Game 4 Should End Jordan Comparisons

Yesterday’s Game 4 of the NBA’s Finals was one for the ages. The Celtics were down by 24 points, but rallied back for a 97-91 victory. The Lakers went into the game down 2 games to 1 in a series where Boston held the home court advantage. It was a game they needed to win. With a laughable half time lead, it was a game they should have won.

As odd and unbelievable as Game 4 was, this whole series has had an odd feel to it. The Celtics, who were 9 games better than their opponents, came into the series as an underdog. And on a whole they’ve gotten little to no respect from the media. After Los Angeles’ Game 3 win, both PTI hosts said the series had shifted in their favor. Come again? The team that was worse in the regular season and that doesn’t have home court advantage is down 2-1 and they have the advantage?

But what stuck in my mind the most was Stephen A. Smith’s gushing over Kobe Bryant prior to Game 1, comparing Kobe favorably to Jordan. Although I tend to ignore everything that Smith says (yells? screams? – he really doesn’t talk as much as he just shouts his opinion), this one got to me because recently I watched an interview where Kobe scoffed at the question. It seems he can’t avoid being compared to Michael. Back in 2003 Rick Reilly wrote an article comparing Kobe to Jordan titled: “Like Mike, or Even Better”. Last year Jamele Hill wrote: “Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan. Not more successful… But he’s a better player. Kobe can do everything Michael did, and even a few things Michael couldn’t do.”

In that Reilly interview, a younger Kobe Bryant was quoted as saying: “People want to compare me with Michael in his prime, and that’s unfair. I don’t think I’m in my prime yet. I think a player’s prime is, like, 26 to 30. I’m only 24.” In another month Bryant turns 30, so I guess it’s now fair to compare the two. By the age of 30 Jordan had 3 MVPs, 3 Finals MVPs, a Defensive Player of the Year, and retired to play some minor league baseball. Kobe has only 1 MVP and 3 rings. But Kobe’s rings were earned being second fiddle, not first violin.

By the age of 30 Jordan was unquestionably the league’s best player. He led the league in PER from 1987 to 1993. And upon returning from his baseball experiment Jordan would add 3 more Finals MVP awards and 2 more MVPs. All arguments during Jordan’s prime was who was the second best. You couldn’t argue with a straight face that any of Barkley, Robinson, Malone, Stockton, Ewing, Robinson, or Olajuwon were better than Jordan. But the same can’t be said of Kobe. Today you could debate whether Duncan, Nash, LeBron or Wade are better than Kobe.

But Jordan has one more feather in his cap when doing player comparisons. Jordan’s career has a mystique to it due to his accomplishments during the playoffs. During his prime, Jordan failed to lead his team to the championship once, and he gets a pass because he was returning from a year and a half hiatus. You could argue that at his peak, Jordan was unbeatable. So last night’s Game 4 was another example of Kobe coming up short of Jordan. In a pivotal playoff game, Kobe Bryant shot 6-19 and let a 24 point lead evaporate. It was the kind of performance you’d see in a Jordan playoff game, but usually by one of the Bulls’ defeated opponents.

Combining Jordan’s dominance over the league with his seemingly perfect playoff record makes him an indomitable legend to overcome. Michael Jordan may not have become so mythical if he had missed one of those game winning shots, was called for an offensive foul against Byron Russell, didn’t have Pippen or Jackson or Rodman, etc. To top Jordan, a player would not only have to be above his peers in terms of athleticism, skill, and determination, but also the luck to have an unblemished playoff record.

Let’s assume that Jordan’s team were so dominant that each year they had a 90% chance of winning the title in his 6 championship seasons. The chance of Jordan winning 6 championships without losing once is only 53% (0.9^6). So even if a player would come along as dominant as Jordan, they would need a little luck to match Jordan’s career playoff record of 6 “perfect” championships.

For years Kobe Bryant has been asking to not be compared to Jordan. Unfortunately last night’s game may give him what he’s been asking for. For Kobe Bryant to achieve the status of Michael Jordan’s equal, he’d have to pull his team out from this 3-1 deficit and lead them to victory. In other words, he would need a Jordanesque performance.

Do Stats Lie?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the greatest offensive team of the last 20 years. Led by Michael Adams and Orlando Woolridge the mighty 1991 Denver Nuggets punished opponents by scoring 119.9 points a night. That Nuggets offense just beats out the the 1992 Mullin-Hardaway Warriors (118.7 pts/g) and the 1989 Chambers-K.J. Suns (118.6 pts/g). Certainly since the 1991 Denver Nuggets scored more points per game than any team since 1987, they were the NBA’s best offense in that timespan.

Or are they? This seems to be a dubious claim. Looking at the 1991 Nuggets, none of the players were voted to the All Star team that year. There aren’t any Hall of Famers on that team. Denver went a rancid 20-62 that year. Of the three teams above, there are no champions. No Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson. No Larry Bird. No Shaq. No Steve Nash.

How can a 20-win team be one of the great offensive teams of all time? You might say that the stats are “lying” because they’re misrepresenting what we believe to be true. But that’s not the case. The numbers are 100% accurate. If you watched every game of the last 20 years, you would not have found a team that scored more points in a season than the 1991 Nuggets. Saying the 1991 Nuggets scored the most points per game in the last 20 years is true. Saying the 1991 Nuggets are the best offensive team in the last 20 years is false. The deception is in the interpretation of the statistics, not in the stats themselves. The problem is in equating “most points per game” with “best offensive team”. The correct interpretation for “most points per game” is “most bountiful offense”, which is quite different from “best offensive team”.

Take this example: Going into the 2007 season, the Chicago Bears have a good chance to win the Super Bowl. One vegas line has their odds at 8-1 to win it all. One of their best players is Rex Grossman who has a fantastic 17-5 record as a starting QB.

Once you pick yourself off the floor laughing, it’s easy to see where the fallacy is. The Bears do have a good chance to win the Super Bowl this year. Their odds to win, at least from one vegas site, is 8-1. Rex Grossman has a 17-5 record as a starter. All these things are true. However they’re not one of the best teams in the NFL due to their QB. Rex Grossman is by all accounts a bad quarterback. Carson Palmer, an All Pro, has a winning percentage of only 55.6%. The deception is in saying that QB win percentage indicates the quality of the QB. There are better ways to judge the ability of a QB like completion percentage, TD-INT ratio, yards per attempt, etc.

Getting back to our original example, those 1991 Nuggets scored so many points per game because they ran a very fast offense (and also a very fast defense). Denver led the league in pace averaging 113.7 possessions per game. To show how much an aberration this was, the league average was only 97.8 and the second fastest team was the Golden State Warriors at 103.6 possessions per game. A team can increase its points per game by simply increasing its pace. This reveals a flaw in the relationship between “points per game” and “best offense.” It’s obvious that points per game isn’t the best measure of a team’s offensive capability.

To more accurately judge which team had the best offense, you need to account for this disparity in possessions per game. Offensive efficiency, sometimes known as offensive rating, calculates how many points a team scores per possession (or more accurately 100 possessions). The importance of offensive efficiency is that it evens the playing field between the fast and slow paced teams. The 1991 Nuggets had an offensive efficiency of 105.2, which placed them 21st out of 27 teams that year. The best offensive team in 1991? The Chicago Bulls, who scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions. This was Jordan’s first championship team, and clearly they were better than the Nuggets on offense that year.

In the end, stats don’t lie. They are numerical records of history. The 1991 Denver Nuggets did score 119.9 points per game. Rex Grossman had a record of 17-5 as a starter going into 2007. The problem is not in the numbers, but rather the people that use these statistics to make claims that they don’t support.


Extras:

  • For more information on points per possession, check out Dean Oliver’s excellent book: Basketball On Paper. Or read this and that.
  • During the season I keep track of offensive efficiency on the stats page. Historical offensive efficiency can be found at basketball-reference.com
  • The team with the highest offensive efficiency over the last 20 years? The 1996 Bulls at 115.8. Does this make them the best offensive team of the last 20 years? Well you might want to account for league average, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  • For more information on the 1991 Nuggets, see this link.
  • For a really good way to rate QBs, I would use DVOA.

Tip Off

Tuesday on PTI, the lead story was about the upcoming NBA draft. The consensus is that either Oden or Kevin Durant will be taken first overall, and according to PTI hosts Wilbon & Kornheiser the Portland Trailblazers are uncertain who they’ll take with the first pick. This draft is thought to be the deepest one is years which makes it a special time in sports history, one that we can look back on and say “I remember when …” For instance, someone who witnessed the 1984 draft can say that they saw four future Hall of Famers (Olajuwon, Jordan, Barkley, and Stockton) get drafted, in addition to talented players like Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, Sam Perkins, Michael Cage, and Alvin Robinson.

Speaking of the 1984 NBA draft, the good folks at Da Capo Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Filip Bondy’s new book. In Tip Off, Bondy sends us back in time with as much behind the scenes information as possible. The book moves at a meticulous pace, as each chapter centers around one person. We get to experience the draft from the perspective of the draftees as well as the front office people that are making the decisions. In a fresh departure from today’s obnoxious sports talk, Bondy doesn’t pass judgment on the characters. Everyone from Bobby Knight to Charles Barkley is presented as human beings trying to do their best given the circumstances of the day. Even the Portland Trailblazers, typically vilified for passing on Jordan, are portrayed as sympathetic players who don’t have the liberty of foresight.

Filip Bondy gives a factual and evenhanded look back at everyone involved. Tip Off lacks any sensationalism; the stories make the book so intriguing. For instance the book talks about Bulls briefly considered trading the #3 pick to Houston for Ralph Sampson, Charles Barkley using the Olympic tryouts as a springboard to a better draft spot, and Michael Jordan’s fierce competitiveness developing even in college. If you’re itching for NBA action during the offseason or are just curious what goes on behind the scenes in the draft, Tip Off should be on your summer reading list.

Striking Gold in the Alamo

A League of Their Own
The current prevailing opinion is that there are three clear cut NBA Championship contenders?Spurs, Mavs, and Suns?with the rest of the league on the outside looking in. We as objective analysts make our living proving popular opinion wrong?except when it?s exactly right on the money.

The Spurs, Mavs, and Suns really are the three best teams in the league. How do we know this? We could point to Win-Loss record, but that?s somewhat subject to randomness at this point. In other words, it?s subject to luck and luck is neither an indicator of quality, nor has any ?predictive? worth. Instead, we?ll look at the expected win percentage calculated from the margin of victory for each team. Much has been written about using expected wins to predict which teams have been under or over performing their actual records. In fact, this metric is actually a better tool for simply judging a team?s quality in the first place since it takes into account every single play of the season and does not overvalue a lucky bounce or two.

The Spurs (+8.8), Suns (+6.9), and Mavs (+6.8) rank first, second, and third in win margin, respectively. All three have been relatively healthy, but more importantly, they each have a track record of success. These are three of the top five teams for the last several years running. But saying they are the best three does not speak for their quality. These three teams are quite a bit ahead of the next contenders, the Rockets (+5.6) and Bulls (+5.0), who are themselves far ahead from the next grouping of teams. It?s not just that one team is better than another, it?s that they are significantly better than the next?not only are they the best, they are the best by a mile.

This bunching at the top is no surprise. Last season had the same results. The Spurs (+6.8), Pistons (+6.7), Mavs (+6.1), and Suns (+5.6) finished at the top of the league in win margin, with a considerable drop to the fifth best team, and eventual NBA Champion, the Heat (+3.9).

The Gold Standard
Look at those win margins again: +8.8, +6.9, +6.8. Which of those three does not belong? If the Spurs, Suns, and Mavs are the three best teams in the league, it?s certainly not a case of take your pick for which one these is the NBA?s gold standard. That distinction belongs to the Spurs (+8.8) and to the Spurs alone.

In fact, one could argue that the NBA title picture should say Spurs, then everyone else. The Spurs rank first the way Tiger Woods is ahead of Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, or how Spitzer won the gubernatorial election, or how Ali beat Sonny. The Spurs are two points per game ahead of the Suns, which translates to four wins in the final standings. Two points and four wins doesn?t seem a lot, and it shouldn?t if we?re talking about average to above average, since it?s relatively easy to improve a team from forty to forty-four wins. But it?s considerably more difficult to get an already elite team into another stratosphere of competitive value, to go from sixty-two to sixty-six wins.

Think of the improvement with the analogy of PER. For a player to improve his rating from the league average, 15, and get to above average, 18, is relatively easy?but it?s considerably more difficult to go from a MVP-level season, 27, and genetically morph into Michael Jordan, 30. This is actually exactly what the Spurs have done. And they?ve done it with excellence on both sides of the court.

Characteristically, the Spurs rank second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, behind Houston, who has a mediocre offense. The Spurs also rank fourth in Offensive Efficiency behind the Suns, Wizards, and Pistons. The Wizards are as bad at defense as they are good in offense. The Piston?s slip in defense pushes them to merely above average. The Suns are a good, but not great, defensive team, which coupled with their league-leading offense, is enough to make them the second best team in the league behind the Spurs. For the record, the Mavs are sixth in offense and fifth in defense, so they?re no slouches either. They?re like the Spurs-lite?the less filling, low-calorie version.

The Spurs are not getting much press at the time since they haven?t had a double-digit win streak, and are basically under-performing their expected wins, but nonetheless, if you?re looking to find a team to top your power rankings, make a stop at the Alamo.

The Best Spurs Team Ever
The Spurs are currently outplaying their opponents at the rate of +10.0 points per one-hundred possessions?that?s not good, it?s scary. There are about fifty games left to be played, but at this pace, this years version of the Tim Duncan’s Spurs would be the first to have better than a +10.0 in efficiency. We are looking at possibly the best Spurs season ever. And mind you, the man has already won three championships.

The lowest spread for any Duncan non-rookie season was +6.3, which put them on pace for 57 wins. Of course, that?s one of the years they won the Championship, beating the Nets in six games. The Spurs best regular season was +9.6 in ?00-01. They were expected to win 63, only won 58, then they were swept out of the conference finals by the Lakers, whose only playoff loss that year came in overtime of Game 1 of the Finals to Allen Iverson?s Sixers.

Tim Duncan?s San Antonio Spurs?point differential per 100 possessions

?06-07: +10.0 (through 33 games)
?05-06: +8.0
?04-05: +9.1
?03-04: +8.3
?02-03: +6.3
?01-02: +7.1
?00-01: +9.6
?99-00: +7.0
?98-99: +8.9
?97-98: +4.8

Subjectively, this outstanding quality is hard for us to notice because the Spurs are always an excellent team. It?s easy to notice the change from bad to good, or to see that the acquisition of a new player has had a positive effect on a team. What we don?t often notice is the ascent from elite to absolute, relentless powerhouse.

Year after year the Spurs produce at an incredibly high level, with machine-like consistency, led by one of the greatest players of his generation, who also happens to have almost no marketable personality to speak of. In a very real sense, we take them completely for granted.

A lot could change in the next fifty games. Just because they?re on pace to be a team for the ages, of course, doesn?t mean they?ll finish this way. Blowouts do have more effects on the numbers. But then again, winning by a blowout (and not losing by blowout) is a good indicator of a quality team. And, of course, as evidenced by previous Spurs seasons, having an outstanding regular season win margin doesn?t guarantee you the championship. It just makes you the favorite.


Michael Zannettis has a Masters in Public Policy and writes regularly on his blog, www.michaelzannettis.com, exploring topics such as politics, science, humor, and what young people do with their free time. His first full-length manuscript, ?At the Feet of Giants?, is currently in search of a publisher. He lives in Astoria where he often dramatically reenacts the Larry Johnson four-point play at the local playground.