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Derrick Rose and the Efficiency Conundrum: The Stats Behind the Stats

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Derrick Rose and the Efficiency Conundrum: The Stats Behind the Stats
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Derrick Rose's MVP candidacy is drawing some controversy from those who are more statistically minded. More efficient players such as Chris Paul, they argue, are actually doing more to help their team win. What they fail to realize are the shortcomings of evaluating players solely by efficiency. 

First, we need to establish what is meant by efficiency, since there seems to be some confusion over what it is exactly.

There are three things which efficiency sometimes refers to. One of them is Hollinger's "Player Efficiency Rating", or more commonly known by its acronym, PER. It is an overall evaluation of players.

Established by a complex formula, PER is considered a controversial basis for evaluating players primarily for two reasons: It rewards bad field goal percentage and it doesn't account for defense. This is not what people mean when they are referring to Rose's efficiency. His PER has him ranked 14th in the NBA

There is also a stat called "Efficiency", which can be found at NBA.com. This is a simpler formula that is also an overall evaluation. Here, Rose is also 14th. Again, this is not the meaning of efficiency the stat-heads are normally referring to.

This stat also has little to do with defense, and with both of these, the stats only show what a player is doing individually and don't say anything about the relative value of the player to his team. 

I'll address why these stats have some shortcomings later, because sometimes they are brought up in the MVP discussion. However, I first want to address what people are normally referring to when they mention efficiency, which is scoring efficiency. 

Scoring efficiency is a simple measure of how efficient a player is at scoring and it combines free throw shooting and field goal shooting to determine the total points scored per field goal attempt. 

The logic is that you have a finite number of possessions in a game, and the more you monopolize on those possessions, the better the chances of your team scoring are. For example, if you score 1.6 points per field goal attempt then your chances of winning are higher than if you score 1.1 points per field goal attempt. 

When some argue that Rose is inefficient, this is what they are talking about. They argue that Rose's scoring is inflated by his superfluous shooting and that his actual efficiency does more to hurt the team than help the team since it is actually slightly below the league average. Rounded off, they are both at 1.23, but Rose is a couple of thousandths of a point off the league average. 

Ergo, according to logic, Rose is forcing up bad shots rather than passing the ball to an open man who has a better shot. Some argue that he's "selfish" and inflating his own stats at the expense of the benefit of the team. 

Those who watch the Bulls regularly are incredulous at this argument. Arguing with someone who says that Rose is selfish is like arguing with someone who believes that the universe was born out of a union between Care Bears and rainbow unicorns. The words "Rose" and "selfish" are so disparate that it's just flat wrong. 

The statisticians are looking at some facts though. Rose is third in the NBA in field goal attempts and he's a point guard.  The only other point guard in the top 20 is Russell Westbrook and his efficiency is higher, at 1.28. 

The far better point guard, and MVP candidate, is Chris Paul they argue, who scores only six fewer points on just a tad more than half the number of field goal attempts. Certainly, Chris Paul deserves consideration for MVP and his efficiency is a big part of the reason why. However, to rush judgment on this and compare it to Rose is premature. 

There's more to the game than just efficiency. Before doing anything, we should ask ourselves one question: Does the theory hold? Is Rose's shooting extraneous? Do the Bulls win less when he shoots more? If that's not true, then the theory itself is irrelevant. Some have postulated a corollary with Kobe Bryant's 20 shot phenomenon and the Lakers' struggles.  

Rose has shot 20 or more times in 26 games. The Bulls record in those games is 19-7, a winning percentage of 73.0 percent. In games where he has taken less than 20 shots the Bulls record is 15-6, for a 71 percent winning percentage. While the difference is marginal, when Rose shoots more than 20 times, the chances of the Bulls winning go up, not down. 

So now the question isn't whether Rose is losing the Bulls games with his shooting—he isn't. The real question should be why isn't he?

Now, as promised, I'd like to point to some things that are consistent with all the definitions of efficiency. The question isn't what's wrong with Rose, it's what's wrong with the theory. The stats are not "lying" so to speak, they just aren't saying what we expect them to say. 

The reason for this is that they aren't saying something they haven't been designed to say. The problem is that they treat all points the same. While objectively that may be true, in terms of the impact on the game it isn't true. 

Fans need to keep in mind that all offenses aren't run the same. As a result, not all point guards are asked to do the same things.

Rajon Rondo is often criticized for his low scoring, but that's partly a product of the offense he runs. His league-leading assist average is a result of his style of play and what he's asked to do. He, along with Chris Paul, shouldn't be faulted for running the offense they run.

The same goes for Rose.

The Bulls' offensive system is designed to put the ball in his hands. He leads all point guards in terms of usage percentage. Over the course of the season so far 1,183 plays have gone through Rose, while only 786 have gone through Paul. Rose is asked to do more.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Not only that, but he's also asked to do more difficult things. Isolation plays are probably the most difficult thing point guards are asked to do in terms of ball handling. In doing this, they are asked to penetrate the lane, split the defenders and score. 

When it comes to scoring on isolation plays, Rose is more successful than Paul, scoring 1.04 points per play compared to Paul's 0.99. He's also run it about 33 percent more often. In fact, Rose is more effective at this than any point guard in the NBA.

It's important to understand this because this is the root of the Bulls' entire offensive scheme. Rose's ability to penetrate and break down defenses is the basis of the entire offense. Defensive schemes need to be adjusted to compensate. He consistently draws double teams, and forces teams into zone defenses.

Double teams open up outside shots for other players, like Luol Deng and Kyle Korver. Other times, they cause opponents to put Carlos Boozer into one-on-one situations in the paint, where he will almost always have a mismatch—few players in the NBA can defend Boozer one-on-one in the post. 

Furthermore, while Paul's three-point percentage is higher, the number he has made is actually fewer. In fact, Rose has made nearly 50 percent more three-pointers than Paul.

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His ability to shoot from the outside forces teams to come out and guard him on the perimeter. Because of his speed and ability to move with the ball, that's terrifying for defenses and have some calling him "unguardable."  

There are those who also point to Rose's high turnover rate compared to Paul as an example of how he is hurting his team. This fails to take into account the fact that Rose is handling the ball more often, making it misleading to take his turnover total into account. In actuality, his turnover percentage of 13.1 percent is the lowest of any point guard in the NBA that is averaging at least five assists.

So the statisticians need to take these stats into account along with their efficiency stats. Derrick Rose runs the most difficult ball-handling play there is, more often than anyone else and better than anyone else. He sets up the entire Bulls offense, and turns the ball over less frequently than any point guard in the NBA. Is that sounding a little more MVP-like? 

Now, I'd also like to point out another thing that is absent from these efficiency stats—the fact that they don't take unassisted scoring into account. To explain this, let me ask you this question: Why is an assist a stat at all? A player passes the ball to another player who scores. Why does he get credit for that?

The reason is that by some measure he "assisted" in the points being scored. Either through breaking down the defense, or through his vision of the court, he aided the shooter in setting up the shot.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

Some shots, however, are unassisted. In those cases the player assisted himself, he created his own shot. So why does a player get credit if he sets up a shot for someone else, but not when he sets one up for himself?

I point this out because no player in the NBA has more unassisted points than Derrick Rose. If you factor in one half of an assist for every unassisted basket he's scored, then Rose vaults from 14th in efficiency to second, trailing only LeBron James. This illustrates that the flaw is in the statistic, not in Rose's play. 

Keep in mind that so far we've only been looking at Rose's production on one end of the court. The statistically minded need to remember that the statistics are objective and they need to be kept in mind on both ends of the court. 

On defense, Derrick Rose makes a case as well. He yields .75 points per play overall. Compare this to some of the other elite point guards: Chris Paul gives up .85, Deron Williams gives up .90, Russell Westbrook gives up .89, and Rajon Rondo gives up .80. Statistically speaking, if you define defense as actually stopping the other team from scoring, Derrick Rose is the best point guard in the NBA. 

In actuality, if you're making a statistical argument that does not focus solely on efficiency, but also takes into account all other aspects of a player's game as well, then the MVP conversation gets narrowed down to two candidates—LeBron James and Derrick Rose.

Consider this: The two teams have the exact same record. The Heat played about 10 games where they didn't have their Big Three; the Bulls have only played about nine games where they did have their big three. Yet the two teams have the same record. 

This brings us to the meaning of the award itself, which while not officially defined as such, has come to recognize the player who has done the most to make his team an elite team. Chicago wasn't expected to be elite even if they had their team healthy. The main reason they are where they are is Derrick Rose.

Simply put, he's done more to carry his team through adversity than even LeBron James. This isn't a knock on James, rather it's a compliment to Wade. Take away James from the Heat this season, and Rose from the Bulls: Does anyone really believe that the two teams would still have the same record?

There's a reason that Derrick Rose is in the conversation. The efficiency numbers are just not telling you the things they aren't designed to tell you. They aren't "lying"—they just aren't telling the whole story either. When you look at the whole story, you can't help but recognize that the Derrick Rose story is an MVP story. The end. 

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