Value seems like the buzzword of the hour. The focus on ascribing some definitive number to every part of a team’s construction and performance has become measurable, visible in the databases filled with box scores and batted-ball spray charts. Suddenly even casual sports fans have trouble navigating the culture of their favorite teams without encountering some formulation of acronyms stuck to the front of a “-metric” suffix. Some (though perhaps fewer and fewer) lament the passing of days where a complete understanding of sports required no knowledge of regression analysis. While public opinion might not always follow along with willful enthusiasm, remember that the original motivation behind “advanced metrics” was to achieve a deeper understanding of what constituted success. Doing so proved an exceptional method of winning, a common goal for both the front-office brains and the fans who watched unorthodox methodology deliver the same result they always hoped for. Winning, after all, was the ultimate goal for everyone involved, and this value-based system was simply the latest tool.
The numbers sum up everything. They don’t value rough-and-tumble defensive stoppers, they value low defensive ratings. They don’t value 30-point scorers (er, kinda), they value 16 points on 10 shots. Sure, that’s overstating and oversimplifying things too much, but there’s a reason efficiency gets all the face-time these days. Efficiency gets results on the cheap. Efficiency doesn’t blow leads or hog the ball. It’s not sexy, but it gets the job done. Efficiency gives owners what they want: value.
One could say, then, that value is just little bits of winning. We grant that a player is valuable because the things he does help his team by a (reasonably) determinable amount. The only reason the numbers want Kevin Love to grab a rebound is because it has some specific value which, accumulated in high enough numbers, will help earn his team a win. It’s a mildly harsh reality, reducing the actions we see to parts of a sum, but it’s one that more and more people are warming to, myself included. I’m happy to grant that per-possession statistics are far more valuable than their per-game counterparts, or that protecting scoring opportunities is exceedingly important in winning basketball games. I’ll happily agree with anyone who says that maximizing the value of those shot attempts is an important factor in winning a basketball game, and that high-volume shooters might actually be deviously undermining their team’s success.
Given all that, it would appear I have managed to convince myself that I am kidding myself when it comes to Brandon Jennings. When Jennings fell just shy of a triple-double in his first career game, it jolted me out of my chair. When he dropped 55 points on the Warriors two weeks later, it sold me. It sold me so well that even as Jennings fell back to Earth over the next few months, I remained stoutly convinced that he was the future of professional basketball where I was concerned. Following that season, I started writing this site under a name inspired by his performance, even as doubts over whether it was all a cruel joke grew in my mind.
If you’re looking for an understatement, let me say that Brandon Jennings has experienced a drop-off since those torrid first weeks of his rookie season, to the point where there are times when the Milwaukee Bucks win in spite of him, rather than thanks to him. As that first season rolled along, it pained me to see criticisms of the team, identifying the frequent nights when Jennings would “shoot Milwaukee out of the game.” Why was I so affected by such scorn? After all, the number-disciple in me sided with the critics. I had no vested interest in Jennings outside his role as the starting point guard for my favorite team. I had no affiliation with the team beyond that of a particularly interested fan, but I hated that every shot taken by Jennings would invariably lead to some shot taken at him. Yet through it all, my enthusiasm for his play never waned. It was cognitive dissonance wearing a #3 jersey. Screw value, I thought. Efficiency be damned, this kid is fun.
Is that irresponsible? Probably. Professional basketball is a business, where personal attachments only count for as long as they’re convenient. If Tim Duncan wasn’t the greatest power forward who ever lived, he probably wouldn’t have stayed in San Antonio his entire career. Draft picks staying with the same team for a full career isn’t exactly the norm. Is Jennings good enough to warrant the title of “Franchise Point Guard” in Milwaukee? That’s not a decision to be left up to me. But I can attest that Bucks basketball hasn’t been the same since Brandon Jennings joined the squad. He brought with him the most exciting performance and season in years. He has a dramatic flair and unquenchable attitude. Despite his undeniable struggles, when he has the ball in his hands, I always feel like something really, really cool could happen. Don’t tell me there isn’t value in that.