Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Goliath Always Wins: Alpha Dogs

Every team has a best player. Every team has a leading scorer. Every team has a best offensive player. Every team has a best defender. The identity of any one of these players cannot be deduced solely from the identity of any one of the other identities. For example, consider the 2011 New Orleans Hornets. Their best player is Chris Paul. Their leading scorer is David West. Their best offensive player is Chris Paul. Their best defender is (arguably) Emeka Okafor. Yet, it is impossible to logically reach any of those identities by knowing any of the other identities. A team's leading scorer is often its best offensive player, but not always. A team's best offensive player is often the team's best player, but not always. For example, Corey Maggette is a better offensive player than Andrew Bogut, but Bogut is still the Bucks' best player.

What other variables do we need to know in order to better determine who the "best" offensive player, defender, or overall player on a team is? To name a few, rebounding, passing, shooting efficiency, man defense, steals, blocked shots, altered shots, team defense, fouling, and screen setting. The distribution of talent in the NBA being what it is, figuring out the identity of the best player on a team is usually not that difficult, but there are always exceptions. These exceptions generally occur when a team has no very good players, like this year's Kings squad, or multiple good players like the 2010 Denver Nuggets, whose best player was either Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, or Nene, depending on the metric used. With all of these uncertain variables, how can we determine which player contributes most to the team winning?

Some of the issues concerning finding the best player are reminiscent of the issues concerning finding the best team. The best team is the one that wins, the one that controls the game. In the same way, it is expected that the best player is the one that contributes most to winning, and is the one that controls the game. This brings us to Alpha Dogs.

The Alpha Dog is the player that holds the most control over the game, the player that has the biggest positive impact of anybody on the floor. In the mythology's most unsophisticated form, his team will triumph because he will win the game for them. As we have already seen, there are a plethora of ways players can impact the game. Typically, the Alpha Dog is defined by his role on offense, which is taking the ball and scoring, as that is how teams win. This is an easy way to solve the "problem" laid out in the first two paragraphs. It is acknowledged that there is value in aspects of the game other than scoring, and the players who excel in these areas are called "role players". Every championship team has them, but they are not nearly as important as the Alpha Dog.

You may quibble with the assertions laid out in the previous paragraph, but I don't think it is disputable that for whoever believes in the Alpha Dog/Role Player dichotomy, the most important skill a basketball player can possess is to be able to create shots for himself. When looked at in this way, some of the Alpha Dog mythology starts to fall apart. The major problem with the mythology is that many skills result in more or better shots being taken for a team besides the ability to drive or create an open fadeaway jumper. What are some of those skills? Good passing, forcing a missed shot, forcing a turnover, grabbing a rebound, setting a good pick, etc.

The reason often given for the prioritizing of this particular skill is that it is most valuable late in games when it is more difficult to run a set offense. In these situations, the advantage often goes to skilled swingmen who can create their own shots. These are the players generally considered Alpha Dogs. Now, it is very likely that these types of players have an advantage in these situations. Still, all that means is that when one is constructing a team, having a wing player that can create his own shot is a priority. That does not necessarily outweigh everything else that happens on the basketball court.

An easy example of a situation in which the best player and the player filling the role of Alpha Dog are different players is the 2009 Orlando Magic with Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu. Looking at that team, it seems silly to suggest that Turkoglu was the Magic's best player because he was the best at creating shots in the final minute. It seems silly to suggest that he exerted more control over the game than Dwight Howard.

Another, more controversial, example is the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant is not a bad all-around player, but his greatest skill lies in taking, and sometimes making, shots that nobody else would even attempt. He scores a lot of points and the ball is usually in his hands. On the other hand, Pau Gasol is a decent scorer, but most of his contributions come in the areas of rebounding, passing, defense, and missing a lower percentage of his shots than his teammates, including Bryant. To the casual observer, it sure looks like Bryant's the one controlling the game because he's the one with the ball, but are the ways Gasol creates extra shots just as important, if less obvious?

By asking these questions, it should be obvious that I am casting doubts on the Alpha Dog/Role Player dichotomy. But I want to continue to use it to explore issues of winning and teambuilding. Next time: is there something special about winners?