Years ago ESPN’s John Hollinger came up with his Player Efficiency Rating, otherwise known as PER. Using a complex formula, PER tries to measure a player’s performance on a per-minute basis, adjusted for the pace of the game.
The system is designed so that a PER score of 15 is the league average for each season. A strong MVP candidate should have a score of at least 27.5, a borderline all-star should have a PER over 20.0, and rotation players should have a score greater than 13.0
Overall, the metric does a decent job of ranking the best players over the worst or average players. However, many people may not agree with historical rankings.
For instance, David Robinson is listed higher than Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Neil Johnston are ranked higher than Magic Johnson.
Even Dirk Nowitzki has a higher PER score than Kobe Bryant.
Clearly, there are a lot of intangibles that Hollinger’s system does not take into account.
To illustrate why this system is severely flawed, let’s look at the case of Derek Fisher.
Throughout his career, Derek Fisher has never put up gaudy stats. Over his 14 seasons, Fisher has averaged 9.0 PPG and 3.2 APG while shooting 40 percent FG and 37 percent 3FG. This stat line in itself is nothing special.
Does the PER system do a good job of rating a player's all-around game?
According to Hollinger’s system, Derek Fisher has a career PER of 12.3, which means he is a player who should have been scrounging for minutes throughout his career.
But there is a reason why Pat Riley wanted to sign Fisher over the offseason and make him the starting point guard on the Miami Heat.
PER does not measure many parts of a player’s game—things that Riley recognized.
For instance, Derek Fisher is one of the most clutch players in NBA history. His career is full of many highlights including the “0.4 shot” against San Antonio, the big three-pointers against Orlando in Game 4 of the 2009 Finals, and the fourth quarter scoring against Boston in Game 3 of this year’s Finals.
These highlights don’t include the 2001 NBA Finals, in which he made 53 percent of his three-point attempts.
In addition, Derek Fisher has played in 199 playoff games which is good for the 5th highest mark of all-time. The amount of veteran tricks and playoff experience Fisher possesses is not measured by PER.
His stat of 43 three-pointers made in the NBA Finals is the second most in history behind Robert Horry. And no player tops his career 43 percent three-point accuracy in Finals history.
Another area that PER doesn’t measure is Fisher’s ability to run the offense. Watch some Lakers games closely over the past decade and one will easily notice how the triangle offense flowed much more smoothly with Fisher in the game.
Unlike some other players on his team, Fisher has not been afraid to not make a pass to Kobe when other options may be better for the offense. Can that be measured by PER?
Leadership is another area that Fisher excels at. He has been known over the past few years to be one of the best leaders in the league, serving as President of the National Basketball Players Association and firing up his Lakers teammates countless times with speeches in big playoff games.
Is this aspect of the game measured by PER? The answer is simple: no.
One of the biggest flaws of the PER system is that it poorly measures a player’s defensive abilities. Being that defense is half of the game and strong defense usually leads to winning, this is a major problem.
While much of what Derek Fisher does on defense does not get measured by PER, a better example to illustrate this shortcoming of PER is the case of Bruce Bowen.
During his career, Bowen established himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in NBA history. Not surprisingly he was selected to eight All-Defensive teams.
One of his career highlights was his suffocating defense on Lebron James in the 2007 Finals, where he held James to 22.0 PPG on 36 percent field goal shooting.
Yet, because Bowen never had high steal and block averages, PER was unable to measure the intangibles he brought to the game. Over his career, Bruce Bowen usually had PER scores between six and nine.
If Hollinger’s system was the end-all authority on rating players, Bowen would have been shipped off to the D-League and never would have won his three NBA championships.
Derek Fisher and Bruce Bowen are legendary players for their respective teams, but with Hollinger’s PER system, one would never know this.
This is why a player who is a good shooter but average rebounder and poor defender like Dirk Nowitzki is rated higher than Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, players who have a much better all-around game.
Other analysts are free to use PER as a way to compare players against each other. But due to all of its shortcomings, I just cannot put too much stock into using PER.