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League Firsts in the 'New' NBA

Josh Giddey has been the Australian sports media’s favourite toy for the past 18 months.

The lengthy guard’s unique combination of size, play-making and (with all due respect) lack of athleticism make him somewhat or an unusual commodity around the League. The local media eat this up and are only too quick to celebrate everything Giddey does with the type of fanfare usually reserved for the annual release of the latest iPhone.

This isn’t to say this is inherently a bad thing, either. Giddey, as mentioned above, possesses a special combination of skills and physical attributes which make him not only intriguing to watch, but someone you want to root for. Local media cater to this, and it doesn’t take long before statistics and other number-based similarities are found between him and some all-time great player, as if to project that Giddey’s ceiling is the same as those elite players of the past.

Josh Giddey joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to record triple-doubles in both of their first two games at Madison Square Garden yesterday.

Take his triple double against the New York Knicks from yesterday as an example.

In a high scoring win for Oklahoma, Giddey registered 24 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. The rhetoric, however was less on the triple double itself and what it supposedly meant. Giddey, according to multiple media sources on Twitter, became only the second player in NBA history to record triple-doubles in both of his first two games at Madison Square Garden. The first – Wilt Chamberlain (Giddey recorded a 28 point, 11 rebounds and 12 assist game at The Garden in his rookie-season).

Now, the fact that Giddey joins Chamberlain as the only two players to do this is, in itself, not an issue. If anything, it’s the type of fun fact that adds colour and depth to a conversation about the League such as might occur on someone’s favourite basketball podcast (Bad Men, Bad Takes, for instance). But the issue is that these type of statistical ‘milestones’ are used, explicitly or otherwise, as a way to draw a comparison between two players, usually one current and one an all-time great, and infer that the current player has achieved something otherworldly.

Let me be clear at this juncture: This is not about Josh Giddey and the Australian sports media’s love of him. Nor is it about Josh Giddey himself or trying to put him down in any way. It’s simply about the proliferation of these comparisons and the highly specific conditions they need to put on the ‘achievement’ in order to make them. Media and team PR accounts have to put so many conditions on a stat line in order to have it qualify to be compared to another, that it actually starts to lose meaning.

A recent performance by Paul George is noted as the first of it's kind in NBA history no more than two weeks ago. Credit: StatMuse Twitter.

Take the above image relating to Paul George, for example.

And, again, let me make this clear. This isn’t a jab at Paul George or even StatMuse (the Twitter Account who published the stat) necessarily. It’s about recognising that the combination of statistics is so specific that the notion that Paul George is the first player in NBA history to have a game with those numbers loses part of it’s meaning.

How many players have had all but one of those categories at the same level, or greater, than George did in that game? How many players have only managed to hit four three-point field goals, but have eclipsed this performance in every other area?

To be clear, I watched this game from start to finish. It was November 1st against the Rockets this season. George, to his credit was elite while the rest of the LA Clippers struggled. He did everything for LA and willed his team to a much needed victory by tying the game, forcing a turnover, and hitting the game-winner. An amazing performance? Absolutely.

An all-time great performance fitting of parading around the fact no other player in the history of the game has accomplished this type of achievement? No, I wouldn’t think so. Especially when you consider it came against a Rockets franchise who is probably more interested in winning this year’s lottery than their games. Also, it certainly stops far short of elevating George’s status to that of one of the all-time greats, even if nobody else has ever put together a game with the combination of things he did that night.

This graphic, broadcast during a Pacers game in 2018, remains the most infamous instance of selective stats painting a false narrative. Credit: Fox Sports

Which brings me to these types of comparisons when it comes to a career. Above is arguably the most infamous graphic to grace an NBA broadcast, and it happened way back in 2018.

The Indiana Pacers broadcast staff opted to show this graphic comparing one Thaddeus Young, a Pacer at the time, to some of his ‘peers’ based on his career statistics. By choosing a super-selective combination of stats across a long period of time, the crew were able to draw infer that Thaddeus was a player of the same calibre of some of the all-time greats.

It made for great cannon fodder for fans across the world, and I suggest it was highly tongue-in-cheek, but it perfectly illustrates the issue with these type of selective stats and the supposed achievements that come along with being the first or second player to ever accomplish that type of performance. Young, for all of his strengths and longevity in the League, more accurately presents alongside player of the ilk of Montrezl Harrell, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin in terms of his career numbers.

Before I sign off, let me make something clear. I have no issue with celebrating achievements or even a tongue-in-cheek graphic comparing a serviceable, fan favourite role-player to some of the greatest to ever lace them up. That type of banter and acknowledgement of legitimately great performances are part of what makes the NBA function and keeps people talking. I do draw the line, however in instances where a performance has to have so many conditions on it in order to make it seem special.

Maybe I’m officially an old head now. Maybe I’m not the type of demographic the NBA is targeting as the next generation of fans sweeps social media and eats up this type of content projecting their favourite new talent to a name they actually recognise from before the year 2000. In fact, I know I’m not demographic the NBA is targeting now – and that’s ok with me. There is a new type of NBA emerging and I’m not the person being targeted to consume it.

I’ll happily be the NBA fan who watches a full game without skipping ahead several times a week though, because I just want to watch the game. For what it is. Without having a graphic or a PR team tell me what a historic performance someone just had. And the NBA needs people like me in their fan base. Otherwise everyone would believe that Nate Robinson and Michael Jordan had similar careers.

After all, name another player who won back-to-back slam dunk contests prior to 2010 while also averaging at least 11 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 3.0 assists per game over their career?

So what do you think?

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