Convergence of Objective NBA Analysis and Subjective Film Appreciation

(Warning: I vaguely and generically discuss “No Time to Die,” so if you’re the type that doesn’t want to see ANYTHING about a movie before seeing it, stop reading. If you don’t mind a general beating around the bush, then please continue).

While watching “No Time to Die,” the new James Bond movie, I cried. After stifling sniffles and holding back embarrassing gasps for breath, I made it out of the theater with only glossy eyes. Then, on my drive home, I thought about the movie more, and I started crying again.

Nobody who knows me would define me as the paragon of traditional masculinity; however, I keep my emotions in check pretty well during movies (not counting this stop motion, wordless short film that stars a stuffed dinosaur and a stuffed fox. Click on that link if you need to clean your sinuses). Making my chin quietly quiver under my mask in a dark movie theater is a feeling I chase at the movies, and because of the thematic connection between the entire Daniel Craig Bond arc, the overwhelming sense of finality struck me as truly and thematically perfect. I don’t find that happening often in movies, and because of that, “No Time to Die” climbed high on my favorite movies of the decade list.

Here’s the catch: I don’t know how good the movie actually is. Between an underwhelming villain, a classically Bondesque convoluted plot, and some palm to forehead dialogue, it pales in comparison to Best Picture nominees in terms of tightness and clarity. How, then, do I weigh all of those elements? If a movie is deeply flawed but makes me feel emotions deeper than many other films (in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative), how should that affect my subjective appreciation of it? “A Promising Young Woman” currently holds the belt as my personal favorite movie of the decade despite long instances of slow storytelling and, according to some, an imperfect handling of delicate topics. Nevertheless, its awareness within the “revenge thriller” genre allowed it to subvert itself in ways I usually don’t encounter in movies, and to me, that’s the most valuable thing a movie can do: show me something I haven’t seen.

But when I’m “shown something I’ve never seen,” I don’t mean that literally. There’s a limit to the transgressiveness I’m willing to handle because I still want to sit down between 1.5-3 hours, be introduced to a protagonist, have some major dramatic question established, and for conflicts to arise. I still want the movie to play by the rules

The NBA: Show Me What I Haven’t Seen

In the NBA, players like Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have all shown me elements of basketball that I’ve never seen before. But also, I’ve totally seen them all before. Curry isn’t the first player to go nuclear from three. Jokic isn’t the first tremendously talented passing big man. Giannis isn’t the first powerful and gangly 7-footer to combine his maximally physical gifts with extraordinary defensive awareness.

We’ve seen proto versions of all three in the past but none that have held their exact confluence of skills. And just like movies, I’m willing to give them a bump in “best player” rankings because their innovations feel fresh and dynamic on the court.

“But Cody,” a deeply analytical thinker might say, “you yourself even used the word ‘subjective’ when discussing movies earlier, and a player’s value/impact is rooted in objective analysis.” This is a fair point. The objective of basketball is to win by scoring more points than the other team, so the player that objectively creates the biggest point differential is, by definition, the best player. A movie has no objective in its rules; there is no platonic ideal “movie” towards which all movies aspire making an analysis of the “best” movie a fruitless comparison to the “best” NBA player.

Yet, if we shift the conversation about movies to a more objective one, the comparison becomes clearer. In other words, choosing my favorite movies and choosing the best NBA players are closer than they appear.

I tweeted about this in the past, but for movies, I have a 5-point rubric in mind:

  1. Does it have a consistent and coherent theme?
  2. Does it show me something I haven’t seen before or work to subvert my expectations?
  3. Does it make me feel emotional?
  4. Am I still thinking about it days/weeks/months later?
  5. Is it actually engaging (not boring)?

Unlike searching for the “best” movie, I now have direction because even though my subjective preferences aren’t, by definition, objective, they are established and rooted in some measurement.

Objective Analysis Isn’t Always So Objective

Now, here’s the twist: the conversation about the “best” NBA players is actually one rooted in subjectivity as much as objectivity. Let’s pretend for a second that someone develops a perfectly accurate impact metric that shows exactly how many points a player impacts a game. If we just pick the player with the highest point value, I’d argue that we’ve only just begun the journey of discovering the “best” NBA player. From this point, it’s time for you to make a significant amount of subjective calls as to what you find more valuable. Here are a few of those questions:

  1. How is that impact in the regular season vs. the playoffs?
  2. Is that impact on a per game level or across an entire season?
  3. Does the majority of that impact come from defense or offense?
  4. Furthermore, does that defensive impact come from protecting the paint or switching on the perimeter?
  5. And that offensive impact, does it come from being a secondary threat or from being a ball-dominant creator?
  6. What if two players have different impacts against different schemes? Which scheme is more valuable to be impactful against?
  7. What if the player in question is the best defensive player on his team but the 3rd option on offense?

This line of questioning could literally continue for hundreds of other bullet points. Suddenly, the objective answer has become deeply subjective in its interpretation.

Even if one were to take a snapshot of the NBA at this current instance and objectively answer each and every one of those hundreds of questions, that ignores the fact that the NBA is extraordinarily dynamic. Not only do players and coaches swap endlessly even during a season, teams are constantly developing new plans to counter the strengths of the best players in the NBA. The context in which these hundreds of questions are answered changes rapidly.

My Top Criteria for Movies and NBA Players

This is why when evaluating both NBA players and movies, two criteria stand above all else (assuming that they’ve fulfilled the standard rubric of being a good movie/player): am I seeing something I’ve never seen before, and/or are my expectations being subverted?

Curry quite literally changed the way that basketball is played. He broke all preconceived notions for how a player can be successful with his three-point shooting, and because of that, the league adjusted through copycats and specific schemes. Regardless, Curry was so potent with his shooting that it didn’t matter. His impact stretched far from him just shooting the ball, so his mere presence on the court subverted how we typically understand playing defense against an offensive juggernaut. Curry made us ask ourselves a new question: how do you defend a player whose effectiveness comes from you defending him?

Jokic’s offensive abilities are unprecedented, but teams can punish him by spamming high pick-and-rolls. That is a true weakness around which the Nuggets have to maneuver, but do you know what strategic question I’d rather take that over? Having to scheme for Jokic. Basketball hasn’t been played in the way that Jokic plays it, and his offensive genius unlocks countless new strategies for the Nuggets. While comparing Jokic to Luka Doncic’s and Trae Young’s style of heliocentrism, Ben Taylor explains that Jokic’s time of possession is about half that of the two star wings even though all three have similar offensive loads.

Great, then the counter is to nullify his teammates and make him do it all himself. Well, according to our friend Ben again, Jokic was “near the top of the league in scoring, efficiency, volume playmaking, and outside shooting.” This is not relative to big men; it’s compared to the entire league! If Curry weaponizes being defended, Jokic weaponizes his teammates without dominating the ball like traditional wing creators, and there is no defensive counter.

Just like “A Promising Young Woman,” I’ll take the awareness of flaws and ability to change the game over other elements like a slow plot. Jokic knows that he’s going to struggle on the perimeter, but he also knows the entire other team is struggling to counter Jokic.

I can’t speak for other things, but the objective analysis of basketball and the subjective appreciation of film converge when intensely scrutinized. Both might have objective indicators to which one can point to determine a skill hierarchy (a coherent theme; a high game-to-game impact; tight editing; an ability to raise a team’s offense on his own), but all of those indicators still lead you to a point of sorting (informed) subjective standards for what makes one better than another. Embrace the subjectivity.

Cody Houdek is a writer and podcaster for Premium Hoops. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articlesvideos, and podcastshere.

Here’s his Patreon where he has a growing database of historical NBA clips (and other Patreon only posts).

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