The hidden value of the NBA steal

This post by Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight was one of the more interesting pieces at that site so far.

In fact, if you had to pick one statistic from the common box score to tell you as much as possible about whether a player helps or hurts his team, it isn’t how many points he scores. Nor how many rebounds he grabs. Nor how many assists he dishes out.

It’s how many steals he gets.


Steals have considerable intrinsic value. Not only do they kill an opponent’s possession, but a team’s ensuing possession — the one that started with the steal — often leads to fast-break scoring opportunities. But though this explains how a steal can be more valuable than a two-point basket, it doesn’t come close to explaining how we get from that to nine points.

I’ve heard a lot of different theories about how steals can be so much more predictively valuable than they seem: Steals “cost” less than other stats,7 or players who get more steals might also play better defense, or maybe steals are just a product of, as pundits like to call it, high basketball IQ. These are all worth considering and may be true to various degrees, but I think there’s a subtler — yet extremely important — explanation.

Think about all that occurs in a basketball game — no matter who is playing, there will be plenty of points, rebounds and assists to go around. But some things only happen because somebody makes them happen. If you replaced a player with someone less skilled at that particular thing, it wouldn’t just go to somebody else. It wouldn’t occur at all. Steals are disproportionately those kinds of things.

I haven't visited FiveThirtyEight as regularly as I thought I would. To some extent it feels a bit like a solution still in search of a problem. That is, analytic rigor with data is great, but it felt more essential as an antidote to hysteria during the elections. When it doesn't feel like you're sick, taking medicine regularly isn't as appealing.

It's still early, though. If nothing else they must certainly be analyzing the data on their traffic and engagement carefully. I personally would love to see more voice from their writers (that need not be mutually exclusive with analytical rigor) and a higher incidence of longer pieces.