NBA Power Rankings

The NBA Power Rankings is a blog about the good and the bad in these power Rankings. It’s meant to be funny, something like The Onion at its best.

The power rankings are a joke. They are not meant to be taken seriously. Some people have fun with them, some people take them way too seriously. I try to laugh at them, even when they’re making fun of me.

They’re meant to make you laugh, not depress you.

And, like all jokes, I hope they end up being funny in retrospect.

I hate the NBA Power Rankings. It’s a ranking of how good teams are, not how good players are. There are no rankings of which players are most valuable to their teams, or most valuable to the league as a whole. And the way they calculate value is stupid: it’s simply a sum of points scored by individual players.

This is supposed to be a list of who is doing better than whom in the current season. But why is that interesting? Who cares if LeBron James scores more against Indiana than he does against New York? His team doesn’t have as many games against New York as against Indiana, so his numbers count more in the rankings. When an NBA team wins a title, it isn’t because of its star players; it’s because the rest of the team played well enough to complement them. The best players do what they do because that’s what makes their teams win more often than other teams’ players would do it.

That’s why I hate these Power Rankings so much. They’re just not right. They’re like those silly movie ratings: we don’t actually care whether it’s very good or very bad, we just want to know if it’s suitable for children or not.

The NBA is not a league in which the best players are always, or even often, the players who are most valuable to the teams. Since the Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers have won championships, the best players have been Michael Jordan (the only player on all three teams), Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. But their teams would not have won without other players.

The Miami Heat got off to a good start last year, but then lost two of their best players to injury. The Minnesota Timberwolves were much better after trading for Kevin Love than they were before; he is already having an effect on his team’s record. The San Antonio Spurs are almost certainly the best team in the league this year, but that doesn’t mean they will win it all. The Cavaliers might be a bad team, but they are not likely to lose more than ten games this year.

This season there are more NBA general managers than there were when I started writing these rankings two years ago: fourteen. They use different rules for valuing players and draft picks, so these ratings may have changed since then — but if they have not changed much, we can probably assume that this year’s rankings will look much like past versions of my power rankings.*

The NBA is full of brilliant and flawed men. The league is full of prodigies, who are born with the natural talent to make it in the NBA but not with the natural ability to succeed. In an era when a college degree has become something like an NBA prerequisite, some teams have discovered remarkable players who went undrafted or never played high school basketball.

And yet every year, at the start of every season, there is a consensus on which team will win the championship. The reigning champion is ascendant, and all else is noise.

How can that be? How can we be so sure that Barkely will win this year? How can we be so sure that Paul Pierce will not win this year? And how do we know that LeBron James won’t win this year?

The answer lies in two simple facts: 1) The rules of basketball make it easier for the best player to win than for many other kinds of people; 2) We are terrible at predicting things that aren’t directly linked to basketball.

The NBA is an excellent example of how a hierarchical structure can be turned into an advantage without anyone noticing.

In the NBA, teams in the same division share their players, so they can develop team chemistry. And they have to play each other every year, so they have to get to know each other. For example, the Celtics and Knicks don’t play each other very often; but when they do, it’s usually because the Celtics are involved in a race for first place in their division and the Knicks are trying to avoid being left out of the playoffs.

But something else happens in some NBA teams that don’t happen elsewhere: instead of having one superstar who dominates games, there are seven or eight players who all get a lot of attention. So these teams end up with a lot of individual superstars and much less overall talent than you would expect from people who spend almost all their time playing together.

Before you could figure this out by studying individual statistics, you had to see it yourself when you watched a game. When the Knicks beat the Celtics on Sunday night, I was sitting in front of my television set with my wife and son; we were both appalled at what we saw. Twice in a row, the Celtics got close enough to win only to have

We tend to think that sports are objective, but they are not. The NBA is an example of a sport in which the outcome is largely determined by human activity (a good example of a kind of thing economists call “exogenous”). We think it’s obvious that LeBron James is better than Carmelo Anthony. But why do you think it? Is it because he has better numbers, or because he plays for the best team, or because he was born?

It turns out you can’t predict outcomes in any sport this way. There’s no reason to think that LeBron James is automatically better than Carmelo Anthony. It’s just that everything else has gone as expected by our prejudices and customs, so we’ve ended up with a best-player-in-the-league award for each. This happens in all sorts of other sports too.

I do not mean to belittle sports fans who are so happy to be convinced they have found the perfect analysis. But I do want to suggest that if we want hard facts about what really makes people good at their sports, we’ll need to try harder.

The NBA has a powerful effect on the world economy, but it’s hard to see how or why. I don’t mean that the NBA has an economic impact on the world at large; that’s impossible to know. But I do mean that the NBA is a local economic impact on a very small part of the world.

A basketball game represents a tiny fraction of the economic activity of the United States. For example, in 2012 there were only 2.3 million people watching the NBA Finals (and they all watched one match). In 2013 there are 2.3 million people watching every game during regular season and playoffs combined. If you take out the number of people who watch on television and those who listen to it on radio, you’re still only looking at 0.5% of the US population. By comparison, if every American spent one day this year watching TV or listening to radio, we would be talking about about 1/20th of our annual gross domestic product (GDP).

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