Is the Whole Truly Greater Than the Sum of the Parts?

Ross Costanza Photography

The cute, little aphorism of the “whole being greater than the sum of the parts” as it applies to basketball teams is usually meant to describe over-achieving teams whose personnel is generally regarded as not as strong as a number of its opponents.  The saying is meant to be a compliment and is usually taken in the figurative spirit it is given.

From a purely analytical angle, however, the whole can’t be greater than the sum of its parts-especially over the length of a season.  In one game, it may APPEAR that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts but if the SAME result happens (a “lesser” team beating a “better” team on a number of occasions), then the lesser team isn’t lesser and the better teams aren’t really better.

The more I delve into basketball analytics, the more I’m convinced that the most accurate way to assess a player’s overall value is by using a point differential system of contributed offensive points minus defensive points given up.  

For instance, let’s say the Celtics beat the Lakers by 6 points.  No matter how you slice it from a numbers angle, in that game the Celtics’ players can’t be better or worse than an aggregate +6 points, and the Lakers’ players can’t be any better or worse than an aggregate -6 points.

Now granted, you can PLAY better or worse than your score in one game or several games but over a season or career, the score is the absolute indicator of team and individual performance.  Simply put, the larger the sample size, the more absolute score becomes. One caveat-some coaches will want to throw out routs and point differentials after a game has been conclusively decided. That’s everyone’s prerogative but the downside is eliminating data that some of your subs can only accumulate in those situations.

This thinking only works when assessing your team against your schedule and you, an assistant or designated tagger has to do the leg work.   

Read Best Analytic: A Vote for ‘True Game Value and True Season Value, for further thoughts on analyzing one’s player’s value using a modified plus/minus system.    


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