You may have already heard, but the state of Utah has been abundantly blessed with two great basketball talents this season — BYU's Tyler Haws and Utah's Delon Wright.
Both are magnificent players who bring a unique set of skills to their respective teams. Each is a joy to watch for very different reasons, and Cougar and Ute fans are lucky to have this opportunity to witness their guy's storied collegiate career as it continues to unfold. After all, this is still Utah — not exactly a state known for churning out elite hoops talent on the regular.
But because this is Utah and we are destined to remain hopelessly embroiled in a never-ending cold war of faux-machoistic rivalry posturing, one question has been asked (and asked and asked) ahead of tonight's annual matchup between the two teams in Provo.
Which player is better?
I'm sure you can imagine which way the individual fan bases fall on this one. Unsurprisingly, Utah fans tend to side with Wright, citing his across-the-board impact in several facets of the game as evidence for his superiority over the less versatile Haws. And equally unsurprisingly, BYU fans choose to boost Haws, arguing that his insane offensive production as one of the nation's preeminent scorers ultimately outweighs whatever other factors Wright brings to the table.
Both are fairly reasonable arguments on the merits — but that, again, begs the question: Which one is right?
My answer: We're asking the wrong question.
It may not make for good newspaper columns or Twitter banter, but I find very little value in debating ad nauseam the identity of the state's best player, because it's literally impossible to determine with any certainty whatsoever. The question, on its face, is completely subjective — it depends entirely on each individual's definition of what constitutes a "good" or "best" basketball player. And until we find a magic potion that automatically makes everyone agree with one another on such a definition (and it remains very possible that no magic potion could ever be brewed strong enough to get Cougar and Ute fans on the same page), the conversation is futile.
This quandary isn't unique to BYU and Utah, nor limited to debate about Haws and Wright. It also crops up in the NBA on a regular basis in the form of that league's Most Valuable Player award. Unlike baseball, which has managed to hone its analytical tools to the point where their MVP process is little more than a statistical coronation, the NBA's highest honor is often more contentious. How does one decide which player is most deserving? Should the trophy go to the player who excels most in as many aspects of the game as possible? Or should it go to a player who does one valuable thing better than everybody else? Should it go to the guy whose team depends on him and his contributions the most for success? Or should it go to the highest profile player on the most successful team? Or should it go to the guy who stuffs the statsheet the best, regardless of team context?
Any of that sound familiar?
So this is not a new debate, and much of the ambiguity is due largely to the unique symphony that is the sport of basketball. More than almost any other sport, basketball resists binary evaluation and analysis. Baseball, for example, is fairly simple to quantify, because it can be easily broken down into a series of repeated interactions between two opposing players with limited variations in outcome. A pitcher throws a pitch to a batter, who can then decide to swing or not swing at said pitch, and the list of outcomes dependent on that decision can be built out and measured from there without much trouble.
Basketball is a different beast — it's complex, it's unstructured, it's free-flowing. There are 10 guys on the floor at any given time, and each player simultaneously acts independently of the other players while also playing a strategically designated role in concert with his teammates to maximize their opportunity to win. It's a team game in the purest sense of the term — and that makes it exceptionally difficult to fairly compare different individual players on different teams playing different roles in different systems to determine a cut-and-dried "best" player based on a subjective definition of the term.
Realistically, if we want to evaluate players in a productive way, that conversation should begin and end with how well each fills a specific role. That's what every team boils down to at the end of the day — a collection of guys playing different roles with a common goal. Not everyone has to excel in every facet of the game or stuff every statistical category, nor should they. Basketball is a game of specialists — each player represents a unique piece of the larger puzzle, and you can't win unless you fit them all together just right.
To be sure, some roles are easier to fill than others (for example, it may be easier to find a strong rebounder than an elite scorer) and some roles may be more important to certain teams than others, and all of that should be taken into account. But trying to definitively compare two basketball players, particularly two basketball players who fill different roles, is a fool's errand — you may entertain yourself for awhile, but you're ultimately wasting your time.
So where does that leave us with our friends Tyler and Delon and the big question? I suppose it leaves us right back at the very beginning of this article. They're both incredible basketball players who play incredibly different roles for their respective teams — and do so incredibly well.
Haws is the quintessential primary scorer. His entire purpose on the floor is to get buckets in bunches, and he does that better than almost anyone in the country. Does he grab a bunch of rebounds or dish out loads of assists or play lockdown defense? No, he doesn't — but he's not supposed to. That's not his role. BYU has guys who can do all those other things (well, except the defense part maybe), but they don't have anyone else who can conjure up offensive wizardry like Haws can. No one does — and that's the point.
Alternately, Wright is a versatile utility weapon who occupies a unique role for the Utes in that he frequently fills so many of them. He's a top-notch distributor and rebounder from either the point or wing positions, and he's an absolute defensive bulldog on the perimeter. He can certainly score the ball too (he's shown off an improved 3-point shot this season), though not with the consistency or volume of Haws — but, again, he's not supposed to. That's not his role. Utah runs a diverse offensive scheme that relies on scoring contributions from several players, rather than looking to intentionally create large numbers of opportunities for a primary option like BYU does with Haws. It's a different system that requires different roles and personnel — and Wright fills his role perfectly for the Utes.
Who's better? Again, that's the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking: How well does each player fill his specific role? And how important is his performance in that role to his team's success? For Haws and Wright, the answer to each of those questions is clear. Both players excel in their individual roles, and both the Cougars and Utes would suffer significantly without the uniquely crucial contributions of their respective star players. And the comparison should end there.
Basketball fans in the state of Utah are incredibly fortunate to be able to watch Tyler Haws and Delon Wright — two of the very best in the nation in filling their specific roles — step on the court and go to work for their teams, night in and night out. This is a special opportunity that doesn't come around these parts too often. Rather than wasting time trying to force a definitive comparison of these two excellent players that is literally impossible to obtain, we should just appreciate each of them for who they are and what they're doing to help their team win games.
But most of all, we should sit back and enjoy the show — because no matter which side of the rivalry you're on, it's a pretty great show right now. Don't miss it.