Thunder vs. Spurs

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NBA Stats Revolution Now Well-Established, but Not Quite Mainstream

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NBA Stats Revolution Now Well-Established, but Not Quite Mainstream
Bill Kostroun/AP Images

BOSTON — Everyone knows the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns were a brilliantly entertaining, tempo-pushing, scoring machine whose title hopes were undermined only by their horrendous defense.

Everyone knows this, because the Suns gave up 103.3 points a game, the worst mark in the league. Their defense was a punch line, an indictment of their frantic style.

“You can’t win a championship playing that way,” pundits harrumphed. “Their defense is terrible.”

That’s what everyone knew then, anyway.

We now know this narrative was based on a skewed perception, a fatally flawed metric: points per game.

To wit: Playing fast means more possessions. More possessions mean more shots. More shots mean more points. So, of course, the Suns gave up more points than any other team; they played more possessions than any other team.

Adjust for pace, and that 2004-05 Suns team actually ranked 16th in defensive efficiency—average, but not awful.

Except, 10 years ago, no one talked about pace, possessions or efficiency. We didn’t talk about “corner threes” or “long twos” either. Those terms had not entered the lexicon. Today, they are a staple of nearly every NBA conversation.

Suns' and Spurs' 2004-05 stats (rank of 30 )
PPG Def. PPG Off. Rtg Def. Rtg
Suns 110.4 (1) 103.3 (30) 115.0 (1) 107.5 (16)
Spurs 96.2 (18) 88.4 (1) 108.5 (8) 99.6 (1)

Rating of points per 100 possessions per Basketball-Reference.com. The Spurs won the title after beating the Suns in the Western finals.

The way we think about the game, the way we talk about the game, has changed dramatically, and for the better. Credit the statistical revolution, which has forced all of us—fans, media, players, coaches— to think a little deeper.

The basketball conversation has gotten smarter.

“There’s no question,” said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has been at the forefront of the NBA’s analytics movement. “They’re getting a lot more sophisticated on what they understand.”

Some of the brightest minds in sports gathered in Boston this past weekend for the eighth annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where attendees pondered the numbers behind everything from ticket sales to officiating to NFL play-calling. There was even a panel on “using analytics to improve your golf performance.”

Nearly every NBA team sent a representative (or several) to Boston. The other major sports were also well represented.

The Sloan conference is primarily aimed at the serious stat-heads and the teams who employ them. The topics can be dense. Some of the most fascinating work is proprietary and therefore off-limits to the public (a topic well covered by Paul Flannery in Boston magazine).

But you don’t have to be a stat geek to appreciate how far we, the basketball-consuming public, have come in our understanding of the game.

Consider the corner three-pointer. It’s now understood to be the most efficient perimeter shot in the game. The corner is 22 feet from the basket—21 inches closer than the deepest point on the arc—yet is still worth the added point.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

“It’s the best shot on the court that’s not within a foot of the rim,” said Justin Kubatko, the founder of Basketball-Reference.com. “It’s definitely a more efficient shot than a 15-footer.”

It would be hard to find a dissenting view now. But that wasn’t the case 10 years ago, when three-pointers in general were still widely viewed as a low-percentage shot or, less charitably, as a gimmick.

A Nexis search on “corner three-pointer” turned up just 96 references in newspapers for all years up to 2004. The same search produced 816 hits from 2004 to 2014.

Along the same lines, it’s now universally understood that the “long two” is the worst shot in the game—a low-percentage gambit that doesn’t even provide the benefit of an extra point. But until the last few years, no one talked about “long twos” either.

When Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens recently said, “We all know a 33 percent three-point shooter is better than a 47 percent two-point shooter,” no one could disagree. Yes, the math works out. And yes, we all know that now.

This isn’t just the new conventional wisdom. It’s a verifiable, indisputable fact.

We now know, too, that field-goal percentage is a poor indicator of a player’s effectiveness, because it fails to account for the added payoff of a three-pointer.

Consider the case of Portland’s Damian Lillard, who is wrongly tagged as a poor shooter because of his .433 field-goal rate. But he shoots a robust .403 on three-pointers, and he takes a lot of them—nearly seven per game. Lillard’s effective field-goal percentage—a metric that is weighted for three-pointers—is .519, the 13th-best mark among guards, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Add in Lillard’s frequent trips to the foul line, and his true shooting percentage—which adjusts for both free throws and three-pointers—is .578, 10th-best among guards.

Bill Kostroun/AP Images

These stats are now available everywhere, including the NBA’s own website. But they remain just outside of the mainstream discussion. The terms haven’t been around long enough for fans to get a feel for them, to understand what qualifies as a “good” effective field-goal percentage.

Part of the problem is that most television broadcasts remain wedded to the old statistics.

“It’s so much harder for TV, because I think they’re trying for a much wider audience,” said John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations who began his career as a stat-focused writer for ESPN.com. “It’s only when something becomes a standard that they really can go to it.”

When Hollinger began writing for ESPN in 2005, he was the only stat-driven writer in the mainstream media. He helped introduce the average fan to most of these terms. He also invented PER, the Player Efficiency Rating, which has become as much an ingrained part of the basketball conversation as the passer rating in football.

“It’s kind of impressive how the public has stayed caught up,” Hollinger said. “I’d say the debate in mainstream media is still well behind.”

David Calvert/Getty Images
John Hollinger, standing, talks with Rockets GM Daryl Morey (left) and Paul Mokeski, an assistant coach in the D-League, during that league's showcase event in January.

Yet even TV is slowly evolving in some cities. Kevin Pelton, a longtime writer for Basketball Prospectus who now works for ESPN.com, knows exactly which local broadcast teams are analytically fluent.

“It’s not all 30 teams, but it’s more than a couple,” Pelton said, naming Orlando, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Clippers as some of the most astute.

“What’s different is now you can throw out a lot of these phrases,” Pelton said, “and before you had to give a couple sentences of explanation.”

Nothing makes a stat-head cringe more than a points-per-game reference, which remain all too common in the mainstream media, TV in particular.

Simple math tells us it makes no sense to assess a team’s offense or defense based on points-per-game averages. A methodical, slow-it-down, half-court team could have an effective offense but still rank low in points per game because it plays fewer possessions.

Kubatko cited the grinding, “painfully slow” Cleveland Cavaliers teams of the 1990s, who “were always on top of the league in ‘scoring against’” because of their slow pace.

“Everybody would talk about their defense,” Kubatko said. “It wasn’t the fact they had a great defense. They just were so slow and so deliberate.”

Ten years ago, it was only the Hollingers, the Peltons and the Kubatkos who were writing about this stuff.

“Ten years ago,” Kubatko said, “you mentioned those things, and people wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.”

Today, most informed fans get it.

Defensive stats leaders, as of Sunday
Blocks per game Defensive Rating Defensive Win Shares
Anthony Davis — 3.0 Roy Hibbert — 95.0 Paul George — 4.9
Serge Ibaka — 2.6 Paul George — 95.1 DeAndre Jordan — 4.4
Roy Hibbert — 2.5 Andrew Bogut — 95.3 Joakim Noah — 4.3
DeAndre Jordan — 2.5 David West — 95.9 Roy Hibbert — 4.2
John Henson — 2.0 Joakim Noah — 96.0 David West — 4.0
Tim Duncan — 2.0 Draymond Green — 96.9 Lance Stephenson — 3.9

Rating and win shares (wins contributed by a player due to his defense) from Basketball-Reference.com.

Today, we can quantify Roy Hibbert’s defensive value by looking at Indiana’s defensive ratings when he is on and off the court, or by looking at opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim. We don’t need to rely solely on blocks and steals and rebounds.

Today, we can filter every player’s shots by distance and location. We can see who shoots best from the left corner, or the top of the arc, or at the rim. We can see which lineup combinations are most effective. We can break down scoring efficiency on a per-minute and per-possession basis. We understand that pace matters.

The conversation is evolving. Slowly, perhaps, but evolving. We’re all stat-heads now.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @HowardBeck

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