I just finished Bill Simmons's absolute masterpiece and basketball Bible aptly titled The Book of Basketball (TBOB).
His thesis revolves around The Secret: that is, that the key to basketball isn't about basketball. The truly great teams in NBA history didn't win based on talent (alone). Instead:
... they won because they liked each other knew their roles, ignored statistics and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page. By that same token, they lost if any of those three factors weren’t in place.
That said, what really got me thinking in TBOB was the role of statistics in basketball.
With the rise of Bill James's Sabermetrics, statistics have featured an increasingly important role in baseball. By attempting to isolate a player's performance from that of his teammates, he could be evaluated like never before. Obscure new metrics like WAR and DIPS emerged, allowing us to put our favorite players in vacuums and line them up for comparison. As Simmons puts it:
Every conceivable diamond talent can be measured objectively.
But is the same true for basketball? Have we developed reliable statistics that can tell the full story, that can be used in the future as objective indicators of player performance, ability, and potential?
Basketball is a sport where five men play together at a blazingly fast pace. If we buy into The Secret, then teamwork and selflessness are the keys to winning teams—but aren't these attributes often counter to producing individually impressive numbers?
Let's say Wilt Chamberlain puts up 80 points in a game, but takes 90% of his team's shots—and they lose. Is this an admirable performance? Is winning more important than Wilt's 80? Does the fact that he got the ball on nearly every possession mar his performance?
These are difficult questions to answer.
To Simmons, statistics alone will never be enough. In his own words:
In my opinion, there’s no ironclad way to assign statistical value to every player when so much of an individual’s success (as well as his numbers) hinges on situations and team success, as well as his willingness to put the team ahead of himself.
And, perhaps the kicker:
Basketball is an objective sport and a subjective sport, dammit. That’s what makes it so much fun to follow.
And in mine: Basketball is a sport that you need to see to fully understand. Numbers alone lead to historical injustices: putting Wilt above Russell, for example (Simmons devotes almost thirty pages to debunking this debate that "wasn't really a debate"). But numbers can help paint a clearer picture.
An alternative answer might be that we just haven't found the right statistics yet. Player Efficiency Rating, or PER, was developed by John Hollinger in an attempt to create an all-in-one, definitive statistic, summarizing every player with a single number.
PER was a step in the right direction. I like it for the following reasons (which are true in theory):
But PER still hasn't hit the mark. Lets draw on Simmons again:
When John Hollinger’s PER metric decides that Marreese Speights is the 30th most efficient offensive player in basketball with Shane Battier is 284th, obviously I’m dubious.
This got me thinking. What would we want, then, in the ultimate statistic:
Will we ever have such a statistic? Maybe not. Maybe it's PER. Maybe it will be something completely different with a fresh take and a fresh acronym. Maybe it's several numbers; maybe it's a single one.
In the meantime, statistics will only take us so far. And the watching continues.
A few other quotes and ideas that I couldn't help but include.
Two of my favorite statistics that Simmons "invents" in TBOB:
The four keys to winning a championship :
A massive challenge. Simmons puts it well:
You can’t forget that twenty-first-century stars are evolutionary versions of the best guys from the fifties and sixties… Really, it’s like comparing an ’09 Porsche with a ’62 Porsche: the ’09 would easily win a race between them, but the ’62 was a more groundbreaking car. 
As a caveat, Simmons also claims that players can't be compared across different eras unless they both "thrived after 1976, when basketball became the sport it is today.
In 1962, Elgin averaged an “ungodly 38-19-5". At the same time, he was serving in the United States Army Reserves. He missed 40% of games, yet still managed to finish fourth in MVP voting. The full story:
A United States Army Reservist at the time, Elgin worked in the state of Washington during the week, living in any army barracks and leaving only whenever they gave him a weekend pass. Even with that pass, he had to fly coach on flights with multiple connections to meet the Lakers wherever they were playing, throw on a uniform and battle the best NBA players, then make the same complicated trip back to Washington in time to be there early Monday morning. 
Simmons tears 'The Decision' apart: not just his choice to break Cleveland's heart on national TV, but also to team up with Dwayne Wade.
I feel like LeBron James copped out. In pickup basketball, there's an unwritten rule to keep teams relatively equal to maximize competitiveness of the games... But two perimeter players willingly deciding that it would be easier to join forces than compete against each other? There's no 'secret' to that... As someone who loves basketball, I can't forgive him. 
Posted on February 3, 2014.