Points Per Possession – The April Edition

If you don’t know what points per possesion is, go back and reread my former column about team stats in the NBA. I had some free time & took the team data from 82games.com & put it into a spreadsheet. Here are the teams ranked by points per 100 possessions:

Offense:

Rank	Team	Pts	Poss	OpPts
1 SAC 103.6 91 113
2 DAL 104.5 92 113
3 MIL 98.6 90 109

4 SEA 97 88 109
5 MIN 94.5 87 108
6 LAL 98.6 90 108
7 MEM 97.3 90 107
8 IND 91.1 86 106
9 DEN 97.1 91 106
10 POR 91.2 85 106
11 LAC 95 89 106
12 SAS 91.5 87 105
13 GSW 93.1 88 105
14 ORL 94.6 90 105
15 DET 89.9 86 104
16 HOU 89.3 86 104
17 MIA 90 86 104
18 BOS 94.8 91 104
19 NOR 92 88 104
20 UTA 88.7 85 104
21 CLE 93.3 90 104
22 NYK 92 89 103
23 PHO 94.1 90 103
24 NJN 89.5 87 102
25 PHI 88.3 87 101
26 WAS 91.9 91 101
27 TOR 85.7 86 100
28 ATL 91.2 90 100
29 CHI 89 90 98

Since I did this a little over a month ago, the Knicks have gotten a little better. They were 24th offensively, and now they’re 22nd. The Spurs seem to be the big winners, moving up 7 spots to #12. I guess that’s what happens when you win 17 straight games or is it the other way around? Maybe improving their offense (combined with the best defense in the league) helps you win a bunch of games in a row. The Nets were previously near average at 18th, and now they’re among the bottom at #24. That seems about right with the injuries they’ve had, especially downgrading from Jason Kidd to Lucious Harris.

The top 6 teams are relatively the same. Sacramento & Dallas are still far beyond everyone else in scoring. Milwaukee has crept into the top 3, while Minnesota dropped to 5th, but at that level the changes aren’t significant.

Let’s check out the other side of the ball.

Defense:

Rank	Team	Pts	Poss	dpPts
1 SAS 85 87 97
2 DET 84.7 86 98
3 IND 86 86 99
4 NJN 87.1 88 99
5 HOU 87.2 86 101
6 MIN 89.7 88 102
7 PHI 90.3 87 103
8 TOR 88.6 85 103
9 LAL 94.2 91 104
10 MEM 94.2 90 104
11 MIA 89.9 86 104
12 DEN 96.1 91 105
13 BOS 95.9 91 105
14 NOR 92.2 87 105
15 NYK 93.4 89 105
16 SAC 97.7 91 106
17 GSW 93.8 88 106
18 UTA 89.9 85 106
19 CHI 95.6 90 106
20 MIL 97.3 90 107
21 CLE 95.7 89 107
22 WAS 97.4 91 107
23 ATL 96.7 90 107
24 POR 92.3 85 108
25 PHO 97.7 90 108
26 DAL 100.3 92 109
27 SEA 97.7 88 110
28 LAC 99.1 89 110
29 ORL 101.5 89 113

Over the last 5 weeks, Detroit has upped their ranking to #2, from #5. We all remember the 75 point streak, and you have to wonder how much of that is due to Rasheed Wallace? Same with Boston who has done the most dramatic change. In February, they were ranked 22nd, and now they are 13th! Is John Carroll that much better than Jim O’Brien?

The Knicks’ defense has slipped 4 spots to #15. So the Knicks have gotten better offensively, and worse defensively. Could this be due to the replacing of Mutombo with Nazr Mohammed?

Just to give you a little perspective on how the teams ranked combined in offense and defense, I’ve computed their net points per 100 possessions. This is done by taking the number of points they score per 100 possessions, and subtract it from the number of points they give up per 100 possessions.

Net Points

Rank	Team	OpPts	dpPts	NetpPts
1 SAS 105 97 8
2 IND 106 99 7
3 SAC 113 106 7
4 DET 104 98 6
5 MIN 108 102 6
6 LAL 108 104 4
7 DAL 113 109 4
8 NJN 102 99 3

9 HOU 104 101 3
10 MEM 107 104 3
11 MIL 109 107 2
12 DEN 106 105 1
13 MIA 104 104 0
14 BOS 104 105 -1
15 NOR 104 105 -1
16 GSW 105 106 -1
17 SEA 109 110 -1
18 PHI 101 103 -2
19 NYK 103 105 -2
20 UTA 104 106 -2
21 POR 106 108 -2
22 TOR 100 103 -3
23 CLE 104 107 -3
24 LAC 106 110 -4
25 PHO 103 108 -5
26 WAS 101 107 -6
27 ATL 100 107 -7
28 CHI 98 106 -8
29 ORL 105 113 -8

Dallas is a surprise at number 7, because they have the 4th worst defense in the league. It just shows you exactly how good their offense is. The converse is true with the Nets, who have trouble scoring, but excel at keeping their opponents from doing the same. I wonder if the teams could help each other with a trade, or if they would loose their edge by dealing from their strength?

Don’t start placing your postseason bets solely on that chart above. There are many factors that aren’t covered by the above list. First is injuries. If the Nets’ don’t get Kidd & Martin back, they’ll be lucky to get past the second round. The Lakers have had their players injured for most of the year, and will probably be healthy for the playoffs. Secondly, home court advantage is a big factor in the playoffs. San Antonio might have the best combination of offense & defense, but right now, they’re a 3rd seed. Having to win a series or two (or three!) on the road will diminish their chances at a championship. Finally there are the unforeseeable events, including getting an extra defender.

The Dean Oliver Interview

Baseball is in the midst of a revolution of sorts. No it’s not about steroids or home run records, but rather the wave of statistical analysis that is hitting the league like a Pedro Martinez high and tight fastball. The grandfather of this uprising could be Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers GM. More than half a century ago, he knew there were flaws in measuring a player’s value with stats like BA, RBI, and even fielding percentage. Even though the baseball world ignored these simple findings, other people did not. A small group of people asked: “what are the best tools we have to evaluate baseball players?”

The fathers of the revolution are guys like Bill James, Pete Thorn, and John Palmer, who have given birth to the modern day soldiers. Current GM’s like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Paul Depodesta, and Theo Epstein value statistical analysis over observational appraisal. Columnists like Rob Neyer are part of the mainstream and have forced the old regime to pick up new terms like OPS to adapt. Voros McCracken, a lawyer turned baseball consultant, turned a world of baseball thinkers on their head with his theory that (with few exceptions) pitchers have little effect on a batted ball in play. The movement has hit the streets with a new generation of writers from all walks of life preaching the new credo.

What does this have to do with Dean Oliver? His book is part of a parallel movement in basketball. Dean’s goal with his book is to better understand basketball through statistics. Where current statistics don’t give enough information, Dean creates his own. Whether you’re a casual fan or a failled GM looking for a way to improve your way of thinking, Dean Oliver’s book should be of interest to you.

“Basketball On Paper” tries to answer the tough questions. Is Team A really good defensively or does their slow tempo give that illusion? Read the book. Which team was the best offensive team of all time? Read the book. Can my team benefit from playing a risky strategy or should they tone it down? Read the book. How valuable is Iverson with his low FG%? Read the book.

The fires of same revolt are slowly starting to kindle in basketball. No there are no Billy Beane’s in the front offices of the NBA, yet. Nor is Bill Walton scrambling to learn what PER means. Jon Hollinger’s “Basketball Prospectus”, columns like Kevin Pelton’s Page 23, discussion groups like the APBR, and Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” will change the way people think about basketball, like their sabermetric cousins are currently doing in baseball.

And now, on to the interview:

“Basketball on Paper”:

KB: Since writing your book “Basketball on Paper,” what have you been working on since & what can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve actually been working on marketing the book and convincing NBA teams of the value of this kind of work — any of the type of statistical work that is logical and reasonable to help a team. I have been talking to a number of teams, the league office, and to media. I’ve done a couple of limited studies relating to work I’ve done for years for the Seattle Sonics. I’ve written a couple things and I am outlining another book on statistical approaches to basketball strategy.

KB: What were some of the responses to your book?

I did a radio show down in Tampa and Doc Rivers came up to me after hearing it and really wanted to talk to me and get a copy of the book. That was nice. I sent the book on to Bill James, who in an email to me said it was an excellent book. He is planning an endorsement. I know that some readers get concerned by seeing formulas or numbers of any sort, which is a bit of a shame since they really are there to support stories and lessons of how the game works and how good talent is.

KB: What is missing or what is next in the literature on basketball statistics?

I think what is missing is the same large audience that baseball stats have. There isn’t a lot of money in a lot of the basketball writing at this point. And it’s a difference in the games. Baseball is slow enough that fans can really talk about what’s going on, pull in numbers. Basketball numbers are tremendous, they’re plentiful, and they’re insightful, but the time to use them or to make adjustments based on them is just not there. So fans look for the excitement and coaches make a lot of decisions based on gut feel. I’ve introduced some rules of thumb for hoops that can be applied on the fly, but it’s going to take a little while to catch on.

What is next in line for research is really a translation system for players from one league to the NBA. College stats have the best history, but high school and international leagues have significance now. We’re just catching up on this and it is not an easy problem. I’ve figured a few things out, but I have too many rules like “The Pitino Rule” that are just annoying and not very general. (Basically, Pitino’s system causes some of his players to be overvalued by stats.)

KB: When I read your book, “Basketball on Paper” I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Win Shares” of basketball, because of :

  • It’s ability to try and understand defense, where traditional methods are lacking
  • The clarity in which advanced statistical ideas are presented
  • The author’s humor

Do you see yourself making a book similar to “The New Bill James’ Historical Abstract”, either by making a recount of basketball by historical periods, or by ranking players by position?

I would very likely do such a book in combination with people like John Grasso, Bijan Bayne, Harvey Pollack, and my contacts in the NBA. The statistical library to evaluate the older players is incomplete, so video and news stories would be very important to make some accurate representations. These guys could definitely help. And I wouldn’t want to do what Elliott Kalb did with his book recently either, which is subjectively rank guys without a lot of link to objective evidence. You mention the recount of basketball by historical periods and I have done a lot of that. Total Basketball does some work along these lines, but doesn’t really talk about why Wilt scored 50 ppg in 1962, for instance, which is important. I mention those things — pace, less judiciousness in shot selection, lack of double-teams — in Basketball on Paper and would like to assemble more of that in a book like this.

Is this something that is right around the corner? Probably not. The group of interested basketball historians is growing, but it isn’t large enough to pay for the massive research involved. I hate having to say it that way, but basketball writers do need to make a living.

Stats:

KB: On ESPN’s MLB main stat page, they have a “sabermetric” stat OPS on the main page, and a sabermetric page with such stats as isolated power and runs created. On ESPN’s NBA page, the closest they have to advanced metrics is points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage. How long do you think it will take before the major sports web sites will post stats like your off. Rtg., stop%, or Hollinger’s PER?

We’re getting there. The WNBA will put out possession stats and points per possession stats this year. The WNBA is also quite receptive to some of the defensive work we did with them a couple years ago and we’re hoping to do that again this year. Issuing monthly reports on what individuals forced the most misses would be nice small pieces of information that help that league and intrigue the bigger brother, the NBA.

The NBA does now have something it calls “efficiency”, which is just a sum of the good things minus the bad things, something I’ve heard referred to as “plus/minus” or is almost Tendex or Bob Bellotti’s Points Created. Going to the more advanced individual numbers is going to take a while. Putting team numbers out there first is huge. Then, in a couple years, we can start talking about other stuff. What we don’t want is another NFL-like passer rating stat that everyone jokes about as the lead stat.

KB: How would you define who is the best rebounder in the league? Would you simply look at REB/48min, or are there other considerations (incl. FG% and pace)?

Primarily, rebounders can be evaluated by the percentage of available rebounds they get. With 10 guys on the court, 10% would be average. I think Rodman was up around 20%. This accounts for pace and FG%. What it doesn’t account for is whether it really makes the team a good rebounding team, which is a modifying factor. A guy who gets 15% of available rebounds on a bad rebounding team is not as useful as one who gets 15% on a good rebounding team (because he is competing against his own teammates for boards). But that is relatively small in terms of importance.

KB: Is there a way to translate a player’s college statistics into his success at the professional level?

As I said above, this is one of the most important projects on the front burner. I’m getting better at it by studying the cases that just don’t work the first time and figuring out why.

KB: What has surprised you about the NBA season this year so far?

In terms of wins and losses, there aren’t a lot of surprises. I’m a little surprised at how successful the Nuggets are. I thought they’d be a lot better, but not this much better. I have been surprised by the coaching turnover. Doc Rivers was out quick, though the losing streak made it less surprising. Byron Scott’s firing and the discord between Ainge and Jim O’Brien — those really surprised me. I also was surprised at how cheaply Portland got Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Knicks:

KB: What do you think of the job Isaiah Thomas has done with the Knicks this year?

He wasn’t shy. Being decisive is usually a good thing, but his history in charge generally concerns me. So, picking up Marbury is a nice thing. Marbury is a very good piece to have. I just don’t know if the baggage of the other players, plus the losses were worth it if he’s trying to build a championship team. It’s more important that Isiah know how to follow up the moves he has made than just standing on what he’s got. So he gets a big Incomplete at this point.

KB: If you had to, where would you rank Stephon Marbury among today’s point guards?

Jason Kidd is solidly above him. Otherwise, he is in a class of points who are quite good (Nash, Parker, Billups, Cassell, Payton, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Marbury is the best on the offensive side, but his defense lacks. Intangibly, he’s worn out his welcome a few times now and that matters.

KB: In your opinion, what player (current or former) is Nazr Mohammed most similar to? In the best case scenario what player could he aspire to become?

Curious that you ask that. Curious that the Knicks really valued him. One of my techniques for looking for players is to look at successful players in the league and see what guys are modestly similar to them who may not be getting much time. Mohammed came out modestly similar to a couple prominent big men in a study I did for the Sonics. I think Garnett or Duncan was one. But I have sooo many numbers that suggest he just isn’t going to end up good that I discarded him as a legit possibility. I did all that right before the trade, so I found it very coincidental. Best case: he might be Jamaal Magloire. He just can’t consistently score inside.

KB: Is Kurt Thomas worth $30 over 4 years, or could the Knicks have gotten similar production out of a cheaper and younger player?

Kurt Thomas is serviceable. He’s not a bad player. But he’s just not someone I see as a significant component of a championship team. It’s a risk to go after a younger player, but I would have taken that risk.

One final question:
KB: What do you like best about the Knicks?

Weeellllll, I do tend to root for Lenny Wilkens. He may be old-school and not care about the kind of work that I do, but he’s always seemed like a decent guy.