By Rob Mahoney
The construction of the basketball box score was based in pragmatism. Scorekeepers opted to chart categories that were deemed to be important while also being easily observable. Elements were added (blocked shots, three-pointers) as they became more relevant, and distinctions were created (offensive vs. defensive rebounds) as such dividing lines became more pertinent. Ultimately, though, the box score has survived in relatively static form, all while players and fans alike have come to evaluate performance by its categories.
But as we know all too well at this point, what counts in basketball isn't solely what's counted in the box score. Points, steals, assists -- all of these things matter. But by placing so much emphasis on the elements of tracked performance, they're given a certain value, especially relative to all that isn't tracked. Defensive play is woefully underserved by the standard box score, and thus it's not at all surprising to find legions of fans who pay it relatively little mind. The same could be said of so many other overlooked actions, including -- as HoopSpeak's Brett Koremenos noted -- screening.
Koremenos pointed out that this isn't some meaningless omission, but a decision that may well impact the game at a developmental level:
NBA players are combination of who they are and what type of atmosphere surrounded them during their formative basketball years. Whenever you see a guy shamelessly gunning at the rim, part of the reason he does that is the people around him — parents, coaches, friends and family — during his youth, high school and AAU days judged his talents by the stats they know are universally respected throughout the highest levels of the game: rebounds, assists and most importantly, points.
Screens, on the other hand, are often a blue-collar job done without fanfare for the overall ‘good’ of the team. And while we like to think of the world as a place filled with selfless individuals (news flash, it’s not) who happily sacrifice themselves so others can reap the praise, the reality is the ones that do so are very rare. More often than not, players are motivated and evaluated by external factors rather than some innate pull to “do the right thing.”
You can’t improve what you don’t measure. The formation of such a stat shows emphasis, that players are getting noticed — and possibly even praised — for doing it. And with the way NBA trends filter down to the lower ranks, there is a chance that more kids come out taking pride in their screening ability. All because the box score finally gives them a reason to do so.
The process of actually deriving screen-related stats would bring its own challenges, and measuring the wrong kinds of screens might only reinforce bad habits among players in the same way that measuring points encourages some to be unapologetic gunners. The elements of screening that matter most would have to be pinpointed if any screening stat were to be adopted into the box score on any level, and of course the relevant bodies (the NBA, NCAA, etc.) would need to see the virtues of that stat's inclusion. It would be a long, arduous process with a superficially minute payoff, and it's likely that the impact of screen tracking wouldn't even be detectable for some time.
But from where I sit, this is a conversation well worth having, as would be any discussion centered on the improved measurement of basketball performance. Screening isn't some arbitrary action, after all, but a pivotal part of the game that is in many cases just as important as an assist. That isn't to say that any and all screens are valuable, or even that all screens share the same value. But the same could be said of any point or rebound or blocked shot, and yet those measures are still used as an acceptable baseline and an immediate (if vague) return on player performance. If nothing else, it's a starting point for an expansion of the box score that's long past due. Screening matters, but how can we even begin to understand how much it matters until we start measuring it in the first place?