When compared to the world of sports journalism, video game media doesn’t get the benefit of countless advanced statistics and metrics. Those making an argument over the worth of a given player in a given sport have the numbers to back up their claims. The ability to make use of objective data allows for a level of expertise that few other fields can match. I love what I do, but game critics rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to put inarguable mathematical facts behind our claims.
2K releasing their list of overall player ratings for NBA 2K15 gives us the chance to do just that, as some of these ratings are nothing short of absurd. 2K and Take Two have made a series of egregious mistakes, begging one to question: what league have they been watching, exactly?
This isn’t to say that there aren’t incredibly accurate player ratings in NBA 2K15 at launch. Cavaliers Small Forward LeBron James boasts an overall rating of 98, placing him firmly as the best player available. It’s tough to argue that James isn’t the best player in the NBA, even with Kevin Durant’s 2013-2014 MVP victory. Even though Durant – rated 95 overall – had more impressive base statistics last season (32.0 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game, and 5.5 assists per game to James’ 27.1, 6.9, and 6.3), James is a far superior defensive player at this point. The Miami Heat gave up, on average, 4.5 more points per 100 possessions when LeBron was off the court than when he was on it compared to a differential of 3.4 with Kevin Durant. Add this to the fact that James has the potential to guard all five positions on the court, assuming the other team is playing a relatively small player at center, and boasts superior post game, and it’s easy to see why the best player in the world is rated as, well, the best player in the world.
However, when one dives deeper into the ratings, some alarming inconsistencies begin to arise. Perhaps no single rating is more questionable than Kendrick Perkins’ 74, which signifies that he’s a slightly above average player in NBA 2K15. This would be acceptable if Perkins wasn’t arguably the worst player in the league. There’s a fun statistic in the NBA world known as PER (Player Efficiency Rating), that boils down a player’s overall contributions on both offense and defense into a single number. A player with a PER of 15.00 is completely average in the eyes of this metric; in a perfect world, one would ideally look to replace players with numbers under 15.00 with those sporting a PER of over 15. With a 74 overall rating, you’d think Kendrick Perkins’ PER falls roughly around 15, right? Wrong. Over the course of the 2013-2014 season, Kendrick Perkins sported an abysmal 6.30, the fourth worst in the entire NBA last season.
Maybe that single statistic doesn’t convince you that Kendrick Perkins’ 74 rating is an atrocity. Maybe you’ll be convinced by the fact that his Estimated Wins Added – a stat that aims to pinpoint the exact number of team wins a player was responsible for – was -2.6. That’s right: by this metric, Kendrick Perkins was essentially single-handedly responsible for 2.6 of the Thunder’s twenty-three losses last season. That’s the second-worst mark in the league, only trailing Sacramento second-year guard Ben McElmore’s -3.0. Still unconvinced? What about the fact that Perkins shot 45.2% from the field last year, despite 85% of his shots coming within ten feet of the basket? How can we ignore the fact that Oklahoma City scored 7.9 more points per 100 possessions when he was off the court than when he was on it, while only allowing 0.3 more points. Rating Kendrick Perkins a 74 isn’t just a fumble, it’s a bona-fide travesty.
Giving Kendrick Perkins this high of a rating appears to illustrate that Take Two and 2K haven’t truly watched the Oklahoma City Thunder over the past few years. You need only watch a single game to understand that Kendrick Perkins is a very bad professional basketball player. If Perkins plays up to his rating (granted, we don’t have the categorical ratings just yet), it completely alters the way the virtual Thunder will play. Instead of taking advantage of their obvious weaknesses by pounding the ball inside on offense and forcing Perkins to handle the ball as much as possible, players have to devise less realistic strategies. Oh, and this rating could mean that digital Perkins will get more put-back dunks, set better screens, and rebound better than his real-life counterpart. This is supposed to be the most realistic NBA simulation ever; how could things go this wrong?
Sadly, the rating horrors don’t end with Kendrick Perkins, though his case is unquestionably the most ludicrous. Kobe Bryant is somehow rated an 89, despite multiple injuries throwing his future performance into question. Though the official NBA 2K15 Player Ratings page notes that Kobe Bryant has seen his rating decrease from the 93 he sported at NBA 2K14‘s launch, this new ranking is still a few points too high. I hate to break it to Lakers fans, but Kobe Bryant isn’t a star anymore. He’s become a glorified Designated Hitter, as his defense has become all but non-existent in recent years. Here’s one of the many examples of Kobe’s glaring lack of effort when his team doesn’t have the basketball:
Here’s another courtesy of Grantland’s Zach Lowe, this time showing Bryant (bottom of screen) simply refusing to help his teammates on the defensive end, leading to an easy finish from Festus Ezeli:
Kobe Bryant is a harmful defensive player. If we look at the numbers from 2012-2013 (since Bryant only played six games last season) we can see that the Lakers gave up 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions and grabbed 1.3% more defensive rebounds when he was off the court than when he was on it. The Lakers were able to generate an extra turnover per 100 possessions when Bryant was off the court, showing that his constant defensive gambling doesn’t actually pay off. To quote the Official Ratings page, “Players with more well-rounded skill sets seem to be getting higher overall ratings.” Kobe Bryant is rated higher than both Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook (each rated 88 overall), both of whom are better all-around players at this point in their careers. Can we be sure that Kobe Bryant will be the same devastating offensive force he used to be when he’s going into his nineteenth season after two major leg injuries? What’s the point of rating players at all if the names on their jerseys are more important than their actual play on the court?
The point of the previous paragraph isn’t that giving Bryant an extra point is an unforgivable offense, it’s that a misleading message is being sent to casual NBA fans. Rating Bryant higher than Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, and Dirk Nowitzki tells the casual fan that he’s a better player than all of them, no questions asked. Giving Bryant the same rating as Paul George, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, and Stephen Curry sends the message that he’s literally their equal at this point in his career. Worst of all, it allows players to base an entire video game offense around an aging, injury-riddled player whose real-life skills are likely inferior to those of his virtual counterpart at this point in time.
The terrible ratings don’t end there. 2K and Take Two awarded Detroit Pistons Point Guard Brandon Jennings an overall rating of 80. Players rated 80 or above have the power to swing games in the NBA 2K series, as they are considered to be “good” or better. Now, if “good” was the correct adjective to describe Jennings’ play, then an 80 would be an apt rating. Unfortunately, over the course of his career, Jennings has proven himself to be a detrimental player at best. Jennings is a career 39% shooter – an inexcusable percentage for someone who has taken an average of 15.2 shots per game. 40.7% of his shots last season came from beyond the three-point line, yet he only converted 33.7% of those attempts. When one looks at his true shooting percentage last season – a statistic that combines a player’s three-point percentage, two-point percentage, and free-throw percentage – he or she will find Jennings shot an abhorrent 48.6% chance. That’s right, when the ball left Jennings’ hands in any context, it had a better chance of missing than going in.
Maybe you’re a more visual person. Don’t worry, I have you covered on that front as well. Here’s a chart illustrating Jennings’ field goal percentage in every area of the offensive end of the court last season, courtesy of NBA.com. As you may have guessed, red means he’s a poor shooter from that area, yellow means he’s okay, and green means that he shoots well from that spot. You may notice a total absence of green. The chart doesn’t paint a particularly pretty picture:
Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48) is a fun statistic that’s recently gained some steam in the advanced metrics community. Essentially, a player’s WS/48 gives an exact measurement of how valuable a player was to his team on a game to game basis. An average NBA player has a WS/48 of .100, meaning that he contributes 10% of a win on a night to night basis. So what was Brandon Jennings’ Win Shares per 48 Minutes value? .068, meaning that he was thirty-two percent more harmful to his team every night than a league-average player would have been. However, in the world of NBA 2K15, Jennings will likely help win a significant number of games for the Pistons.
These sorts of ratings can destroy any semblance of realistic game balance. In the real-world, Brandon Jennings’ presence on the court would make it more likely for the Pistons to struggle than succeed. In NBA 2K15, he’s a higher-rated player than Chandler Parsons, whose WS/48 of .131 is almost double that of Jennings. Judging by his rating, you’ll likely be able to use Brandon Jennings as a legitimate first-option in NBA 2K15 and not suffer horribly as a result -an inexcusable mistake in a game looking to simulate real-life.
Flat-out incorrect ratings permeate NBA 2K15 at launch. Why is Miami’s Danny Granger – who has played in 87 of a possible 328 games over the past four seasons while sporting an abysmal average PER of 9.45 – rated an above-average 76? Whose idea was it to grant the Suns’ Eric Bledsoe – a 17.7 points-per-game scorer whose team gave up 6.2 points more per 100 possessions when he was off the court last season – a meager 81 in this universe of awarding higher ratings to players with better all-around games? Can anyone explain why Denver’s Aaron Afflalo is only rated a 78 when he proved to be one of the better shooting guards in the league last season?
It’s only fair to call these ratings what they are: mistakes. Whether these mistakes were caused by a lack of statistical research, a lack of film study, or simply a lack of caring is irrelevant. If you’re trying to create a realistic basketball simulation, it’s only fair to assume that reality will be correctly simulated. Good players should be good, bad players should be bad, and average players should be average. It’s inherently impossible to balance a sports game using realism when said realism isn’t employed every step of the way. This isn’t rocket science.
Take Two and 2K spend countless hours simulating realistic jersey movement, motion-capturing player shot-releases, and updating rosters every time a transaction occurs. Is it really asking that much to rate players based on empirical fact rather than some convoluted combination of past performance, reputation, and an office game of darts?