GOTME (Part V): Power Forward

The Greatest PF Of the Modern Era: Tim Duncan

Player Top PER 5 Best PER Career #1 PER # of top 10 PER
Duncan 27.1 26.8 25.1 0 12
Barkley 28.9 27.3 24.6 0 14
Malone 28.9 27.5 23.9 1 13
Garnett 29.4 27.3 23.7 2 9
Dirk 28.1 26.4 23.8 2 8

Is it fair for us to use Championships, a team statistic, when measuring the greatness of an individual player? If we do, then we would have to conclude that of the five great power forwards of the modern era, Tim Duncan is the Greatest with a capital G. He sports four rings on his hand, to a combined one of the other three. And true, he’s done it with or without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson on his side, but he’s also accomplished it without having to face Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan entered the league as a rookie the same year Jordan would clinch his second three-peat and leave it. So to make the case for Duncan, I’d like to put aside championships. Unlike Barkley and Malone who had to suffer inglorious defeats at the dunks of His Airness, Duncan’s hand he was dealt suddenly came from a fair deck—and what a hand he was dealt.

The Big Fundamental does it with defense. Until his Spurs stumbled in this past season to the 5th best defense, as measured by Defensive Efficiency, Duncan’s team finished in the top three for his first eleven seasons. His personal defensive efficiency metrics bore this out—he’s led the league three times (2005, 2006, 2007) and been in the top four in every season but last, when he fell all the way to sixth. He does it with both blocks and rebounds. Even though it is intrinsically a conflict of interest to both go after the block and set yourself in position for a rebound, Duncan is a regular league leader in both categories (18.4%, career rebounding rate; 2.3 blocks per 36 min). With those endlessly long arms and huge hands, he rotates to help in the lane, stands as straight as possible and lets the ball hit him in the hands. This doesn’t sound sexy, and it isn’t. But it works.

While his defense helps prevent the easiest buckets from being scored against his team, Duncan sets himself up in the low post and helps score them for his team. He’s never set the league on fire with his offense, but with a healthy True-Shooting Percentage (55.3%), a high Usage rate (28.2), and a low turnover ratio for his position (12.5%), Duncan is the strong base for an offense that has finished in the top ten half of his seasons.

Reserves: Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone

If Duncan is the #1 greatest of his time, then Garnett is more of #1A than a #2. Despite my earlier moratorium on judging them in the context of their teams, imagine if we could go back in time and swap their careers. It’s easy to imagine that Garnett would have accomplished everything Duncan did with the Spurs—and Duncan may have floundered with early first round exits, just as surely as Garnett did playing alongside such NBA luminaries as Trent Hudson, Michael Olowandi, and Wally Szcerbiak.

Garnett’s numbers have been just as good as Duncan’s at every stage of his career. He’s just as good a rebounder (17.1%, career), though he blocks less shots (1.6 per 36 min), but just as tough a defensive presence, as his Boston Celtics team proved. He’s a better passer (20.5% career assist ratio), with a comparable TS% (54.7%) to Duncan, and he’s led the league in PER twice (29.4 in 2004, 28.2 in 2005) —a feat Duncan never pulled off. I am at least refreshed to see Garnett earn his championship before the intensity of his game finally does away with his knees.

Unlike Duncan who is a center masquerading as a power forward, Malone perfectly fit the archetype of a Power forward. The prototypical bruiser, The Mailman hip-checked the competition right out of the way on his forays to the basket. Gliding lay-up after gliding lay-up, healthy dollops of free throws, and an understated proclivity for the open court, long the games most physically fit player was for a few years its second-best—that pesky Jordan again. He did lead the league in PER (28.9) in his first winning MVP season at the evergreen age of 33. That figure did drop to 25.4 for his second league MVP in the strike-shortened season.

To “round” out the top four, we turn to the offensive powerhouse and true mouth of the South, Charles Barkley. Sir Charles ranks sixth all-time in TS% (61.2%) , a feat he accomplished by out-“muscling” everyone under the basket, cleaning up the offensive glass, and throwing down bone-jarring dunk after dunk. What makes his rebounding dominance so impressive (24.4 on the defensive glass, and a world-breaking 12.5% on the offensive), is he had two things going against him: height and skill. The height should have held him back pulling in opponent misses. It didn’t. And most offensive rebound leaders are otherwise unskilled rotation staples, who are left uncovered on defensive rotations. Not Barkley. He was the best player on his team, everyone was geared to stop him, and he grabbed his misses anyway.

On defense, Sir Charles wasn’t exactly the sieve some make him out to be, but then again, with nary a defensive rating under 100, he wasn’t exactly shutting down the opposition either. Despite his so-called physical limitations, Barkley proved to be an effective player well into his mid-30’s, serving as a perfect example of Bill James maxim that unique players—and in Sir Charles’s case, we do mean unique—tend to age better.

Honorable Mention: Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk is probably the most skilled seven footer ever to play the game—he shoots like a guard, rebounds like a center—and even added a D to his name in recent years. We don’t think of Dirk as a reliable defender, nor do we remember Kevin McHale as a bit of a softie, but the big German actually has better Defensive Rating numbers than the Celtic stalwart. Nowitzki led the league in PER twice (28.1 in 2006, 27.6 in 2007). He does this by hitting every kind of shot he takes (47.2% FG, 37.8% on three-point attempts, and 87.2% on FTs), adding up to a robust TS % (58.1%). He just doesn’t stand and wait for the ball either. He uses 26.8% of his team’s possessions and gives the ball away a paltry 9.0%. But that being said, he’s already hit 30, and you can’t help but fear that his best years are now officially behind him. Has his opportunity for a championship passed him by, or will his career push out into his twilight years? After all, you don’t forget to shoot and he’s not getting any shorter.

2010 Poll: Who Will Win the West?

Los Angeles Lakers (Vegas odds to win title: 5:2)
Unlike the East, the West has one clear favorite. Since trading for Pau Gasol, the Lakers have appeared in two straight Finals winning it all last year. Not content to let it ride, Los Angeles upgraded from Trevor Ariza to Ron Artest. This would be a gamble for most teams considering the Queensbridge native’s history, but Phil Jackson has always been able to keep individual personalities from ruining a team.

San Antonio Spurs (6:1)
In an attempt to keep up with the Lakers, the Spurs bolstered their roster in the off season. San Antonio added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess which should give them a stronger rotation. But ultimately the Spurs will only go as far as their top 3. Last year the team suffered injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and if they lose either of them (or Tony Parker) they’ll fall short of any title hopes.

Denver Nuggets (8:1)
The conventional wisdom is that teams that finish strong are likely to have a momentum that continues to the next season. This seems logical since many great teams go through phases of success before winning a title. However there’s little evidence to support that claim, and many teams just get lucky in a playoff series. The 2009 Denver Nuggets will probably avoid the fate of the 2007 Warriors or the 2008 Hornets, as they are likely to see the second round in 2010. However I think Vegas is way too kind to their odds, and I would bet against them to make the Western Conference Finals, nevertheless win a championship.

Last year per-minute stud Chris Andersen had a monstrous playoffs, however over the last 3 years each of the Denver bigs (Andersen, Nene, and Martin) has missed nearly the whole year due to injury. And while the other teams in the conference improved this summer Denver merely tread water, losing Kleiza and adding Ty Lawson. Unless they get another playoff boost from a great per-minute shot blocking/rebounder buried on the bench, they’re not likely going to be able to compete against the Lakers for Western supremacy.

The Field (starting at 10:1)
According to Vegas, the Trailblazers rank 6th in the West, however Portland deserves a higher ranking. They had the West’s second highest expected winning percentage last year (68.4%), which correlates well with winning percentage the year after. Portland also had the NBA’s best offense powered by their fantastic rebounding. The Blazers return with their rotation in tact plus Andre Miller. Although not the ideal fit for the team, Miller provides an upgrade over Bayless & Blake. They’re much better than their 12:1 odds would indicate.

Ahead of Portland are Dallas and Utah at 10:1. The Mavericks added Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, and Tim Thomas. Marion’s production slipped in Miami and Toronto, and Dallas is hoping that their offensive scheme will better fit his talents. Meanwhile the Jazz matched the offer sheet for Paul Millsap, and are hoping that they can collectively stay healthy. Finally the New Orleans Hornets swapped Chandler for Emeka Okafor, which could make them relevant in the West again.

{democracy:36}

I Want To Draft Like It’s 1999

An NBA draft where the #1 overall consensus is a power forward, and a ton of guards are to be had including an intriguing foreign guard? No I’m not talking about this Thursday’s NBA draft where Blake Griffin is likely to go #1, there is a lot of depth at guard, and everyone is wondering where Rickey Rubio will land. I’m talking about the 1999 draft where Elton Brand went first, guards were taken in 7 of the next 10 picks, and Manu Ginobili quietly landed to the Spurs in the second round.

Of the top 10 picks, 9 of them had solid to spectacular careers, but only one of those stayed long enough to be seen as a success for the team that drafted him: Shawn Marion. A lot of these players were traded to other teams before they could really help the team that drafted them like Brand, Francis (a draft day holdout), Odom, Hamilton, Andre Miller, and Jason Terry. Number 5 pick Jonathan Bender never lived up to his potential due to injury. Wally Szczerbiak stayed with Minnesota, but was taken too high at #6. Baron Davis stayed with the Hornets for 5 and a half seasons, but was traded midyear to Golden State where he engineered one of the biggest first round upsets in history.

Although there was plenty of value at the top 10, the next 10 was filled with busts. Only Ron Artest (#16), Corey Maggette (#13) and James Posey (#18) were worth noting. As for the rest of the draft, there were two European superstars taken late in Kirilenko (#24) and Manu Ginobili (#57), and a few fillers (Jeff Foster #21, Kenny Thomas #22, Devean George #23, and Gordon Giricek #40).

Knick fans remember this draft for grabbing Frederic Weis one pick before Ron Artest, but that may not have been the biggest bust of the draft. As I previously mentioned the top 10 all netted solid players except for Bender. If you want to excuse him for injury, then nearly every pick 11-14 (except for Maggette) could be seen as failures as well. Trajan Langdon at #11 is a candidate, although he’s had a good career overseas. Aleksandar Radojevic (from the powerhouse Barton County Community College) was taken 3 picks prior to Weis. And the Timberwolves struck out the pick before New York’s with Duke’s William Avery.

So how might this draft have turned out? Here’s my re-draft, not necessarily in order of how they should have been taken. But rather in how one alternate earth might have been for the first 16 picks.

#1 Chicago – Elton Brand
The Bulls made the right pick. Actually in our reality they made 2 right picks with Artest at #15. The problem was that they gave up on that team too early. Chicago could have been a mid-west powerhouse with Brand, Artest, and Brad Miller with a supporting cast of Jamal Crawford, Fred Hoiberg and Jake Voskuhl. The problem was the team was still young & surrounded with little else. Marcus Fizer? Khalid El-Amin? Corey Benjamin? Bryce Drew? Michael Ruffin? Dragan Tarlac? Dalibor Bagaric? No wonder they won 15 games in 2001.

#2 Vancouver – Lamar Odom
Vancouver didn’t deserve Steve Francis, but they didn’t really need him either. They had grabbed Mike Bibby in the draft before, and as New Yorkers learned Francis didn’t play well with other point guards. Instead they should have grabbed Odom. The Grizzlies had an awful team, but Bibby, Odom, and Shareef Abdur-Rahem would have been a respectable threesome. Looking at their history, they were doomed to failure by their poor drafts Reeves #6, Abdur Rahim #3, and Antonio Daniels #4 is hardly the core you want to build a franchise on.

#3 Charlotte – Baron Davis
Davis was the right pick here.

#4 Los Angeles Clippers – Steve Francis
Now these two deserved each other.

#5 Toronto – Ron Artest (traded to Indiana)
The Raptors originally drafted Bender and traded him for Antonio Davis. Why would Toronto do such a thing? They have Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Doug Christie. So there goes the shooting guards and small forwards. They could use a point guard, but that isn’t a priority with Carter & McGrady taking up a big share of the offense. They need a big man, but there really aren’t any in this draft (Jeff Foster?). I see why they traded this pick, they had two dynamic scorers and needed some front court depth (past Charles Oakley). So I have the Raptors trading this pick still, and Indiana selecting Ron Artest instead. The Pacers would end up with Ron after a few seasons later anyway. The Pacers would have Artest to defend Allan Houston in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals (which Indana won) but they could also use him to shut down Kobe Bryant in the Finals (which they lost in 6).

#6 Minnesota – Manu Ginobili
I’m going to go out on a limb here. Before Garnett went to Boston and won a title, people argued how the league would have been if he had swapped teams with Tim Duncan. That the two were equally good, and Duncan won those championships because of his supporting cast. So let’s see how Garnett would have done with the Argentine at his side. Also in this Bizzaro universe Kevin McHale would be a genius.

#7 Washington – Rip Hamilton
Washington really sucked. It doesn’t matter who they draft here. The guy is going to be gone by the time Jordan arrives. Might as well be Rip so that the Pistons improbable championship still occurs.

#8 Cleveland – Shawn Marion
Cleveland took who they thought was the best guy on the board, Andre Miller. And normally I agree with such a signing, except the Cavs had two young (but undersized) guards on their roster already: Brevin Knight and Earl Boykins. Miller’s arrival meant that both would be gone within a year. Cleveland let Boykins go, but traded Brevin Knight for Jimmy Jackson, Anthony Johnson and Larry Robinson. All three would be off Cleveland’s roster by the next season. I hate it when a team overloads at one position and fails to net anything substantial from trades. If we’re not taking Andre Miller here, then you can have an up-tempo team with Knight/Boykins. So I think Shawn Marion is the right fit here.

#9 Phoenix – Corey Maggette
The Suns are probably crushed that they didn’t get Marion. They have Jason Kidd, and are about to offer Anfernee Hardaway to a huge contract. Maggette’s scoring and rebounding would be adequate in lieu of Marion’s energy game.

#10 Atlanta – Trajan Langdon
The Hawks have Mutombo and Rider and are in dire need of a point guard. So with Andre Miller on the board, they’re going to draft Trajan Langdon. This way by 2005 they’ll have learned their lesson and take Deron Williams or Chris Paul with the #2 pick instead of Marvin Williams.

#11 Cleveland – Jason Terry
With the Cavs comitting to an up-tempo offense with their #8 pick, they should take Terry here. Knight, Terry, Marion, and Donyell Marshall are undersized, but should make for a laser fast offense. With Zydrunas healthy in 2011, that’s not such a bad team.

#12 Toronto – Aleksandar Radojevic
As I said earlier, the Raptors really need front court depth, so this is why they reached for the 7-3 Euro. And this is why you don’t draft for need.

#13 Seattle – Wally Szczerbiak (traded to Orlando)
The Magic who acquire this pick in a trade have Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, and Ben Wallace. They need someone who can score, and don’t care about defense. Wally fits the bill here.

#14 Minnesota – James Posey
In this world, McHale is a genius, and the best player on the board is Andrei Kirilenko. But taking Kirilenko after reaching for an unknown in Ginobili would get him fired. Also having Kirilenko and Garnett on the court at the same time would be too weird. That’s like 60 combined feet of skinny arms & legs. Terrell Brandon, Manu Ginobili, James Posey, Kevin Garnett, and Rasho Nesterovic – that’s a nice team for 2000.

#15 New York – Andrei Kirilenko
Ahhh to dream. The Knicks dared to take a European, but clearly the wrong one. In 2000, Kirilenko would have fit in well with that Knicks team giving them so much depth. The starters would have been Ward, Houston, Sprewell, LJ and Ewing with Camby, Kurt Thomas, Childs and Kirilenko off the bench. That’s one scary team defensively. Additionally AK-47’s arrival might have prevented the team from trading Ewing for Glenn Rice, keeping the franchise from self destruction via salary cap. Perhaps the 2001 Knicks with Camby starting, Ewing coming off the bench, the addition of Mark Jackson, and Kirlenko instead of Rice could have given the team another title run.

#16 Chicago – Andre Miller
Here are your early aughts Bulls: Andre Miller, Jamal Crawford, Toni Kukoc, Elton Brand, and Brad Miller. Not a bad rebuild post-Jordan. Try not to break that team up this time.

Addition By Subtraction?

Here in Georgia, we’ve struggled with drought for several years. Last fall, folks with lakefront lots on Lake Lanier saw their boats sitting on mud flats, and Atlanta was down to its last 60 days of water.  Governor Sonny Perdue decided to organize a prayer circle and pray for rain. (He also sued Florida and Alabama). A few hours after the group prayer on the steps of the state Capitol, the clouds burst and Lo! there was rain. What does this have to do with basketball? Well, the Knicks have gone through a long drought….

But I promised to talk about “addition by subtraction.” Posters offered: 1) trading Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd; 2)  trading Marbury for Steve Nash; 3) trading Zach Randolph for Steve Francis & Channing Frye; 4) trading Isaiah Rider for Sean Rooks & change; 5) trading Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue; 6) Firing John McLeod (!) and  7) trading Allen Iverson for Andre Miller.  

It’s clear that to most people, “addition by subtraction” means “trading a star player.” But usually, a player “subtracted” means others “added.” After all, Channing Frye’s mother doesn’t refer to “the Zach Randolph trade.” In some of these examples, one team did get a lot better – but the key was clearly the addition (MVP Nash, 2nd-place MVP Kidd) — NOT the subtraction.  Other examples are more complicated. The Blazers got substantially better after dumping Randolph, as did the 76ers after buying out Webber. The Sixers also improved after trading their superstar for a supposed role player. Are these examples of better chemistry? 

The year he was cut, despite a high usage rate of 23.4, Webber had a TS% of 40.9 and was one of the worst defenders in the league. Not surprisingly, his replacements were better. Randolph’s minutes were largely taken by LaMarcus Aldridge; some of his shots went to Brandon Roy. Both players are more efficient shooters than Randolph, and better defenders. Portland also got back the services of Joel Przybilla, who missed 2006-2007 due to injury. While Randolph is an excellent rebounder, Przybilla is even better – a rebound rate almost 20 percent higher. He’s also a good defender. Meanwhile, as Ted Nelson noted, even before the trade some people considered Andre Miller an equal or better player to Allen Iverson.

Which brings us to Stephon Marbury. Some suggest that the Knicks would help themselves most with a buyout, rather than letting Marbury sit on the bench or trading him. In theory, Marbury offers terrible “intangibles,” and cutting him would improve team chemistry, leading others to play better. 

Paraphrasing Dave Berri, in sportswriter-speak “intangibles” are everything but scoring, measured by points-per-game.  The Knickerblogger reader knows better.  “Intangible” just means we can’t measure it. About the only statistic for which we don’t have a pretty reliable measure, is off-the-ball defense. With that in mind – Stephon Marbury doesn’t have bad “intangibles.” He’s just a mediocre player: a slowing 31-year-old: average on offense, abominable on defense and offering little else. Four statistical ranking systems all tell the same story: a steady decline over the past three years, from a starting point either slightly above or slightly below average. 

PER: 16.52, 15.36, 13.84  (15 is average)

WP/48: .092, .070, .050  (.100 is average) 

Roland Rating: +1.5, 0.0, -4.6

Adjusted Plus/minus:  7.57, 2.88, TBD

The Knicks will defend better with Chris Duhon on the floor, and they might play better overall. But that’s not saying the team would play better with Marbury in Boston, or sitting home. Back in Georgia, Sonny Perdue thanked the powers that be for sending rain. Do you prefer a simple explanation, or the intangibles? 

p.s. The Timberwolves improved 14 games the year after trading Isiah Rider. They had several similar players take his minutes; they also gave an extra 800 minutes to Kevin Garnett and replaced Spud Webb with the rookie Marbury. The Spurs didn’t really improve post-Rodman until Tim Duncan arrived. 

The Basketball English To English Dictionary

Language is a living evolving being. It intermingles with many different fields including sports. Phrases like “three strikes” and “the whole nine yards” are frequently used outside of sports. Meanwhile sports has acquired words from the English language and gives them a new meaning. A word like “dime” has a totally different meaning when applied to basketball. This guide is intended for those who would like to learn more about basketball terminology. All of these words are borrowed from the English language, but their meanings are radically different from their original meaning. All quotes are made up.

Intangibles (adj) – Statistics other than points per game; Tangible stats like rebounds, blocks, steals, etc.
“Ben Wallace is a phenomenal player because of his intangibles.” – Bill Walton

Proven (adj) – A player who has done this feat once in his career. Frequently used when the player isn’t likely to ever repeat that feat.
“Charles Smith will help the Knicks reach the Finals. He’s a proven 20-8 guy.” – Anonymous analyst, summer 1992

Legitimate (adj) – A player who has been a starter for more than one year. Usually refers to one that is a borderline starter.
“We could probably get a lot back for Willie Green, since he’s a legitimate shooting guard.” – Random message board commenter, Philadelphia suburbs

Winner (n) – A person that was lucky enough to play on a championship team. Today this usually applies to just about anyone who played with Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal.
“Derek Fisher is a great acquisition for Golden State. He’s a proven winner.” – Bill Walton

Choker (n) – A person that was unlucky enough to face Shaq or Duncan late in the playoffs, during one of their championship runs.
“Chris Webber isn’t a winner, he’s a choker.” – Eric Montross

Athletic (adj) – Unskilled. Usually in intangible areas, like rebounding, blocking shots, etc.
“Our team could use an athletic player like Kwame Brown or Tim Thomas.” – No one. Ever.

Glue guy (n) – A valuable player who’s main contribution isn’t using up lots of possessions.
“Andrei Kirilenko is the type of glue guy that every team needs.” – Spokesman, Elmer’s Glue

Energy guy (n) – Unlike some of the aliens you would see on Star Trek (Q, Pah Wraiths, Trelane), these are corporal beings. Usually an illegitimate glue guy that can run the floor in transition, or excels in one intangible part of the game.
“And a fast break dunk by energy guy Tayshaun Prince.” – Kenny Smith

Chemistry (n) – Winning Percentage.
“The Lakers had great chemistry under Shaq, Kobe, and Phil Jackson.” – Jack Nicholson

NBA Less Prone to a Steroid Scandal

When I was a young boy I received a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia for my birthday. This was in the days before the internet, when if you wanted to find out the answer to a question you would need the appropriate book in hand. if you had a book report on space instead of using wikipedia, you needed to have the 30 or so volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. Instead of google, your parents had to know the answer to all of life’s questions (or at least pretend to).

I was a baseball fan for as long as I could remember. Growing up, everyone on my block was a Yankee fan, primarily due to their dominance of the era (or the Mets futility). And since my father was an immigrant with no love for the game, I followed suit. I learned about the game as much as someone could on the street, in little league, and in front of the tv. But it wasn’t until that Baseball Encyclopedia fell on my lap that I could truly delve into the history of baseball. All of a sudden players that were dead decades before I was born came to life. It was easy to imagine Ty Cobb frequently circling the bases when you saw his career numbers: .366 BA, 295 3B, 892 SB. The dominance of Babe Ruth was clear looking at the numbers. His 54 homers in 1920 were more than any other team in the American League. For each era, there were numbers that stood out among the rest: Ted Williams’ .406 BA, Koufax’s 1.73 ERA, McLain’s 31 wins, Ryan’s 383 Ks, and Henderson’s 130 SB to name a few.

Like no other, baseball is ultimately a game of numbers. Just about every fan knows most of the important baseball records by heart, and baseball’s lexicon is filled with statistical references. There are .300 hitters, 20 win pitchers, 100 RBI guys, and the 40-40 club. In baseball statistical accomplishments are on par with championship moments. Kirk Gibson’s home run and the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” are just as historically significant as Aaron’s 715th home run and Joe Dimaggio’s 56 game hit streak. For baseball fans, there are just as many important events that helped to decide championships as there are numerical accomplishments.

The importance of numbers to baseball is why the steroid scandal is so damaging. The last few years baseball players have done things that for decades seemed impossible. It took Marris 34 years to break Ruth’s mark, and no one else was able to hit 60 in the 37 years since that event. For years very few pitchers reached the age of 40, and those that did where either knuckleballers like Hoyt Wilhelm or Phil Niekro or former fireballers reduced to marshmallow tossers like Jim Kaat and Tom Seaver. But then all of a sudden the game changed. The 60 home run mark is surpassed 6 times in 4 years. And Roger Clemens kept his fastball and won two more Cy Youngs past his 40th birthday. In baseball numbers that were holy had become desecrated, and the result is that baseball’s numerical legacy, which helped endear it to so many people, had become meaningless.

While it would be naive to think that baseball is the only sport that has players who are abusing steroids, it is probably the only mainstream sport that would suffer greatly from a steroid controversy. An NFL player is more likely to improve due to steroids, but the sport barely blinked an eye when one of it’s marquee players was caught using. Shawn Merriman was suspended for a few games, but was still voted to the Pro Bowl.

But I think basketball would be less immune to a steroid scandal than either baseball or football. The main reason is that basketball doesn’t lend itself to numbers like baseball does. Unlike baseball where there are many great statistical historical moments, in basketball there are very few. Other than Wilt’s 100 point game, and maybe his 50 ppg season, there aren’t many basketball numbers that matter. Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you who has the NBA’s single season high in assists, rebounds, blocks, or steals. Instead basketball’s history is defined by events like Willis Reed’s game 7, Jordan’s shot against the Jazz, and “Havlicek Stole the Ball”. The NBA is also defined by their rivalries. Wilt vs. Russell. Bird vs. Magic. Shaq vs. Duncan. Jordan vs. Everyone.

So what would happen if the NBA were hit with a steroid scandal similar to the MLBs? In baseball it seems that steroids does two things: slow down the aging process and increase the potency of power hitters. But in basketball it’s hard to imagine that steroids would have as large an impact. While there are some areas where an increase in strength would be beneficial, there is still so much else required to be successful in basketball. In other words steroids isn’t going to make you deadly from 18 feet, allow you to make behind the back passes, or add 50 points to your free throw average. The player type that is most likely to improve their on the court performance due to steroids is the aging vet looking for the fountain of youth or bigmen that rely on their physical strength and have little skill.

So although basketball is hindered by not having a rich statistical past like baseball, it helps inoculate the sport from the steroid scandal baseball is currently suffering through. Additionally basketball is reliant on skills that aren’t aided purely by brute strength. Which means steroids can’t turn Dwight Howard into Wilt Chamberlain. And after witnessing what McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens did to baseball, that’s a good thing.

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