An Artistic Science or a Scientific Art: A Philosophical Debate About Basketball

Basketball is a sport, but what is sport?  Is it a form of entertainment.  Is it a form of artwork that manifests itself before our very eyes in hundreds of forms in thousands of places every day, or is it the constant re-evaluation of principles.  Is it both?  Can we quantify sport, simplifying it into a single number that can be taken in any context to derive value?

This article has largely been inspired by a very brief discussion with an acquaintance of mine and last night’s Academy Awards.  The discussion was when I asked said acquaintance, who prides himself on his debating prowess, about the quantifiability of basketball.  He said that it cannot because of all the minute details that occur in a game of basketball.  This is a very common viewpoint which I happen to strongly disagree with.  This also led to the contrast of art and science because of the Academy Awards.  At one point when they were going over the candidates for best song, I got bored and retreated to my computer to do some mathematical work. stating that, “I’m going to try science,” to quote a meme from Arturo Galleti’s old website (and probably, consequently, xkcd or some related webcomic).  This led me to want to really define this matter.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, the primary modern definition of art is “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation.”  In the same dictionary, the main definition for science is “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.”  To apply those definitions to the game of basketball-or any sport where they have good record-keeping-we are trying to obtain scientific understanding from an art.  To people like the aforementioned great debater, trying to accomplish this is more or less akin to trying to squeeze blood from a turnip.  However, no established member of the advanced stats community believes this; otherwise, they would be little different from how Bill Simmons is/once was.  Even still, I highly doubt that any serious basketball fan would refrain from using any statistics at all when trying to prove a point, even if that stat is points per game.  An entirely atheistic view of the ability of numbers to shed light on a game is highly questionable to say the least.

However, if one does digs but not too deeply, how can they not draw the conclusion that basketball is a game that is best left to the heart and mind rather than the calculator?  Basketball, like any sport, is notoriously difficult to master, with every outcome highly dependent on several minute factors that cannot be easily adjusted in a game situation from play-to-play, let alone be accounted for while said person is actually trying to perform the action.  Even if I knew the optimum angle and velocity with which to propel the basketball into the hoop, there is no way that I can take out my protractor and precisely set up my shot; the prospect is simply ludicrous!  The game of basketball is learned by meticulous practice, careful observation, constant self-analysis, and good coaching.  You cannot teach yourself the game by looking through a bunch of numbers or formulae; you have to learn it!  It does not seem unreasonable to believe that the same approach should not be taken to evaluate the game; just ask virtually any baseball scout pre-Moneyball.

Of course, there are lots of extremely smart people who prove that this is not the case, and people like me who follow them and hope to provide some decent discussion based on these ideas.  They use scientific and mathematical concepts developed for other fields and use them to draw interesting and important conclusions about sport.  The best that people like me can hope for really is to ride on their coattails and hope that we can contribute something-anything-worthwhile.  I am thinking of Bill James, David Berri, Clay Davenport, Nate Silver, whoever came up with Win Shares for basketball (I think it’s Neil Paine), Arturo Galletti, Voros McCracken, and many others.  They show that sports are quantifiable.  And yet, at least in basketball, they tend to disagree.  (Even in baseball, I know that there are at least a couple of different calculations for Wins Above Replacement (WAR).)

When I think of art, I think of a painting or a sculpture.  When we look at art, we all have an opinion.  You could take fifty, or one hundred, or one thousand people, force them to stare at the same piece of art for a while, and, if they were truly isolated when formulating their ideas, would come up with fifty, or one hundred, or one thousands different opinions.  That is where I think there is a difference between art and science; art can be subjective, while science is coldly objective.  This is where the Academy Awards come in; at the end of the day, any score or rating for a movie is going to be a summation or average of a bunch of people’s thoughts and ideas.  It is impossible to quantify it objectively, and if we do, we sort of defeat the purpose of having the art in the first place.

And at its core, basketball is still art.  In this regard, I am so much talking about the events of a basketball game as the basketball game itself.  For example, a strictly analytical person or robot would describe basketball as something akin to, “Basketball is a game played by ten athletes of two teams trying to propel a large round ball into a small hoop suspended ten feet in the air, by bouncing the ball and moving it forward on a wooden court approximately 50 feet wide and 90 feet long,” whereas a basketball fan might describe it as a, “Breathtaking display of agility and brute strength as ten buff athletes maneuver about each other trying to having a large ball swish through a net, while being forced to expertly handle the ball in order to move it, exemplified by sheer athleticism and athleticism.”  Both descriptions describe the same game and, except for the somewhat stuffy language, are entirely different in style.  Thus, sport will always be art.

As I mentioned earlier, the differing opinions will always carry on beyond the game itself.  There are innumerable single-number metrics out there, many of whom have devoted followers who viciously flaunt “their” statistic as being superior.  And even these people will not necessarily subscribe to these numbers as being sacrosanct, each person filled with distinct biases concerning age, style of play, attitude, and other factors both quantitative and qualitative.  One of the most famous aspects of sports culture is outside the game; the bar discussion.  We will never agree about sports, even if we could come up with one single formula that was undeniably superior and unchangeable, which will never happen so long as humanity treads upon this earth and plays the glorious game of basketball.

So, we’ve established in a couple of different ways how basketball is art.  But it is also science.  The fact that the contributions of each of the ten men heroically balling out on the hardwood floor shows us that it is like science.  If you were to look at a Van Gogh or a Monet, even if you knew the exact number of strokes or the exact shade of paint that each man used, would that tell you anything about the painting?  Even if you knew, it wouldn’t matter to you because a) it is difficult to compute exactly what all that entails and b) true art is only something that can be perceived with one’s own sense and feelings and biases.  However, basketball statistics, and sports statistics in general, are not like this.  What these statistics mean is both innately tangible and meaningful.  If I tell you that so-and-so had seven rebounds in last night’s game, you would know exactly what I was talking about and, with a little more additional information, could come up with a clear picture of what that they means and how indicative that is of the player’s play.  Not only can we do this, but we can easily point to numerous areas where we it would tickle our fancies if someone were to add more statistics because our desires are much less difficult to diagnose than with, say, Michelangelo’s David.  The sheer number of mathematical conclusions that we can grasp from sports stats is akin to the number of emotional conclusions that we can draw from art, but we can compare our thoughts in sports and are less prone to biases if we have a number sitting right there, and our biases themselves are based on proofs of what is important and what is unimportant, even if somewhere down the line we come across something whose origin is rooted solely in an unverified thought derived from one person’s mind.  Even our erroneous opinions are enveloped in a cloud of truth.

Perhaps basketball is more science than philosophy, but the science of basketball is unlike the hard sciences of chemistry and physics.  Like philosophy, there are some questions that will never be answered, but unlike philosophy, there are questions that can be answered with finality.  Basketball can be quantified, but the quantifications will always lie short of perfection.  And I am okay with that because the data that we do have works pretty darn well.  Thank you for reading, please comment, and please come back.


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