A Layman’s Guide to Advanced NBA Statistics

This guide is intended for those that are interested in modern basketball statistics. In order to make it more accessible, I’ve decided to forgo the formulas and numbers. At times both fans and journalists alike struggle to use stats when it comes to basketball. Often enough, their interpretation is inadequate because they don’t have the right stats to explain what is happening on the court. Even worse is when stats are used improperly to arrive at the wrong conclusion.

Over the past few years basketball statisticians have learned a lot about the game. While most of it is based on the same stats you would see in boxscores, the findings go far beyond traditional stats. Evaluation on the team level is the most reliable aspect of basketball statistical analysis. In other words, we’re very sure what factors lead a team to victory. Although statisticians aren’t exactly sure how player stats equates to wins, there are many ways to better evaluate individuals than the classical stats.

Team Stats

What You Need to Know
When looking at team stats it’s important to understand that some teams play faster than others which skews their per game stats. Faster paced teams will get more chances to score per game, solely because they have more opportunities. It’s similar to two NFL RBs, both with 1000 yards rushing, but one had 300 attempts and the other only 200 attempts. In this case it’s not enough to know the totals, instead you have to account for the difference in the number of opportunities. The same applies for team stats.

So in lieu of viewing how a team performs per game, we calculate how a team does per possession. What’s a possession? A possession ends when a team gives the ball to the other team, usually through a score, a turnover, or a missed shot recovered by the defense. By using points per possession, we’re looking at how many points a team scores when they have the ball on offense. This is called offensive efficiency or offensive rating, and is measured in points per 100 possessions. Basically offensive efficiency answers the question “if this team had the ball 100 times, how many points would it score?” Similarly we can rate defenses by calculating how many points a team allows per possession, called defensive efficiency or defensive rating.

But it doesn’t stop there. We can break down what aspects of the game contributes to those rankings. Offense (or defense) is broken down into 4 crucial factors: shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throws. Shooting is by far the most important factor and is best measured by eFG% which is a better version of FG% (see “Shooting” below). Next come turnovers and rebounding which are about equal to each other, but less valuable than shooting percentage. Like points, turnovers are measured per possession (how many times you cough the ball up when you have it). Rebounding is measured by percentage of missed shots recovered. This is so teams that shoot poorly (have lots of misses to recover) are judged on an even platform with teams that can shoot. Last and least is free throw shooting. This is measured by free throw shots made per shot attempt.

In 50 Words or Less
Throw away points per game for team stats. Instead use offensive efficiency (or defensive efficiency), which is basically how many points a team would score in 100 possessions. Team stats are broken in four factors: shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. You can find these stats on basketball-reference (search for “Points Per 100 Possessions” and “Four Factors” on the team pages) and my stat site.

Examples Why
In 2006, Portland ranked 18th in points allowed per game, which means they should have been slightly worse than average. However they finished a paltry 21-61 that year. Their defense wasn’t adequately measured by points allowed per game, because they played at the league’s third slowest pace. Ranked by defensive efficiency they were 29th, which would make their 21 win season more understandable. Of course there’s the 1991 Denver Nuggets.

More Please
Dean Oliver (Points Per Possessions): http://www.rawbw.com/~deano/helpscrn/rtgs.html
Dean Oliver (Four Factors): http://www.rawbw.com/~deano/articles/20040601_roboscout.htm
Kevin Pelton: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/factors050127.html
Basketball-Reference: http://www.basketball-reference.com/about/factors.html

Player Stats

What You Need to Know
Without a doubt per minute stats are more important that per game stats. This is because per minute stats makes valid comparisons between players of varying minutes. Using per game stats in the NBA is like using hits/game in MLB. In 2007 Michael Young averaged 1.29 hits/game to David Ortiz’ 1.22, but Young’s batting average was only .315 to Ortiz’ .332. Young had more hits because he had more at bats (639 to 549), not because he was a better contact hitter. Similarly you might find that one basketball player has better per game stats, but if he had more minutes then the comparison is invalid. Only per minute stats will clarify which player is truly better in a category.

The common notation for per-minute stats is using per 40 minute stats. This is because it’s easier to visualize 2.3 blk/40 min instead of 0.0575 blk/min. Measuring basketball stats per 40 minutes is similar to measuring earned runs per 9 IP in baseball (ERA). One thing to note, unlike ERA in baseball, basketball players’ per-minute stats stay the same despite their playing time. So while baseball relievers have lower ERAs than starters, the same is not true in basketball. Additionally this doesn’t mean a player should play 40 minutes, just as using ERA doesn’t mean that a pitcher should pitch a full 9 innings. It’s just a fair way to compare players.

In 50 Words or Less
Throw out a player’s per game stats, and look at per-minute stats instead. Per minute stats are usually measured per 40 minutes. Study, after study, after study shows a player’s per minute production to stay the same despite how many minutes they play. You can find them at basketball-reference for historical data, or my stat page for the current season.

Examples Why
Some examples of players that had good per minute numbers, but poor per game numbers due to a lack of playing time: Ben Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Gerald Wallace, and Michael Redd. Throw in a point guard, and that’s a pretty good team.

More Please
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/stats101.html
The Basketball Notebook’s Primer: http://basketballnotebook.blogspot.com/2005/12/basketball-notebook-stats-primer.html

Shooting

Another stat that should be replaced is FG%. Why? Field goal percentage doesn’t account for the scoring bonus in a three point shot, which is a lower percentage shot. Sharp shooter Kyle Korver’s career FG% (as of 2007) is a lowly 41.3%. If FG% rates a good shooter like Korver so poorly, then it’s obviously not a good stat to use. So replace FG% with eFG% (effective field goal percentage), which compensates for the extra point in a three point shot. Korver’s eFG% is a more robust 53.6%.

But eFG% isn’t the only statistic used to measure a shooter. True Shooting Percentage (TS%) accounts not only for three pointers, but free throws made as well. For instance a player that hits a layup, gets fouled, and hits the extra point is more valuable than the guy that just sinks a jumper. To compare players with respect to their total scoring contribution, this is the stat to use.

In 50 Words or Less
Field goal percentage (FG%) should be replaced by eFG% or TS%. Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) compensates properly for three pointers, while true shooting percentage (TS%) compensates for three pointers and free throws.

Examples Why
Well I used Kyle Korver above, but otherwise you can look at any player that takes a large amount of three pointers or gets (and converts) a lot of free throws. Players like Kevin Martin, Jason Kapono, Manu Ginobili, and Shawn Marion come to mind as players who are misrepresented by FG%.

More please
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/stats101.html
The Basketball Notebook’s Primer: http://basketballnotebook.blogspot.com/2005/12/basketball-notebook-stats-primer.html

Overall Player Value

As I mentioned earlier, it’s not exactly clear exactly how to calculate a player’s worth. However there are 3 main stats that have attempted to give a single number to represent a player’s total contribution. The first and most prevalent is Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Created by John Hollinger, it attempts to take add up the good things, subtract the bad things, and account for team pace and minutes played. It’s normalized to 15, which means the average player in the league scores a 15 PER. The league’s best players are around 30, while the worst are in the single digits. Following Hollinger is economist Dave Berri (and friends) who came up with Wins Produced and it’s cousin Win Score. Unlike Hollinger who chose his equation, Berri and co. statistically derived what factors went into Wins Produced.

But both stats have their weaknesses. According to Wins Produces, PER tends to overrate players that score a lot of points, but do so inefficiently (poor shooting numbers). Meanwhile PER says that Wins Produced overrate strong rebounders that score infrequently. Additionally since they both rely on box score stats, neither captures actions that occur outside of the stat sheet. For instance Bruce Bowen plays tough defense and forces Kobe Bryant to take a bad shot that Tim Duncan rebounds. The stat sheet will record Duncan’s rebound and Kobe’s missed shot, but Bowen doesn’t get any credit for his defense.

One stat that does capture Bowen’s effort is plus/minus stats. Currently kept by Roland Beech, +/- comes in a few different flavors. Among the most popular are offensive and defensive +/-, which measure how a team does with the player on the court. Also Roland Rating and net +/- attempt to evaluate a player’s value. However plus/minus doesn’t just capture than the individual effort, it captures the value of his teammates as well. When Bowen and Duncan prevent the Lakers from scoring not only do they get credit for the effort, everyone else on the court gets the credit as well.

In 50 Words or Less
Trying to create a player’s total worth using a single number isn’t highly reliable. But if you need to use one, you can try PER, Wins Produced, or +/-. Each has their strengths & weaknesses and are only good to begin a discussion, not end one.

Examples Why
The biggest hole in statstical analysis is defensive stats. Blocks, rebounds, and steals aren’t enough to tell the whole story on what happens on defense. Players who excel in this area of the court usually have strong defensive +/-, like Bruce Bowen (-9.6). However these numbers tend to fluctuate based on the strength of the team. A player that spends a lot of time on the court with strong defensive players will have their defensive +/- inflated.

More please
Kevin Pelton’s Stat Primer: http://www.nba.com/sonics/news/stats101.html
What is PER?: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?id=2850240
Dave Berri’s Site: http://dberri.wordpress.com/2006/05/21/simple-models-of-player-performance/
Roland Rating: http://www.82games.com/rolandratings0405.htm
Adjusted +/-: http://www.82games.com/ilardi1.htm
Online & Downloadable +/- stats: http://basketballvalue.com/index.php

Knicks 2007 Report Card (A to Z): Eddy Curry

KnickerBlogger: I’m sure anyone that only goes by per game stats thinks that Eddy Curry had the best season of his career. Early in the year, the mainstream media was quick to catch on to Curry’s 11 straight game of 20+ points. In 2007, Curry had career per game highs in points, rebounds, free throws, and possibly hugs of Jamal Crawford. (Am I the only one that notices that Curry does this?)

However closer analysis of Curry’s season shows little improvement. Comparing his last 3 seasons by per-minute numbers, Curry’s 2007 isn’t much different from his career averages. Surprisingly Curry showed no big improvement in his per minute scoring, and his per minute rebounding was the second lowest of his career. Statistically, Curry’s big improvement was in his personal fouls. Obviously fouls are important for a budding big man, since foul trouble can limit the amount of time a player can stay on the floor. Curry was able to play in 10 more minutes per game this year, partly due to his ability to stay out of foul trouble. (The other factor was his improved conditioning). Eddy Curry showed minor improvement in one other category, his assists. Although his passing is still below average, Curry seemed to improve as the season wore on.

Per Minute Stats from www.basketball-reference.com
Season Ag Tm G MP FGA FTA ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TO PF PTS
2001-02 19 CHI 72 1150 13.1 5.6 3.9 5.6 9.5 0.9 0.6 1.8 2.4 6 16.8
2002-03 20 CHI 81 1571 14.6 7.3 3 6 9 0.9 0.5 1.6 3.5 5.8 21.6
2003-04 21 CHI 73 2154 15.6 6.5 2.7 5.7 8.4 1.3 0.4 1.5 3.3 4.8 19.9
2004-05 22 CHI 63 1808 16.2 6.9 2.6 4.9 7.5 0.8 0.5 1.3 3.6 4.5 22.4
2005-06 23 NYK 72 1866 12.8 10.4 3.1 6.2 9.3 0.4 0.6 1.2 3.8 5.1 21
2006-07 24 NYK 81 2849 14.3 9.3 2.7 5.3 8 1 0.5 0.6 4.1 3.7 22.1

Looking at Curry’s 2006 numbers it seems that Larry Brown had 2 positive effects on him. Under the stern Knick coach Curry’s rebounding peaked and he doubled his free throw attempts per minute in 2006. While Curry’s rebounding returned to his pre-Brown numbers last year, he seemed to retain the ability to draw fouls at a higher rate.

Curry’s per-minute stats for 2007 show two disturbing trends. As I mentioned before, he reduced the rate in which he fouls opponents, but that may have come at the expense of his shot blocking. Already a poor defensive presence in the paint, Curry’s shot block rate was nearly half his career rate. Of all centers that played more than 12 min/g, Eddy Curry was the third worst at blocked shots per minute, only ahead of Andrew Bogut and Marc Jackson. Additionally Curry’s turnover rate spiked to the highest of his career as he became the focal point of the Knick offense. Usually players commit fewer turnovers as they age, but it seems Curry has become more turnover prone over the years.

KnickerBlogger’s Grade: C+

2008 Outlook: Unfortunately for Knick fans, Curry is a one trick pony at a premium position. All he provides is scoring, albeit he is a very efficient scorer from the floor. Curry is poor at holding onto the ball, bad at passing, worse at rebounding, and non-existent with his help defense. New York’s management has declared that Curry is their center of the future. If this is true, the Knicks are going to need more than just his scoring to become a successful team during his tenure. At only 24 years old (25 in December) Curry still has time to develop into a more complete player. But what is Curry likely to improve on in 2008?

Seeing at how lackadaisical he is on defense combined with the drop in his rebound and block rate, it seems that Curry’s isn’t likely to get better on the defensive end. However he did show an increase in his assist numbers, and he looked to be a better passer late in the season. So Curry’s best hope to become a better player in 2008 is to work on his passing. Improved passing ability will allow Curry to make opponents pay for double teaming him, which will in turn force opponents to stop doubling him. That in turn should mean Curry’s scoring would increase. Improving his passing should drop his turnover rate as well, as some of those turnovers came from poor passing out of double teams. A change that would effect those areas would make Eddy Curry one of the best offensive players in the league.

Dave Crockett: I have to disagree and say Curry earned a solid B. Scott Skiles criticized Curry for being the same player in New York as he was in Chicago on a per-minute basis. [Disclosure: I can’t stand Skiles and felt like he was just being an ass on principle.] For the record, I think that criticism misses something pretty fundamental apart from my dislike for Skiles. His reference was clearly to Curry’s offense. Well, the only way for Curry to be a monumentally better offensive player is through higher efficiency or greater usage. Big efficiency gains seem pretty unlikely in a players already as efficient as Curry. Even still, Curry has in fact improved his efficiency in NY. He’s been a 60.4% true shooter in NY, up from 56.7% in Chicago. He might improve his efficiency by shooting in the 70s from the FT line, a point to which I will return, but from the floor he’s pretty darn efficient. The only other way to see a big-time jump in per minute scoring would be through increased usage. As offensive centerpieces go Curry’s 23.1 usage rate isn’t modest but it’s also not Ben Gordon’s ridiculous 27.3. By my count only eight players shot 60%+ TS and were used less than Curry in 07. So while you’re not likely to see big per minute scoring jumps from a player with Curry’s profile that doesn’t mean he hasn’t improved.

Curry has faced two primary challenges since coming into the league: 1) Can he improve his conditioning and cut down his fouls so he can play more minutes to take advantage of his already efficient offense? 2) Can he develop facets of his game other than scoring?

He has managed to address the first challenge, which is no small feat. How many of us Knicks fans thought back in 05 that Mike Sweetney would be better than Curry no matter what Kevin Pelton said? If it were a trivial matter to get in good enough shape to add 10 minutes of playing time when you were already averaging over 20 then Sweetney and Ollie Miller, both far superior rebounders to Curry, might be perennial all-stars.

Obviously, Curry has not been able to address the second challenge anywhere near as well as the first. Yet even though this is undoubtedly true it is not a statement that should be made without caveat. It is not clear that Curry’s increased minutes really did come at the expense of his (admittedly) sub-par defense. As KB has detailed, Curry never provide much shot-blocking but provided virtually none this past season. However, this must be balanced against the fact that his +/- (+5.3) and defensive rating (110 vs. 106 league avg.) remained unchanged from the previous season while his fouls have steadily declined (to a career low 3.7 per 40 in 07). So it’s not clear that he’s hemorrhaging layups despite not blocking shots and fouling less. My observations suggests to me that Curry’s improved conditioning has led to better positioning and footwork (a la Jason Collins) allowing him to stay away from some of his notorious cheap reach-in fouls. I’m not suggesting Curry is a better defender but he’s not necessarily a worse one. Further, it may not be such a bad idea to have Curry forgo blocking shots when he so clearly cannot block them.

If, as KB suggests, Curry is likely to remain a one-trick pony (and 35 minutes of efficient scoring ain’t such a bad trick) then in addition to improving his passing he must become a better free throw shooter. That is one area where Curry could make a noticeable jump in efficiency. He got to the line frequently–40 times for every 100 shots–but shot a career-low 61.5% last season (career 64%). Curry does not have a broken down stroke in need of rehabilitation, like Shaq, Ben Wallace, or Chris Dudley. In fact, Curry has a good looking stroke with no obvious hitches. If Larry Johnson could shoot free throws in the high 70s-low 80s with his hideous mechanics there is no earthly reason Curry shouldn’t shoot consistently in high-70s. He just needs decide to become a decent free throw shooter and park his butt in the gym until he becomes one. That’s one thing I’ll be looking for right away in 08.

Brian Maniscalco: Let’s take a closer look at Curry’s increased floor time and usage.

season  mpg   poss / 40min   poss / game   fouls / 40min   off fouls / 40min   def fouls / 40min 
2005/06 25.9 21.3 13.8 5.1 1.4 3.7
2006/07 35.2 23.1 20.3 3.7 1.3 2.4

Curry?s 06/07 mark of 23.1 possessions used per 40 minutes was only a small uptick from the previous season. Nonetheless, that mark was a career high and the first time he led his team in usage rate (tied with Jamal Crawford). In total, Curry?s possessions used per game increased by almost 50% over the previous season because of all the extra minutes he played. Of course, a critical contributing factor to Curry?s increased court presence was his ability to cut down on personal fouls. However, somewhat contrary to popular perception, Curry?s drop in fouls per minute came entirely came from a decrease in defensive foul rate. (Although an improvement in offensive foul rate is also evident on a per-possession basis.)

Does the dip in defensive foul rate indicate an impoverished defensive effort from an already poor defender? In 07, Curry experienced an anomalous, precipitous drop in both overall fouls (3.7) and blocked shots (0.6) per 40 minutes compared to his prior career averages (5.1 and 1.5, respectively). So the data is suggestive that Curry’s decreased aggression in attempting to block shots is directly tied to his decreased defensive foul rate, sacrificing shot blocking attempts for more court time. As Dave points out, though, existing defensive stats (coarse and imperfect as they may be) portray Curry as an equally bad defender in both his seasons as a Knick, despite blocking half as many shots last season. A moment’s reflection shows that this is not too surprising, given that fouling fewer times on defense means fewer free throws for the opposition. According to 82games.com, the Knicks allowed 21 opponent free throw attempts per 48 minutes with Curry on the court, down from 26 the previous season. Likewise, Curry’s net +/- for opponent free throw attempts per 48 minutes improved from -6 to -14.

Just about every per minute and per possession measure of offensive efficiency will tell you that Curry was about as effective on offense in 07 as in 06. However, this is impressive given that Curry played 1000 more total minutes in 07, used more possessions and attempted more shots per minute, and drew more double and triple teams from defenses primarily geared towards slowing him down. With all those factors working to suppress his efficiency, the mere fact that he was able to maintain prior levels suggests some degree of improvement in an already strong offensive attack.

Unfortunately, there is one straightforward way to substantially slow down Curry?s Goliath act in the paint: double team him, triple team him, and do whatever you can to get the ball out of his hands. Not only does this tactic prevent Curry from getting up a shot, but it also often leads to a turnover.

Passing, ball handling, and turnovers (all stats per 100 possessions used)

season  assists   off. fouls   bad passes   ballhanding TOs   misc TOs   TOs   assists / bad passes 
2005/06 1.9 6.7 2.2 6.2 2.8 18.0 0.9
2006/07 4.3 5.6 2.9 6.9 2.5 17.9 1.5

Curry is a poor passer and a turnover machine. Much of what he giveth in terms of post offense, he taketh away (or rather, giveth away) with his turnovers. His per-possession turnover rate ranked among the 10 worst in the league last season, which is especially damaging considering the number of possessions Curry uses. Among the 10 worst ball handlers, only Dwight Howard offered a comparably poisonous mixture of high usage (20.8 possessions / 40 minutes) and high turnover rate (19.3 turnovers per 100 possessions). It is no coincidence that the Knicks? Achilles? heel on offense during the Curry era has been turnovers (worst in 05/06, second worst in 06/07).

Is there hope for a better ball handling tomorrow? The outlook is hazy.

Curry actually managed to commit 1.1 fewer offensive fouls per 100 possessions used in 07 than in 06. That’s a crucial improvement, given that offensive fouls produce the double whammy of a turnover and, potentially, foul trouble. The dip in offensive fouls is also another piece of evidence that Curry did in fact refine his post offense during last season. Indeed, subjectively it seemed as if he committed far fewer of the egrigiously bulldozing, bull in the china shop kinds of offensive fouls that plagued him in his first season as a Knick.

Unfortunately, Curry?s improvement in terms of offensive fouls and miscellaneous turnovers was almost exactly balanced out by an increase in passing and ball handling turnovers. This is especially troubling because these are exactly the sorts of turnovers you would expect to be generated by an aggressive, double teaming defense looking to get the ball out of Curry?s hands. This is the kind of defensive pressure Curry is going to experience for as long as he remains the main focal point of the offense. It will take significant effort on Curry’s part to improve his court vision, passing, and overall savvy to the point where he cannot be taken out of a game by swarming defenses.

There is at least a bit of a silver lining here. Curry?s assist rate also increased last season. The increase of both assists and bad passes per 100 possessions suggests that Curry may simply have been passing more overall due to double teams forcing his hand. And in fact, we do see that Curry?s assist to bad pass ratio improved as well. So on the whole it seems like Curry?s passing game did improve, in spite of what his increased rate of bad passes might lead one to think. Of course, he still has a long way to go before his passing is passable.

Silver lining part two: Curry?s turnover rate has been substantially worse in his two seasons as a Knick than it was during his time with Chicago (averaging 14.5 TOs per 100 possessions, with the highest mark being 15.3). So Curry is not doomed to be an 18 TO / 100 possession guy for the rest of his career. It?s unclear exactly why his turnover rate spiked after coming to New York. It?s unlikely that the rise in turnovers has followed from a more prominent role in the offense, since Curry?s usage rate has been remarkably constant across his career. The most likely explanation is that there is something about playing in the context of New York?s offense that makes Curry more turnover prone than he was when playing with the offenses of his Bulls teams. So it is possible that the right kinds of changes in team personnel, and/or the right kind of changes in New York’s offensive system, could be a significant help in easing Curry?s turnover woes.

But ultimately, make no mistake: Curry?s ability to successfully handle the pressure of aggressive double teams without turning the ball over is the next big hurdle in his development as an offensive weapon. It is the looming roadblock on the horizon and how he responds to it will in large part determine the course of his career. If he does not substantially improve his ball handling in the face of defensive pressure, his defining strength will always be mitigated by a great weakness, and his net effectiveness as an offensive force will therefore always be limited.

For dropping his foul rate enough to play significant minutes for the first time in his career, and for maintaining outstanding offensive efficiency in spite of becoming the true focal point of his team’s offense for the first time in his career, I give Curry a B. Curry managed to make some non-trivial first steps towards becoming a legitimate first option on offense. Now let’s see if he can improve the defense and rebounding (not holding my breath) or cut down on the turnover rates (seems plausible, if not particularly likely).

Brian Cronin – Quick question, what exactly is a Win Score? I get that Wages of Wins and all that stuff is generally best done as a rate stat (and as a rate stat, Eddy Curry finishes very low in the league, like 150th or something like that, comparable to players like Mark Blount and Stephen Jackson). Fair enough, but then what is the point of having a “Win Score,” which I presume is a counting stat?

Because, interestingly enough, Eddy Curry had the 75th highest “Win Score” last year.

John Hollinger’s PER had him with the 70th highest PER (17.07).

The similarities amused me, but I presume that “Win Score” is basically meaningless if you’re a Wages of Wins fan, right?

Anyhow, as the other fellows have pointed out so nicely, your evaluation of Eddy Curry’s performance is generally based upon how much of an importance you place upon effective scoring. Curry is one of the more effective scorers in the NBA, and as we see, such effective scoring leads to double teams, which are usually useful, but not so useful when Curry

A. Can’t kick the ball out, because he is a terrible passer who instead will usually turn the ball over if attempting to pass

or

B. Manages to kick the ball out to a player who can’t/won’t take the open outside shot the double team on Curry has provided.

You really would think that the Knicks would have given Curry some outside shooters, no? And apparently, according to the most recent rumors, they’re not even going for an outside shooter in the draft!! Ah well…there’s always trades, I suppose…

So Eddy Curry – tremendous scorer who can’t do anything else – while Wages of Wins thinks that is effectively useless, I think I lean toward Hollinger’s take on Curry, which is that Curry is currently around one of the top 15 centers in the NBA, and I think he deserves the C+ that KB gave him.

Let’s hope he improves this year!!

Henry Abbott & The Art of Automobile Maintenance

I love sport lists. Get 10 NBA fans together and ask them who the 10 best NBA players of all time are, and you’re likely to get 10 different lists. Even getting a consensus on the best NBA player of all time proves to be difficult. Many will point to Russell’s rings, and just as many will claim Wilt was a man among boys. Some might say Jordan was clutch, while others might argue the “Big O” was the most versatile.

Lists tend to reveal a lot about the person making the list. You may have Russell at the top of your list if you think winning a team championship is the best measure of an individual. On the other hand if you think that winning a championship is more a team effort and doesn’t adequately reflect a single person’s accomplishments, then Wilt might be your guy. If you feel that today’s athletes are far superior and face tougher competition than those of yesteryear, then Jordan would be #1. While lists are subjective, it’s not as open as choosing your favorite ice cream flavor. While “pistachio” would be an acceptable answer at your local ice cream shop, saying that Bill Cartwright was the greatest NBA player of all time is just wrong.

Recently ESPN asked their writers to rate the top 10 centers of all time. Henry Abbott of truehoop.com, and ESPN newbie, filled out his form and included Bill Walton & Dave Cowens, but omitted Moses Malone. Bill Simmons made a short blurb about Malone’s exclusion in one of his columns, and Abbott felt the need to explain his reasoning at truehoop. While there might be valid reasons for ranking Moses 11th or greater, I think Abbott’s position is a bit odd.

If he had been 6-9 he probably would have made it. I’m into overachievers. But Malone’s awfully big. And strong. Not fair, but true, I’m afraid.

Three different sites list Malone at 6-10, but I don’t want to split hairs over an inch. Abbott’s point is that he would have viewed Malone’s accomplishments more favorably if he were a smaller player. But I have to ask: given all other things being equal, how would being shorter made Moses Malone a better player? I just don’t get the argument there, because it leads down a slippery but not very steep slope where smaller players get more credit for their achievement.

If Henry’s discussion ended there, you wouldn’t be reading about it here. But he continues onward.

I’ll tell you this much, though: you’re not going to convince me just with stats. I play basketball, or something close to it. I never thought being a winner was necessarily about getting the most points and rebounds. It’s about building a team.

I’d like to state the obvious and say there’s a strong correlation between getting the most points and winning. But seriously, what is the purpose of bringing out the “I play basketball” card? Is Abbott suggesting that there is a division between those that can ball and those that can multiply fractions? Or rather that only those who play basketball are qualified to understand what makes a winning team? I play basketball too. So does Dean Oliver, and I’m sure there are tons of people in the statistical community that can lace them up. Nonetheless you don’t need to be a great basketball player to understand what being a winner is about. Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale were much better players than Jerry Colangelo, but who would you rather have building your team?

Abbott continues his thoughts on statistics:

But for now, I’m convinced that points and rebounds, as freestanding indicators of a player’s quality, are a total crapshoot. If Eddy Curry were a total ballhog, he’d shoot every time he touched it, and no doubt score more. But of course he’d really hurt his team in the process. No way to factor that in when we put points and rebounds on the altar as sacred stats.

I can see four major problems in Henry’s example. The first is that Curry is a notoriously poor rebounder. So by using points and rebounds as an indicator of Curry’s quality you’d probably get a good understanding of his value. In other words if you were in a coma for the last 8 years & I gave you a newspaper with Curry’s stats, you’d probably have a fair idea of what Eddy brings to the court.

Second is Abbott’s assumption that Curry could score much more if he were a ballhog. There is no doubt that Curry can score one on one against just about any center in the league. However, like any NBA player, Curry can’t score with two defenders draped on him. And unfortunately Curry is unable to find the open man when double teamed. Hence opposing teams find it a low risk move to double team Curry, and by using this tactic they can limit how many points he can score. If Eddy Curry were able to find his teammates for an easy bucket, then opponents wouldn’t be able to double team him as much, and therefore Curry would be able to increase his scoring averages. So Curry’s scoring average isn’t predicated on some kind of statistical altering greed, but rather it’s limited by his poor passing ability.

Third Henry assumes that if Curry scored more it would hurt his team. But Curry’s primary function is scoring. Other than grabbing offensive rebounds, Curry doesn’t do much else well. If Eddy Curry were able to drop 29 points a night instead of 19, it would benefit the Knicks. The Knicks are trying their hardest to get the ball to Eddy more, not less, in an effort to increase his usefulness to the team.

Finally Henry asserts that should Curry hurt his team by going for personal glory, that there is “no way to factor that in” with stats. O RLY? Should Curry become a “total ballhog” you’d see a steep rise in his turnovers per minute, and his PER would plummet. To see how this affects the team you could look at the team’s offensive efficiency, or you could go to 82games.com and check the offense’s +/- with Eddy on the court. So in fact, there are many ways to statistically “factor in” a player that is in over his head.

It seems to me that Henry Abbott’s main gripe is that statistics isn’t the panacea of NBA analysis. That is you can’t take a single formula & use it to find precise answers as to the net value of a player. In some cases statistics do a poor job of capturing a player’s worth. Guys like Bruce Bowen, Quinton Ross, and Raja Bell aren’t adequately represented by their statistics. But should we just discard all statistics because it gives a few players the short end of the stick? That would be like eliminating capitalism because of the poor. Statistics bring such a surfeit of unbiased data that we can live with their deficiencies.

Abbott frequently uses the term “crude” when describing statistics (“using one players’ individual’s points and rebounds as a major tool in that debate is like using a shovel as a major tool for brain surgery: so crude it hurts.”). However, I find statistics to be an accurate and elegant way to communicate information. Take for example my assessment of Eddy Curry. Curry is a highly efficient scorer (19.3 ppg, 58% FG%) who doesn’t rebound well (7.1 reb/g) especially on the defensive end (4.6 dreb/g). He isn’t among the league leaders in scoring because he doesn’t pass well (0.9 ast/g, 3.4 to/g). The Knicks aren’t doing well mainly because of their defense (26th defensive efficiency) and some of the blame points to Curry (0.6 blk/g, defense 5.7 points worse with Curry on the court). Without the numbers to back it up, my view of Curry might be skewed by my allegiances.

Finally, Henry uses this analogy:

Points and rebounds are only ubiquitous because they are so simple to measure. Any idiot with a clipboard can chart that.

Similarly, it’s really easy to tell if your car’s headlights are working. But that’s a bad bit of investigation if you want to figure out if you’re going to make it safely cross-country. For that you gotta pop the hood and get your hands dirty.

I have to agree with him on this, but I feel as if Abbott missed his own advice. Moses Malone has more points, rebounds, free throws, MVP awards, and All Star appearances than Walton & Cowens combined. The only advantage I can see that Walton & Cowens have over Malone is that they’ve won more titles. I can’t say for sure what Abbott’s exact criteria was (rings?, desire?, height?) but by ignoring the wealth of statistical information available, he certainly didn’t pop that hood open and get his hands dirty.

Stat Happy

This year at the CourtsideTimes.Net we’ve been concentrating on the news content, as opposed to original articles. That’s because typically a statistical piece takes longer to write than your average article, and most of the people involved in CTN have their own blogs/lives to worry about. Nonetheless this week we’re having a bevvy of articles.

Gabe Farkas weighs in on the effect the new ball had on the league, while Kevin Pelton looks at how a midseason coaching swap has changed the Memphis Grizzlies. If that’s not enough to tickle your number lovin’ noggin, then later on in the week I should have the latest update to OTTER, with a new #1 team.

2005 KnickerBlogger NBA Playoff Brackets Contest: The Winner

Back in April, the second annual KnickerBlogger NBA Playoff Brackets Contest began. Expanding on 8 participants from the year before, 15 pundits from assorted walks of life decided to roll up their sleeves and dared to predict the future. With San Antonio taking the series in 7, the final results are in, and we are proud to present them to you today.

In last place was Jeff from CelticsBlog.com. Jeff went with his heart and selected Boston which hurt him greatly when Indiana took them in 7. Of course this just goes to prove that heart doesn’t exist, and in fact is detremental to team chemistry & bracketology. Following him in next to next to last place was fellow green wearing Brian who writes about the New York Jets. Brian self admittedly doesn’t know much about hoops, and we can use him as our “control group.” Third to last is Martin Johnson, representing all of the print writers in the world. I have it on good word that Martin didn’t have on his Darrin Erstad “balance necklace” that day.

And then a whole bunch of people were in the middle (myself included).

In third place overall is Kevin, who is from so many places I can’t count them all. How about we just put a link to the APBRmetric forum, and move on. In his first ever appearance is Kelly Dwyer, who landed in second place. The SportsIllustrated writer plans to model himself after Nikole Danner. In case you don’t keep up with the world news, Danner stepped in when the winner, Stevi Nichole White, was unable to fulfill her duties as Miss Marion Popcorn Festival. It’s rumored that rigors of standing around & being judged on your beauty took too much out of White, rendering her unable to complete her reign which would include standing around being admired for your beauty.

Finally, I present to you the winner of the 2005 KnickerBlogger NBA Playoff Brackets Contest: Kevin Broom. The RealGMer predicted every team except the Heat making the Finals, and the Kings over the SuperSonics. While runner-up Dwyer also only missed two series as well, Broom swept away the competition by correctly guessing the length of 6 of the 15 series to Dwyer’s 4.

I’d like to thank everyone for competing & wish everyone good luck next year. On a last note, the top 3 all had names that began with a K, and 4 of the top 5 if you include KnickerBlogger. In preparation for next year, Matt the Bulls blogger has decided to change his name to Katt Kernhardt. That move alone could push him into the top 3 next year.

Rank Name URL Finals Score
1 Kevin Broom http://www.RealGM.com 7 77
2 Kelly Dwyer http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com 5 73
3 Kevin http://www.supersonics.com 5 71
4 Matt Bernhardt http://bulls.blogspot.com 5 70
5 KnickerBlogger http://www.knickerblogger.net 5 69
6.5 Mr.BB http://www.basketblogger.com 0 65
6.5 Ron Hitley http://www.hornets247.com 0 65
8 Roland http://82games.com 0 64
9 Kurt http://www.forumblueandgold.com 7 61
10 Aaron Schatz http://www.footballoutsiders.com 0 57
11.5 Larry Fleisher http://knicks.mostvaluablenetwork.com 0 56
11.5 Justin Kubatko http://www.basketball-reference.com 0 56
13 Martin Johnson http://www.nysun.com 0 54
14 Brian Bassett http://www.thejetsblog.com 0 53
15 Jeff http://www.CelticsBlog.com 5 51

Gnate and Nate?

My writing this week hasn’t been shedding Isiah Thomas’ latest move in a positive light. However one day after the draft would be a foolish time to continue to rain on the Knicks. Just one day after the draft Channing Frye is a future All Star, Nate Robinson is the backup PG that is better than half the starters in the league, and David Lee is going walk right in & fill Kurt Thomas’ shoes.

In fact despite railing on the deal just a few days ago, I was pretty excited when I heard that the Kurt Thomas trade was finalized because New York got Nate Robinson. No I haven’t changed my mind on the deal, because I think Richardson is an average player who doesn’t address the Knicks main needs. However if the deal had to go through, getting “Gnate” made it palatable. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the small guys. Years ago when Earl Boykins was a Net and Cavalier castoff I advocated from the top of my barstool that the Knicks should pick him up.

There are just so many reasons to like the diminutive player. I didn’t get to watch much of the NCAA tournament this year, but I saw at least one Washington game. Nate is one of those guys that you can’t help but keep your eyes on, because he will make something exciting happen. Although the Knicks do lack flash, I think Robinson can contribute as a solid player as well. Before going mainstream, the APBRmetric-minded Kevin Pelton gave him a nice write up over at draftcity.com. Meanwhile I can entertain thoughts in my head that Robinson will consider playing nickelback/kick returner for my beloved New York Jets.

Getting back to the Knicks I’m not sure whether they’ve solved their defensive problem. The reviews of Frye is that he’s a polished offensive player, but on defense the word “soft” has been thrown around. While he is a shot blocker, that talent doesn’t always translate from college to the pros. Knicks fans know that we’re not getting Tim Duncan or Tyson Chandler, but the answer to the question on exactly how much Frye can help solidify their D will have to wait. Obviously David Lee isn’t the defensive answer unless the Knicks trade Mike Sweetney (doh!) or Malik Rose (hooray!).

Even without getting another player, there is something Isiah and the Knicks can do to improve their defense: hire a defensive-minded coach. While I don’t believe that a coach can turn an awful defensive team into a stellar one, a good coach might be able to get the Knicks going in the right direction. Larry Brown would be a no-brainer, but there are two other possibilities that I wouldn’t mind New York considering. I know P.J. Carlesimo isn’t the popular choice in town, but he took the last ranked Warriors and turned them into an above average 12th in just two years. The Sprewell incident and sitting on the bench next to Emperor Popovich should make him a more experienced coach.

Nate McMillan’s contract should run out any second now. While the Sonics weren’t a defensive juggernaut, McMillan’s team made the most of what they had, had might have give the Spurs a run for their money had they not have a series of unfortunate injuries. Nate would give the Knicks their first legitimate coach since Jeff Van Gundy, and if he were able to bring over uber-consultant Dean Oliver it would be the icing on the cake. I?d still prefer a known commodity over guys like Herb Williams or Bill Laimbeer. With the draft out of the way, getting a coach should be the #1 priority on the Knicks list.