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The Power of Narrative in the NBA

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Narrative is a powerful thing in sports. It chugs along, spewing out ideas and opinions that aren't necessarily backed up with facts or data. Here are a couple examples of how influential it can be in how people think about certain NBA players.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving is the best point guard in the NBA... or so you would have thought the first few weeks after the NBA Finals had ended. Fans both casual and serious were acclaiming him on Twitter and the internet, praising his "clutch shooting" as well as his overall performance in the Finals (and the rest of the playoffs, to be fair). His shot over Steph Curry in the waning moments of Game 7, the shot that ended up sealing the victory for the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers, is destined to be one of the greatest shots in NBA history. Kyrie's overall efforts in the Finals will also be remembered, though they were overshadowed by the gargantuan performance of teammate LeBron James. Yet it has always been this way for Kyrie. Since he first stepped into the league, he has been the darling of fans and social media everywhere. He was destined for greatness.

Two thousand miles west of Cleveland, another point guard has presumably been fuming all summer. Chris Paul (of the Los Angeles Clippers) is 31 years old, on the downslope of his underrated, Hall of Fame career. Why is he undervalued though? It's certainly not because of a lack of highlights: Chris Paul has enough amazing dribble moves, passes, and shots to fill a dozen films on YouTube. Is it because of poor surface stats? Nah. Chris Paul, just by looking at his very basic numbers, is one of the best point guards in NBA history. No, the reason why Chris Paul seems doomed to be unappreciated for all eternity is because he hasn't made it past the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and is therefore not a "winner".

Chris Paul, as discussed in this article by Matt Moore of CBS, does not have a perfect mark in the playoffs. He has had some really bad games at really bad times, and has not always been the steadying force that he so often appears to be. Most of the time, however, Paul has been superb in the playoffs—he has just lost to better teams. Let's not forget that for the first three years of Kyrie Irving's career, he was the best player on a bottom-dwelling Cavs team in a weak Eastern Conference. Yes, those teams were bad... but Chris Paul made the playoffs for years with mediocre at best rosters when in New Orleans. It's also important to note that for all of Kyrie's spectacular play in the Finals (and it was spectacular), he was still only the 2nd option on his team, and LeBron James carried that team from start to finish. Yet now, Kyrie Irving is a winner. Chris Paul is not.

It's fascinating how this doesn't only play into the usual arguments involving rings and championships: legacy. There are many people who think Kyrie Irving is a better player than Chris Paul right now! After all, Kyrie Irving has not only won an NBA championship, but he played well in the Finals! And he hit a big shot! Therefore, he is more "clutch" than Chris Paul. Kyrie is viewed as more of a "big time shooter" than Chris Paul. Irving has nicer handles than Chris Paul, pulls off more incredible plays on a game-by-game basis. Do all these things mean he is a better player than Chris Paul? Absolutely not!

When perusing through the basketball reference pages for Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, one thing is immediately clear. Chris has been better than Kyrie every single year of his career except in his rookie season, and even that's closer than it appears if you bring defense into the equation. CP3 is on another level as a playmaker, turns the ball over less, defends at much higher level, and is a more efficient scorer. The only thing Kyrie has an advantage in is volume scoring, which is not nearly enough to make up the difference. Winning a title and a strong playoff run didn't magically transform Kyrie into a better basketball player than Chris Paul. While Chris is due to fall off sometime, he hasn't yet, and there should be little question that he is going to be a far superior player to Kyrie in 2017.

A perhaps less obvious example of narrative is one I made on Twitter a couple days ago. Consider these two shooting guards:

Player A: Age 24, 21.6/3.4/4.4 per/36 44.8/41.7/82.7, TS=54.4

Player B: Age 22, 20.2/4.0/3.4 per/36 44.9/38.7/76.7, TS=54.7

These players seem pretty similar, no? The first dishes out more assists and shot better from the line, while the second player rebounded better and actually attempted more free throws. The big variance is that player B is two years younger. And no, player B did not receive considerably fewer minutes—both are starters. So who are these mystery guards? Player A is CJ McCollum of the Portland Trailblazers. Player B is Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards.

Interestingly enough, both got paid huge money this off-season-- but their contracts were received very differently. McCollum's deal was considered acceptable, Beal's was not. Of course, the biggest difference between the two is Beal's injury history, which is a very real concern. He has missed games every season due to stress reactions in his leg, an injury that might never leave him. It was more of a risk to give Beal a max deal than McCollum a max extension— but that's not really the question. CJ is seen as being a better player than Beal, and a more promising one going forward. That's partially due to Beal's injuries. But it's mostly because of last year's narrative.

The 2015-2016 Portland Trailblazers were predicted by most "pundits" to be a lottery team in a stacked Western Conference after losing four of the previous year's starters. The Wizards, on the other hand, had high expectations after consecutive Eastern Conference Semi-Finals appearances in 2014 and 2015.  The Blazers coalesced behind Damian Lillard and McCollum into a solid playoff team, winning 44 games and finishing 5th in the West. The Wizards disappointed, winning only 41 games and missing the playoffs. Beal missed 27 games, and the team was rife with feuding between vets and young guys, Beal with Wall, and everyone against Coach Wittman.

The team's performance changed the perspective on each player's season. While McCollum deserved every bit of his Most Improved Player Award, Beal quietly had his best season on offense as well, despite his team's struggles. He got to the basket and the line more frequently, cut down on his long twos, and scored at a higher and more efficient rate than in previous seasons. While his defense did dip, there were promising signs that Beal actually could turn into an All Star running mate for John Wall. CJ McCollum is going to be really good for a long time, but he wasn't a significantly better player than Beal last year, nor, barring injuries of course, does he promise to be in a completely different tier from him in the future.

Highlights play into this debate as well. CJ is a wizard with the ball in his hands, a master of crossovers and stepbacks. He drains long-range bombs off the dribble, and is slithery splitting pick and rolls going to the basket. Beal, on the other hand, is a much more conventional 2-guard who thrives on spot ups and in transition. While he's actually a more explosive athlete than CJ, he's not nearly as silky, and he rarely makes "highlight reel" plays. That matters in today's age of social media discussion and viral vines. In addition, McCollum is a trained journalism major that already has a presence in sports media. He does interviews on the sidelines, contributes in studios, and generally has made a name for himself outside of his on-court play. Simply put, he is more popular than Beal for reasons that have little to do with actual production. That popularity has helped create a narrative around a player who is really good, but perhaps not quite as ahead of his peers as some fans would think.

So highlights, winning, team success, personality—all these things contribute to a narrative about players. Make no mistake: narratives are what make sports go. We support underdogs, root for players who are coming back from trauma or injury, and fight against the evil tyrants taking over the NBA (cough Golden State cough). But as writers, and fans, it is important to not let the narratives take over. Statistics and facts, while not necessarily fun to discuss, help paint a clearer picture of what is actually being discussed. So next time, when you sit back and watch some young point guard cross over Chris Paul or pull a fancy dribble move on him, remember to check the actual box score of the game. The numbers will probably be in the Point God's favor.