build around what their best players bring to the table! And if we want to think about who’s Rookie of the Year, aren’t we really projecting forward to imagine who has the most promising future, once their teams have had a chance to do just that?
This year we almost have to throw the numbers out, because Victor isn’t playing on a real basketball team, and Chet is in basketball nirvana. So God bless Chet, who’s amazing, but I still think Victor’s upside is higher at both ends. Going forward, I’m rolling with the weirdo who moves like this:
So what did we learn?
We can sort of get a handle on performance. It’s safe to say Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren have both performed very well this year. Classic box score statistics describe offensive output much better than defensive impact, but we’ve been developing increasingly sophisticated metrics to try to capture player performance for decades.
And we can sort of get a handle on fit. Draymond Green wouldn’t look like a Hall of Famer on most teams, but Golden State was the perfect environment to leverage what he brought to the table—all-time defense, great short-roll playmaking, and super illegal screens. On the other hand, streak shooter Jordan Poole is overtasked as Kyle Kuzma’s running mate in Washington. That’s a bad fit for him.
But assessing talent is a mess.
We only get to see your actual performance in real-life, which depends on who you get to play with, how your coach uses you, and the total team environment (including diet, training, habits…) around you.
But what you bring to the table goes far deeper. Maybe your coach never clocked that you’re a great passer out of the pinch post, so you never got to show off that part of your game. Then again, maybe he thought you could bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense.
But that means that to assess talent, we have to imagine all the relevant counterfactuals: How would the team be with someone else in your place? How would you be with a real point guard? What if someone actually threw you a lob the ten times a game you were open for a bizarro slam?
Despite an all-time coach and franchise, the Spurs do not have an NBA-quality roster this year. That on-court environment is so bad that no one star would fit well into whatever the hell San Antonio’s doing. Meanwhile, the Thunder have such a talented, balanced roster (with ten guys shooting 40% from three, and a top-10 defense) that pretty much anyone would look good over there.
And that makes assessing talent hardest of all. Strong performance is great evidence that your talents are being put to use. Lesser performance isn’t conclusive evidence that you lack talent. The problem isn’t just that your environment might be bad. It might be a bad fit for you and what you bring to the table specifically.
So my Rookie of the Year is still Wemby. Can’t wait to see how this take looks in a few years!
Let’s do another quick one for you, Christopher.
BONUS: Most Valuable Player
In Dallas, everyone stares at Luka Doncic all the time. His coach and teammates look to him to run the offense. And the other team’s defense is designed to make his life hard.
He doesn’t always look back.
Meanwhile, Chet’s teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is posting Instagram highlights of himself eating NBA superstar Steph Curry alive. Again, look how much space he has to go 1 on 1 against a smaller guy:
Here are Luka and Shai’s per 100 possession stats:
Shai’s +/- numbers are really popping this year—and to be fair, these are fluky stats—but Luka’s have always been surprisingly pedestrian. The team just doesn’t fall apart without him the way you might expect! (Last night, with Luka hurt, Kyrie led the Mavs past the Knicks with 44 points and 10 assists.)
Part of the problem is obvious. Even though Luka stuffs the stat sheet on offense, he gives a lot of value back complaining to the refs instead of running back on defense.
Luka’s fit is pretty unique—the rest of the team fits around him doing everything for them. Maybe he wouldn’t have to expend so much energy on a better team where he wasn’t dribbling 450 times a game—twice as much(!!) as his teammate Kyrie. But it’s always been this way, and Luka’s never gotten in great basketball shape. Even when he had Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie around to handle the rock sometimes and the Mavs made the Conference Finals, he’s never been a neutral on defense. At some point, you start to wonder if he can play a different way. Maybe this just is what he brings to the table. (Or maybe the Mavs are too afraid he’ll leave to get the best out of him.) Shai isn’t as good a passer or three-point shooter, and Luka isn’t as good at the line or on defense. So who’s the MVP? I don’t think either is clearly more talented than the other! Shai is making the most of a great fit to lead a spunky young team to the top of the Western Conference. As a result, he’s edged ahead in the MVP odds. We’ve talked about how awards like Most Valuable Player don’t really track any one thing, like who’s the most talented, or who performed the best this year. Jokic is still my pick for MVP, but voters might take him for granted. So don’t underestimate Shai. He’s been an awesome ceiling-raiser this year, and might just nab an MVP before Luka.