Steve Nash For MVP? (Part I)

[Today’s column is brought to us from KnickerBlogger Head West Coast Analyst Kevin Pelton, who serves as the Sonics and Storm beat writer for SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com. He formerly wrote the APBRmetric “Page 23” column for Hoopsworld.com.]

When Steve Nash unofficially ascended to the role of NBA MVP candidate, if not favorite, early this season, the response of the statistical community that follows the league was more indifference than the harsh criticism heaped on Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 selection or Jason Kidd’s candidacy the following season.

Still, you could probably find more APBRmetricians who believe the moon landing wasn’t real than those who will be planting “Nash for MVP” signs in their front yards. About a month ago, my gracious host posted a poll at the APBRmetrics message board querying posters on their first-half MVPs. 20 people voted, and nary a one selected Nash.

Personally, I voted for Tim Duncan, with Kevin Garnett second. Over the last month, however, Nash for MVP has been knawing at me a little bit. Were we all too quick to judge because Nash’s PER isn’t up to snuff, or because we’re tired of the overly simplistic arguments about how Team X was bad before adding Player Y and is now outstanding? If Nash isn’t a serious, serious MVP candidate this year, can any point guard ever be?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how good Nash’s season really is in terms of assists. Nash’s 11.5 assists per game are the best in the NBA since Mark Jackson averaged 11.4 in the 1996-97 season, but he won’t even get the Suns record for assists per game without a remarkable run. (It’s owned by Kevin Johnson, who averaged 12.2 assists in 1988-89, setting up a pair of players who averaged 20 points per game, Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson. KJ himself added 20 ppg as well.)

To level the playing field, I’m going to borrow from baseball analysts. In baseball, two things have to be corrected for: Park effects and league context. In basketball, pace factor replaces park effects. The first step, then, is calculating assists per possession. Nash is averaging assists on 16.2% of the possessions he’s played this season. Johnson, by comparison, had assists on just 13.6% of his possessions in 1988-89.

In 2004-05, the average NBA player gets an assist on 4.5% of his possessions; in 1988-89, that mark was 4.9%. So if we divide Johnson’s rate by the ’89 average and multiply it by the ’05 average, his 2004-05 assist rate is 12.9%. That’s a relatively meaningless stat, so what I’ve done is translate it to assists per game, assuming 96 possessions per game (two for each team every minute) and 32 minutes per game. By this standard, Nash averages 10.4 assists per game. (His average goes down because he plays more minutes and for a team playing at the league’s fastest pace.) Johnson’s average takes a much bigger hit, down to 8.2 assists per game.

If you had more free time than I have (and the length of my columns has in the past drawn suggestions I have too much time on my hands as is), you could with the help of Basketball-Reference.com calculate this equivalent assist average for NBA player dating back to 1973-74. (It would be impossible before that because team turnovers were not tracked, meaning no ability to determine possessions.) I didn’t do that, but I picked out the best 50 or so passing seasons of the past three decades and translated them. Here’s the leaderboard from amongst that group:

Player        Year  Team  05APG
----------------------------------
John Stockton 1990 UTA 12.0
John Stockton 1988 UTA 11.5
John Stockton 1991 UTA 10.9
John Stockton 1992 UTA 10.8
John Stockton 1995 UTA 10.6
Steve Nash 2005 PHO 10.4
John Stockton 1994 UTA 10.1
John Stockton 1996 UTA 9.8
Magic Johnson 1991 LAL 9.8
John Stockton 1993 UTA 9.8

I believe the technical term for that list is “select company”. Steve Nash is, at the moment, having the best passing season of the last 30 years put together by a player not named “John Stockton”. When you consider what an efficient scorer Nash is as well, you could drop his line this season into the middle of Stockton’s career, adjust for league and pace, and I doubt anyone would be the wiser.

Using my similarity system, 13 of the top 15 comparable seasons for Nash 04-05 were posted by Stockton, including the top five. It’s worth pointing out that Stockton only topped Nash’s 04-05 PER (23.35) twice during his career.


Check back Wednesday as Part II of this column looks more carefully at Nash’s MVP credentials.

Indiana 79 Knicks 90

Everyone was laughing at of Isiah Thomas and the Knicks for loading up on power forwards. Everyone, except the Indiana Pacers last night.

Kurt Thomas was nearly unstoppable in the first half, finishing it off with two shots in the last 30 seconds, one a buzzer beater from the right wing. Thomas hit 6 of 8, and had 12 points by mid-game. His backup, Jerome Williams, had a dunkfest that would have made Chris Anderson jealous. The “Junk Yard Dog” had three massive jams, and tipped in a Marbury miss for 8 first half points. Williams did it all without a single dribble, hustling off of pick & rolls and missed shots.

Also impressive was newly acquired Malik Rose, who made a big contribution despite only playing 9 minutes. In that time he had 8 rebounds, 4 on the offensive glass. Rose’s effort extended to the defensive end, where he “pulled the chair” from a bullish Jermaine O’Neal. The Pacers high scorer went sprawling across the Garden floor on his backside. On another play, a Rose quick outlet pass led to a Knicks fast break that ended up with a three point play. Later in the game the other new guy, Maurice Taylor, had his first two points as a Knicks, when his jumper swirled around the rim and dropped through the net.

The Pacers came into the Garden winners of their last 5, and 8 of their last 10. With Jamal Tinlsey out Indiana couldn’t muster enough offense to beat New York. Jermaine O’Neal’s tried to pick up the slack, but his 24 points went in vein. Other than Reggie Miller no other Pacer presented an offensive challenge. Despite the loss, Indiana still holds the last playoff spot in the East.

Other notes:
Back in November I said:

Ariza is real quick & has a good nose for the ball. My personal feeling is Wilkens should try to trap and press more, especially when Ariza is in the game. This way he might get an honest defensive effort from Marbury and Crawford.

The Knicks turned to the press for a single play, but it was the weakest press I think I’ve ever seen. Stephon Marbury, Jerome Williams, and Tim Thomas played more of a full court escort than actually attempting to steal the ball.

Jamal Crawford was awful at point guard with Marbury on the bench. Not once but twice number 11 threw the ball behind his head for a turnover. Within a few minutes, Penny Hardaway took over running the offense.

Although I mentioned the Knicks forwards propelling them to victory, I didn’t use Mike Sweetney’s name once. That’s because Sweetney is for all intents & purposes the Knicks starting center. The starting lineup showed Kurt Thomas picture as the center, and the Knick announcers spent a few minutes talking about how statistically the year that Thomas played the 5 was his best season. Nonetheless, after the opening tip off Sweetney was covering the Pacer center Scot Pollard.

Big Mike got himself in foul trouble early & often, forcing Thomas into the center position. The Knicks center rotation seems to be Sweetney, Thomas, Williams, then probably Rose. After that Herb Williams would have to decide between Maurice Taylor, Bruno Sundov, or donning a uniform himself.

The Knicks went really small in the second quarter. At one point the lineup was from biggest to smallest, Jerome Williams, Tim Thomas, Trevor Ariza, Penny Hardaway, and Stephon Marbury.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier on Jamal Crawford who received a pass with one foot out of bounds “The court is 50 feet wide, but not wide enough for Crawford that time.”

Breaking Down the Knicks Deadline Deals? A Little More

[Today’s column was written by David Crockett, who has been taking note of the wild trade action, creating a new frontier on the NBA landscape. (You must be this old to get that joke.) David is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com]

At the trade deadline the Knicks consummated two separate deals. If you?ve not had an opportunity to read the Knickerblogger?s excellent breakdown of the deals please do so. He does an especially good job of debunking the knee-jerk media tendency to ignore the importance of draft picks in deadline deals.

At the risk of putting words into his virtual mouth, he basically argues that the Knicks are in the seventh layer of salary cap hell until 2007 irrespective of what they do primarily because of Houston?s contract (KB: that’s exactly what I was arguing). Consequently, he argues, the amount by which the Knicks exceed the cap threshold is irrelevant as a strategic matter, at least it is until Houston comes off the cap in summer ?07. If the Knicks wish to rebuild with young players and/or draft picks other teams will assuredly demand a premium; either the Knick?s young players or cap relief.

Given this, the real wisdom in taking on a given contract lies in its implications for financial flexibility at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season (i.e., when Houston comes off the books). Prior to that Marbury?s and Houston?s pacts will keep the team hopelessly above the cap. (A nice salary breakdown per season can be found here.) Of course the other piece to the puzzle is the roster construction.

So let?s take an even closer look at the two deadline deals from both a financial and a roster construction perspective.

Deal 1
? The Knicks Receive: Malik Rose, PF, 2005 first round draft choice (SA via Pho), and 2006 first round draft choice
? The Spurs Receive: Nazr Mohammed, C, Jamison Brewer, G

Financially, the Knicks have replaced Mohammed?s short, reasonable deal with Rose?s considerably longer, less cap-friendly deal. Rose enters the final year of his deal, which pays him $7.1 million, just as the Knicks get out from under Houston?s mega-deal. By then I expect Rose?s current 15.5 PER to have shrunk considerably, right along with his market value. I think it?s reasonable to anticipate that, short of a buyout, Rose is in NY for the duration of his deal. Clearly, this is the bitter pill Thomas was willing to swallow for the two first round picks.

What might those picks turn into? Obviously, there?s no way to characterize future picks as anything other than a gamble. Yet there is no risk-free way to acquire talent prior to its prime. One way we might consider the value of the 2005 draft (New York?s own lottery pick paired with the pick coming from San Antonio through Phoenix) is by look at the past few drafts. I was not at all sold on the wisdom of this deal until I went back and looked at who was drafted in the spots where New York?s and Phoenix?s picks would land based on record (i.e., 6th and 29th overall as of this writing).

A glance back at 6th and the next-to-last players drafted in round 1 from 2000-2004 might make Isiah?s decision to pull the trigger on this deal easier to understand, even at the price of Rose?s contract. (Recall that the first round only had 28 picks total until 2003.)

2004 ? Josh Childress, Atlanta; David Harrison, Indiana (Luol Deng #7, Chicago)
2003 ? Chris Kaman, Clippers; Josh Howard, Dallas
2002 ? Dejuan Wagner, Cleveland; Chris Jeffries, Lakers (Nene #7, Wilcox #8, Stoudamire #9)
2001 ? Shane Battier, Mem; Jamal Tinsley, Atlanta (Tony Parker #28)
2000 ? DeMarr Johnson, Atlanta; Erick Barkley, Portland (Mark Madsen #29)

So really, the question is how wise was it to swap Mohammed?s contract for two additional (slightly more expensive) years of Rose and a two-in-five shot at Kaman/Howard or Battier/Tinsley? Framed this way the deal looks like a pretty reasonable gamble. Consider also that this is purely a deadline deal; no way does San Antonio consummates this deal during the off-season. San Antonio doesn?t need Phoenix?s 2005 or its own 2006 pick, but they could demand a much greater premium for them on draft night than Nazr Mohammed and Jamison Brewer. They could easily trade for future picks or draft some European teenager and keep his rights.

Even though the picks will be towards the end of the round the cap makes it prohibitive to have two lottery picks in consecutive seasons anyway. Also, the Knicks may be able to package the pair to target a specific player. Isiah?s thinking here is shrewd because he?s taking most of the bitter medicine now while the team is well over the cap anyway, with an eye toward 2007-2008 when he?ll have maturing young talent and money coming off the cap.

Deal 2
? The Knicks Receive: Maurice Taylor, PF
? The Rockets Receive: Moochie Norris, G, Vin Baker, F, and 2006 second round draft choice.

Much like the Knickerblogger I think had Isiah stopped with the previous deal I?d be pretty darned happy with things. Unfortunately, just like last season Zeke has a knack for making one deal too many; one that will eventually cost him something to undo. My impression is that I?m a bit more leery about the impact of this deal than is the Knickerblogger. Two things about it really bother me well beyond their curious nature.

First, what need does Mo Taylor address? Surely, the role of overpaid, undersized power forward has now been amply filled by Rose for the foreseeable future. Even anticipating an off-season move involving one or more of the Knick forwards, the Knicks are well-stocked at the position. Taylor is a worse rebounder than Tim Thomas, who at least shoots a high % from 3 point range. Taylor doesn?t defend; his 19 oPER is Moochie Norris bad. Worst, Taylor is expensive at over $9million per, meaning he?s not likely to be more valuable nor converted into anything more valuable than what NY gave up to get him.

Second, Taylor further skews an already unbalanced roster into a dangerously guard-light roster. The team now has no third guard and no true third small forward, but has 5 capable power forwards. This is not just an aesthetics problem. The Knicks simply cannot afford for Hardaway or Crawford to be injured again this season. They would have to sign a guard off the street. Moving both Norris and Brewer without getting at least an emergency guard in return is just silly; worse yet, it may be expensive. New York is virtually guaranteed to enter the off-season, if not before, desperate for a third guard. As a consequence Thomas will almost assuredly pay a premium unless he drafts one. There?s no way the Knicks can go into next season carrying only two guards, and every GM in the league knows this. Had the Knicks thrown in Sundov and cash for Reece Gaines this deal would have still been superfluous but at least not innately harmful. As it stands this deal makes zero sense on any dimension ? financial, performance, or roster balance.

KnickerBlogger.Net’s Week In Review:

Just under this are two articles about the Knicks trades & the Sixers/Sacramento deal. For the scrollingly challenged, I leave links to each individual article.

Tuesday: Five Stats the NBA Should Keep (Part I)
Wednesday: Five Reasons the Knicks Should Stand Pat at the Trade Deadline
Thursday (morning): Five Stats the NBA Should Keep (Part II)
Thursday (night): Sixers Win Webber Deal In Name Only
Friday: It’s Official: Knicks Are Rebuilding

It’s Official: Knicks Are Rebuilding

For weeks Isiah Thomas has talked about rebuilding the Knicks. With New York heading into their 4th straight losing season the fans talked about it as well. All the talk of remodeling was just that: talk. Today with the trading deadline winding down, the Knicks made two deals that put the official stamp on the deal. The New York Knicks have formally begun the rebuilding process.

Chad Ford called both deals “awful” on ESPNNEWS, and a San Antonio Spurs Blog called Isiah Thomas a colossal idiot. However I think they’re not looking at the deals from a New Yorkers point of view. Before we make a rash judgment, let’s take a look at the Knicks situation.

The Knicks are tied to Allan Houston and the two and a half years left on his Dr. Evil-esque one hundred million dollar contract. Just three Knick guards, Houston, Marbury and Crawford, fill the Knicks salary cap until the summer of 2007. If my understanding of the CBA is correct, Houston would have to retire before July 1st of this year for the Knicks to get out of his contract a year early. Anyone who follows the Knicks, knows that Allan believes his career will miraculously rise again like Lazarus. So throw that idea out the window. Houston is not retiring, and the Knicks are over the cap until 2007.

That means dumping salary is meaningless,
unless the Knicks trade away Crawford, Kurt Thomas, Marbury, and Jerome Williams without taking on any salary beyond 2006. The chances of that are about the same as Alien vs. Predator winning the Oscar for best movie. Dumping salary before 2007 is just not a reasonable option for the rebuilding Knicks.

So what are New York’s viable options? The first is to dump contracts at all cost to get under the cap. In the end, this scorched earth approach would leave them worse off than an expansion team, especially if they have to trade Sweetney, Ariza, and their first this year to get someone to accept Houston’s millstone mega-contract. It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s that without any of their youth they could be in a long rebuilding process (see Bulls, Chicago 1999-2004)
The other option is to rebuild around a nucleus, and dump the rest. In two years it’s feasible that the Knicks can have a good team with Marbury, Ariza, Sweetney, Crawford, and two lottery picks. Apparently this is the route Isiah has chosen.

Isiah Thomas’ first deal is near genius. Parlaying Nazr Mohammed into two first rounders is exactly what this team needs. Nobody trades good young cheap players in the NBA, just look at how Philly got Webber without giving up Dalembert, Iguodala, or Korver. The draft is the only realistic way for the Knicks to get young cap friendly players. Are the traded picks going to turn into superstars? Most likely not, however if there is one area that Isiah Thomas excels at, it’s the draft (more on that another day).

Another positive is that Sweetney will inherit the starting center role. While most agencies are reporting that Kurt Thomas will slide back to the five like he did two years ago, I can’t recall a single time Crazy Eyes guarded the other team’s center this year. Regardless of who is covering who, Sweetney will see lots of minutes. If this is your first time here, let’s just say that I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. The guy can flat out play, and although I’m not keen on him matching up against much taller players, I’ll be happy with 30 minutes a night.

A lot of the ire received from the San Antoinio trade is that the Knicks are saddled by Malik Rose’s 4 year overpriced contract. However they’re already in cap hell until the end of the 2007 season, so the first three years are meaningless. New York can take on as much salary as they want until then. It’s his 4th year that’s a bit awkward, but remember Rose will be valuable as a $7M expiring contract. If the Knicks are competitive at that point, they can use Rose to get another veteran.

While the Knicks first deal is a no-brainer, the second is a head-scratcher. New York traded two end of the bench guys and a second round pick for a different end of the bench guy. Taylor’s huge contract runs 3 years, so it’ll be lumped with the others and becomes innocuous. I can understand Isiah’s rationale for making this deal. The Knicks need a frontcourt body to fill a vacancy, and that body was not going to be Vin Baker. Taylor will likely be the 4th big man, and maybe he can get back to the point where he was an average player (his rookie year). I just don’t agree with Thomas’ execution on this deal. The Knicks would be better suited digging through 10 day contract centers like Imelda Marcos going through her shoe closet. Jamal Sampson might be a good place to start.

While I’d be thrilled if the Knicks stopped after that first deal, I’m happy with the way the team is situated right now. New York now has both of their neophytes getting regular minutes. They have 4 first rounders in the next 2 years, with a GM that has a good eye for the draft. While the Knicks are in salary cap hell for 2 more years, the team isn’t entirely devoid of talent. Most importantly the Knicks have said loudly and clearly that they are rebuilding. Today, New York is in a better position than it was on Wednesday.

Sixers Win Webber Deal In Name Only

[Tomorrow morning I will analyze the Knicks’ two trades completed this afternoon.]

Anytime a trade includes only one big name, the immediate opinion is the team receiving that player is getting the better of the deal. It’s because in most sports the best players are most likely to turn a team into a winner. Just ask the L.A. Lakers or the Toronto Raptors. So when Philadelphia received mega-star Matt Barnes in a trade yesterday, the quick opinion was the Sixers made out on the deal. In a Yahoo poll, 75% of the readers selected “The Kings Blew it” (and yes that was an actual option).

Upon further inspection of the deal, I don’t think it’s as clear cut as everyone has made it out to be. The crux of the deal is of course Chris Webber (21.4, 19.9, -4.5 what do these numbers mean?). Although C-Webb was one of the best in the league at the beginning of the millennium, he’s no longer among the cream of the crop. Check out his numbers since 2001

Year PER. .eFG PTS/40
2001 24.7 48.1 26.8
2002 24.4 49.7 25.5
2003 20.9 46.3 23.5
2004 17.2 41.4 20.7
2005 21.4 45.5 23.5

All of his stats are down since 2001, and his PER puts him outside of the elite range but still in the very good category. In addition to his declining production, Webber hasn’t been very healthy. The Former Fab Five has averaged only 57 games per year (strike year excluded) over his entire career. The last three years have been even worse, as Webber has missed a total of 99 games. He’s only topped 75 games twice in his career, the last time back in 2000. With that in mind, take a look at his contract:

.2005 .2006 .2007 .2008
$17.5 $19.1 $20.7 $22.3
[Numbers in millions]

Having that much money tied into a single player with deteriorating numbers and a bad history of missing games isn’t a good place to be in. Just ask Knick fans how they feel about Allan Houston, who coincidentally had the same microfracture surgery as Chris Webber.

Now you why the Kings wanted something a little more stable. In the deal, Sacramento obviously lost on talent, but they got a younger more resilient crew. Webber makes the least healthy of the players they received, Brian Skinner, look like A.C. Green. In the same span that Webber played in 144 games (2002-2004), the trio sent to the West Coast averaged 217 games. While it’s hard to argue that any combination of the three are as good as Webber when they’re on the court, 73 games of no production is easy to beat.

On the other hand, Kenny Thomas (13.5, 17.2, -3.1), Brian Skinner (6.1, 11.9, -7.0), and Corliss Williamson (14.5, 14.4, -0.0) aren’t going to catapult Sacramento over the Suns, Sonics, or Spurs. What’s more baffling is that the Kings didn’t take the opportunity to make a major dent in their cap space.

Player... Age .2005 .2006 .2007 .2008 .2009 .2010
Thomas.... 27 $ 4.8 $ 5.3 $ 5.8 $ 6.4 $ 6.9 $ 7.4
Skinner... 28 $ 4.5 $ 5.0 $ 5.4 $ 5.9* ---- -----
Williamson 31 $ 5.5 $ 6.0 $ 6.5 ----- ----- -----
-------------------------------------------------
Webber.... 31 $17.5 $19.1 $20.7 $22.3 ----- -----
Barnes.... 23 $ 6.2 ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
*=Team Option

The Kings opted to get under the cap just a year earlier. The knock on their end of the trade is not who they got, but rather who they didn’t get. Glenn Robinson’s $12.1M expiring contract would have been a good move if they wanted to clear the cap quickly. Or Sacramento could have gone with a youth movement by asking for Iguodala, Dalembert, or Ashton Korver.

Judging by who they got in return, it’s clear that Sacramento decided instead to stay competitive now with their core of Bibby, Peja, Miller, and Jackson. The Kings helped their poor offensive rebounding (22nd) because Thomas, Williamson, and Skinner average nearly 3 per 40 minutes. According to 82games.com, opposing power forwards and centers have hurt the Kings the most. It’s likely that they’ll see an improvement with the combination of Darius Songaila (14.2, 15.7, +4.3) and the trio they received.

To sum it up, this is a trade where each team saw the grass greener on the other side. Sacramento got tired of Webber’s on-again-off-again act and longed for some stability. On the other hand Iverson has never played with a person of C-Webb’s offensive ability. Sacramento is an offensive team that could some defenders (20th), while Philly was struggling to put points on the board (22nd). Quite honestly I think both teams have the possibility to benefit from the transaction. The East is wide open, and a healthy Webber gives the Sixers a formidable starting 5 of Iverson, Iguodala, Korver, Webber, and Jackson/Dalembert. While the Kings still have plenty of firepower and they’ve improved their defense enough to go a few rounds in the playoffs.


I use three stats to get a general overall value of a player, PER, oPER, and Roland Rating. If you have any doubts that PER is a good measure of offensive ability, the last two years the top 5 PER belonged to Garnett, Duncan, Shaq, Kobe and McGrady, which passes my litmus test. oPER (opposition PER) is less accurate because of how defense is played in the NBA (switched defensive assignments, help defense, zone defense, double teams, etc.), but can still be valuable up to a point. According to 82games.com, Roland Rating “represents a player’s value to a particular team and are not intended to be an accurate gauge of the ability and talent of the player away from the specific team.” To make it easier to read, I’m going to use it with these colors: (offensive PER, defensive PER, +/-Roland Rating).

Five Stats the NBA Should Keep (Part II)

[This is the second of a two part series. Part I contains stats 1-3, so just scroll down to read it, or click here for the scrolling impaired.

At the time of this writing there is a news rumor that Chris Webber got traded to the 76ers for Kenny Thomas, Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner, and a bunch of junk from Pat Croce’s garage. Considering the fiasco over the Carlos Boozer non-trade, and that three networks picked up the false story that Shaq’s season was over, I’m going to wait until it’s official to comment.]

4. Defensive Shooting Stats (DFGM, D3P, DFT)
Allen Iverson uses a crossover dribble to get past Chauncey Billups. Billups follows him to the hoop, but ends up fouling Iverson on the layup, creating a three point play for the mercurial guard. The next time down the court Iverson fakes the drive and pulls up for the three. This time, Billups is not fooled and gets a hand in Iverson’s face. The ball clangs off the iron and Big Ben cradles the rebound.

Although 82games.com keeps track of opposing defensive stats, why doesn’t the NBA make it an official stat? Keep track of field goals, free throws and three pointers for the defensive player who is the primary defender. In the above example, Billups would have the following stats:

DFGM: 1
DFGA: 2
D3PM: 0
D3PA: 1
DFTM: 1
DFTA: 1

Or in other words, Billups allowed 1-2 from the field (DFG: 1-2), defended well against the only three pointer attempted (D3P: 0-1), and let his opponent have a free throw (DFT: 1-1).

Are there flaws in this system? Sure. Basketball defense is partially a team effort, and assigning credit or blame to an individual seems unfair. Using that same argument, how would we judge pitchers if the lords of baseball decided not to keep track of ERA because there are 8 other players who assist him in preventing runs? Maybe the difference between having a great defense in a pitchers park is similar to a shooting guard having Kirilenko or Duncan play behind them. As for the criticism that it’s impossible to judge who is responsible for allowing the score, 82games.com has found a way and RealGM’s Kevin Broom has started to keep track of his favorite team with defensive box scores.

Using only the current stats the NBA uses (blocks & steals) doesn’t give us a complete picture of a player’s defensive skill. Blocks don’t always correlate with defensive ability. The #1 team in blocks/game is Portland, who ranks 16th defensively. Chicago is the third best defensive team, but they’re 18th in blocks. As for steals, Kevin Broom has a theory that they don’t indicate much about team defense because “the best defensive teams force misses, and usually force some turnovers as well…[but] a steal happens on less than 1-in-10 defensive possessions.”

While some good defensive players (Ben Wallace) gets lots of steals and blocks, there are plenty of good defenders (Bruce Bowen) who don’t have any numbers to back up their ability to clamp down on an opponent. Study after study has shown that field goal percentage is the primary key to defensive ability. Defensive shooting stats will give us a better insight as to who is holding their own & who isn’t.

5. Possessions (POSS)
The Phoenix Suns are the NBA’s fastest team, averaging 99 possessions per game. According to points per game, they are the worst defensive team in the league, giving up 102.3 points per game. However, that’s an unfair label, because their opponents get more opportunities courtesy of the Suns nuclear offense. The Suns defense is actually 17th, when considering Phoenix’s fast pace. Similarly, Seattle’s offense doesn’t crack the top 5, because their team crawls at only 92 possessions a game. In reality the APBRSonics are the league’s second best scoring machine.

Of course I can say all that because I’m using an approximation of possessions. A possession ends when the ball exchanges hands between teams, either by made shots or missed shots rebounded by the defense (FGA – OREB), turnovers (TO), or free throws that end a possessions. It’s that last factor that causes a problem, because you can either shoot 1, 2, or 3 free throws depending on the type of foul. While .44*FTA is the current approximation of choice, it’s just that an approximation.

The NBA should officially keep track of possessions, seeing that they’re already doing so in the WNBA. More importantly, the NBA should make possession based stats part of the basketball vernacular. Saying the Suns allow the most points per game is a fact, but the implication that their defense is also the worst in the league is false. If Phoenix took full advantage of the shot clock like the Spurs or Pistons, their points allowed per game would drop dramatically. In fact their defense would be in the top 10 in points allowed per game (94.8) if they only had 91.5 POSS/G.

And why should the NBA stop with keeping track of possessions for teams? The NBA should keep POSS for players as well, split between offensive & defensive possessions. Maybe Ray Allen’s 24 points per game is more valuable than Stoudemire’s 26, because Amare the Great has more possessions in which to score? This would also be useful in seeing how coaching tendencies change with different players on the court. Maybe with Earl Boykins on the court, Denver uses up more possessions per minute, and therefore runs a quicker offense. Phoenix might slow things down with Barbosa & Hunter on the court instead of Amare & Nash. Making stats possession based will be a step in making a level field between slow and fast paced teams.