The NBA's 10 Most Meaningless Stats and Arguments

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2011

The NBA's 10 Most Meaningless Stats and Arguments

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    There's a good chance that debating sports is a hobby of yours. I say that because you're reading an article on a sport on Bleacher Report about debating sports. 

    The key to winning a sports debate is good, sound logic and a grasp of the game. In the process of debating sports though, sometimes those things get left behind. 

    There are some stats, metrics and arguments which are often used that can be helpful. Some, though, can be misleading, while others can be revealing but not all the time.

    Following are the most commonly deceptive arguments that people use when debating basketball. Not all of them are always deceptive, nor are they entirely useless. Some of them are just like fire: They are useful if used appropriately but dangerous if used carelessly.

    Of course, this is all up for debate though.  

Assist-to-Turnover Ratio

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    Assist-to-turnover ratio can be very deceptive, especially if you are talking about players who handle the ball a lot. 

    Ostensibly, assist-to-turnover ratio is intended to be an assessment of a player's passing ability. The problem is that it assumes all turnovers are passing turnovers. Players that handle the ball a lot, though, will have more ball-handling turnovers than those who don't. 

    For example, look at Jason Kidd and Russell Westbrook. Kidd—who really is one of the all-time great point guards, don't think I'm trying to take anything away from him—has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.66. That's good for third in the NBA. Outstanding, right?

    Westbrook, on the other hand, is 48th in the NBA with a a paltry 2.12 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    Here's the thing though: Kidd attempted nine percent of his shots inside while Westbrook attempted 37 percent of his inside. In other words, Westbrook does a lot more ball-handling, driving through traffic and getting to the rim. 

    As a result, he has more ball-handling turnovers, of which you can make what you will. One thing you can't do though is pretend it has anything whatsoever to do with his passing ability. 

    However, when you look at assist-to-turnover ratio, that's what you do. On, they have a better stat, assist/bad pass, where they just look at assists per passing turnover. Based on that, Kidd's is 4.4 and Westbrook's is 5.0...

    If you want to look at passing ability, you're better off using assist-to-bad-pass than assist-to-turnover; it's a far more telling ratio. 


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    Here's the problem I have with using injuries in debates: The utterly disingenuous way that people use them sometimes. Most generally though, it's not the actual using of them I find silly; it's the disregarding of them.

    Two years ago, Kobe Bryant's field-goal percentage plummeted when he sustained an injury to his "guide" finger on his shooting hand. Last year in the playoffs, Derrick Rose sustained a Grade 2 ankle sprain during the playoffs and his field-goal percentage took a dive. 

    Most people know that two of the most important things in your jump shot are where it starts and where it finishes. It starts with your legs and finishes with your follow-through. The actual jump matters. Having a Grade 2 ankle sprain, which means there is tearing in the ligament, affects your jumping. The lift from your jump is where the momentum comes from. 

    The follow-through is where you direct the ball and, specifically, where it rolls off the guide finger of your shooting hand. I know it sounds crazy, but actually being able to shoot requires being able to aim.

    Both injuries really do impact a player, and it's not just a matter of "willing" things. It's not like playing through the flu or something because it's not about bringing your body into submission; it's about the laws of medical science. When there's tearing in the ligament, the body simply cannot respond the same way.

    Disregarding the effect of injuries is just downright specious. Calling them "excuses" doesn't have the magical ability to heal them and help them play on a normal level. There's a difference between nagging injuries which all players play through and injuries which affect play.

    Be intellectually honest. Don't treat all injuries like a toothache. Some injuries aren't excuses; they are reasons. 

Win Scores

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    When you have a metric that tells you that Tyson Chandler is the eighth-best player in the NBA and Kobe Bryant is 52nd, it should cause you pause. That's precisely what Win Score does. 

    Now I'm entirely of the opinion that sometimes metrics or stats will shed light on something and shock you. Shocking doesn't mean a metric is wrong. Sometimes it's just the prevailing view that's wrong. 

    What you should do though is take a look at the metric and the logic behind it and find out if the error is in the metric or the prevailing view. 

    The problem with Win Score (and the proponents of this will argue it until they're blue in the face) is that it penalizes a player for taking a shot whether they make it or not. Every field-goal attempt results in a score of minus-one.

    Take two hypothetical games. One player goes 15-for-30 from the field and scores 30 points and does nothing else. Another player comes in the last minute of the game and gets a rebound. Which player had the better game. 

    According to Win Score, the player that had the rebound. He had a Win Score of one; the player that went 15-for-30 had a Win Score of zero. 

    Ahhh, there we have the problem. It essentially neutralizes scoring as a factor from a player's ability. It's why when you look at the top 39 players in the NBA, only three are guards. 

    The logic for the proponents of this stat is that it still uses a possession, and is therefore a recourse. While they insist on this logic as being all-important, they don't ever actually answer the question about scoring being important. 

    The fact is that possessions aren't a recourse that can be "managed" by not shooting. If a player never "uses" that recourse, then they'll never win a game. By making the possession a recourse, they make the "break even" point for scoring a 50 percent effective field-goal percentage, which virtually makes it obsolete. 

    In short, Win Score is about the most meaningless metric in advanced stats. 

If He Had the Same Teammates...

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    Is Rajon Rondo a great player or just surrounded by great players? There were times this season that, as he was running the team, there were literally over 100,000 points on the court of scoring history for him to choose who to pass to. 

    The Boston Celtics had the best field-goal percentage in the NBA. 

    In addition, he was on the NBA's second-best defensive team and made the All-Defense team. 

    So is Rondo a great passer and a great defender, or just lucky to be in a system where any point guard could succeed because there are three or four (if you count Shaq) future Hall of Fame players on the court with him at the same time?

    Here's the problem with this whole line of reasoning. Once you start invoking the teammate argument, you start opening up the whole notion of omniscience. If Chris Paul were on the Celtics ,would the team be the same?

    Or if Chris Paul were on the Celtics, would we be just dismissing him because he's on a team loaded with Hall of Fame players?

    This argument becomes so malleable that we can literally conjecture whatever we want. We can ascribe the attribute of omniscience to ourselves and create an immaginary world where it is impossible for us to be wrong. 

    Does that mean we can't make reasonable evaluations? No. It's reasonable to conclude that Rondo benefits from being on the Celtics, but how much is impossible to say. The fact is, though,  that he's on the Celtics and is succeeding there. That's what we know.  Everything else is just speculation.

    Debate should focus on the known, not the imagined. While we can't entirely discount hypotheticals, we shouldn't dig our heels into them and build entire cases on them. Would Derrick Rose shoot less and have more assists if Kevin Durant were his teammate? Probably. 

    Would Deron Williams score 25 points and still average 12 assists if he were running the Bulls instead of Derrick Rose as one reader recently argued? That's just hollow conjecture.

    While who is on what team is relevant, caution should be exercised. Otherwise, it just boils down to my made-up world versus yours.  

Player Efficiency Rating or PER

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    Player Efficiency Rating or PER, is the invention of John Hollinger and it is the chief of all NBA metrics. There are others that people have put together, such as Win Scores, Win Shares, Value Index and so on. PER is the most popular though. 

    Here's the basic thing to keep in mind with PER or any metric: They aren't stats. Metrics are formulas which try to combine various stats. Stats are just records of what happened in games. Metrics are opinions. Stats are facts. 

    That doesn't mean that I'm arguing that metrics are wrong; I think they have a lot of value. I'm just saying you have to look at the logic that goes behind a formula. 

    The biggest problem I have with PER is that it doesn't distinguish between an assisted and unassisted field goal. Players who have the ability to create their own shots are an entirely different animal than players who can catch and shoot. 

    Players who can create their own shots change defensive schemes, they draw more attention and they break down defenses. Take Derrick Rose as an example, who had more unassisted field goals than any player in the NBA this year. 

    When he moves towards the rim, defenses implode to stop him, leaving his teammates with wide-open jumpers. As a result, when Rose passes his teammates the ball, they are six percent more likely to make the shot than when he doesn't. 

    That's the value of a player being able to create his own shot. However, in PER, Hollinger doesn't use the actual stats for assisted versus unassisted field goals; he just uses estimates. Joel Treultein of hoopdata has modified PER to use actual numbers and it is a tremendous improvement. It additionally includes charges drawn.

    Here are the top five in APER and their PER and ranking PER.

    Player APER PER PER Rank
    LeBron James 28.97 27.37 1
    Dwyane Wade 27.13 25.70 3
    Dwight Howard 26.38 26.18 2
    Russell Westbrook 26.32 23.60 8
    Derrick Rose 26.26 23.60 9

    As you can see, the players who have the ability to penetrate and draw fouls are much better reflected in APER than in PER.

    Of course, you might argue that APER gives too much emphasis to being able to create your own shots, which is fine. That's not really the point though. The point is that either way, it's an opinion.

    Metrics are statistically based opinions, but they are still opinions. PER is one that has some flaws, but that's my opinion.  

Field-Goal Percentage

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    Field-goal percentage is a stat that tells what it tells but doesn't tell what it doesn't tell. Sometimes people want to make it say more than it actually does.

    The same goes with effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for threes, and true shooting percentage, which accounts for threes and free-throw shooting.

    There are a few reasons for caution.

    First, there's positional bias in these things. For instance, Dwight Howard, who possesses a .598 career free-throw percentage, is 11th all-time in career shooting percentage. He is slightly ahead of Steve Nash, who is arguably the greatest actual shooter in the history of the game. 

    The reason is that the bulk of Howard's shots come at the rim, where it's easier to make a shot. 

    Well, you argue, a shot's a shot. That's an oversimplification. If all shots are at the rim then defenses would just seal off the paint. Outside shots are needed to spread the court and open up the way for inside scoring. 

    That's why you can't just draw a straight line from field-goal percentage to scoring. Nene may have the league's best field-goal percentage, but that doesn't mean he's the league's best scorer. 

    Additionally there's the fact that field-goal percentage doesn't account for the ability to draw fouls. Some players, because of their ability to draw fouls, are actually far more efficient scorers. For instance, NBA scoring-leader Kevin Durant, with a .462 field-goal percentage, is barely above the league average of .459.

    However, he has a tremendous ability to both draw shooting fouls and make the free throws. Field-goal percentage doesn't take into account all the effectively used possessions. For example, say that Durant shot 4-of-10 from the field—that doesn't mean he effectively used 40 percent of his possessions.

    Let's say he also drew six fouls and went 11-of-12 from the stripe That means he effectively used 9.5 of 16 possessions. That's why some people use efficiency, which is points per field-goal attempt as a better measure of scoring proficiency.

    Last season, Durant scored 1.41 points per field-goal attempt, well above the league average of 1.22.

    There is also something known as a skill curve, which is a proven trend. It indicates that you can't automatically take a player who takes fewer field-goal attempts and then project that if they took the same number of shots they would score more points.

    The "curve" is that the more a player's field-goal attempts go up, the more the field-goal percentage goes down. You can't presume keeping the same field-goal percentage. As a player takes more shots, he draws more defensive attention, which in turn issues a lower field-goal percentage.  

Stats Lie

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    Guns don't kill people, people. Don't blame the guns. Without guns, how would we get our oil?! Without oil, we wouldn't have team planes. Without team planes, we wouldn't have the NBA. So don't hate guns.

    Anyway, stats are similar to guns—it's not them that lie; it's people that lie. They just use stats to do so. The thing is they also use stats to reveal truth.

    The thing with stats is that they are really just a measure of what actually happens in a game. Sometimes people want to say, "If you watched the games" as though somehow watching the game makes what happens in them different (or for that matter, that if you know stats you haven't watched the game.)

    Watching games and stats aren't mutually exclusive. In fact they are literally impossible to separate, as it is impossible to derive a stat without someone having watched the game. Stats and watching are inextricably linked.

    I know, you mean unless I watch the games I can't use stats, as though unless I have personally watched every game by every team in the NBA, the things that the stats say didn't really happen.

    It's amazing, incidentally, how often it is apparent that the people that make that argument clearly don't watch the game. I can tell, because I watch the games and what I see is different from what is actually happening.

    I know, it's all a matter of opinion. It's my subjective evaluation versus another person's.

    If only there were some objective third-party source which had a method whereby we could establish what really happened.

    They could keep track of things like how many minutes are played, how many points are scored, rebounds, assists, steals and so on. Then if we disagreed about what we saw when we both watched the game, we could just consult with this hypothetical third-party source to see what really happened.

    Wouldn't that be great? That would be such an easy way to substantiate arguments. We wouldn't have to watch 2,500 games a season to know what happened in every single game. Oh if only...

    Oh wait. I'm being told that there is such a thing. It's called stats.

    Please, for the love of all things NBA, can we stop pretending that there's a difference between stats and watching games? There isn't. And I say this because I watch games and understand stats, and it's just amazing. When Derrick Rose scores 20 points, the number that shows up in his stats under points is 20.  You'd be amazed at how consistent this is!

    So no, there is nothing wrong with using stats. Do people sometimes use stats to make an argument that doesn't follow form with the stats? Yes. But the problem then is the reasoning, not the stats.

    For example, I recently caught heat in an article for Chris Paul being ranked down in statistically based rankings. What caused him to fall was that he has an opponent field-goal percentage of 43 percent, the fifth worst of starting point guards.

    Now the point here isn't to debate the merits of Paul's defense but the merits of stats. He was the defender on 643 shots this year and 276 of those shots went in. The question isn't whether that's true. The stats aren't "lying" because those shots really went in the cylinder, even if you didn't watch every Hornets game. 

    Now there might be some question as to why it happened. Is it because Chris Paul is only 5' 11" and players shoot over him or is it because Marco Bellinelli is the worst starting defensive player in the NBA (which I believe is a statistically valid statement) and Paul is so busy bailing out his backcourt teammate that he's essentially guarding two positions in one. 

    Or is it some of both?

    This is where the whole watching thing comes in. You can actually look at games to understand the numbers, not explain them away.

    Here's what happens though: Some people don't want to admit they're wrong about things. If you can't find what's wrong with the logic in the stats they used, consider the possibility that the reason the stats are telling you something different than what you think is that you're wrong. 

    Stats don't tell lies; people tell lies, and just like sometimes people accidentally shoot themselves, sometimes people unknowingly lie to themselves. 

On/Off, Plus/Minus

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    On/Off, Plus/Minus stats are an "advanced stat" but they are something that some bloggers and writers get a hold of, play with and try to draw conclusions that shouldn't be drawn.

    They attempt to measure a player's contribution to the team by determining how a team does while the player is on the court versus how a team does while the player is off the court.

    A player's team scores 100 points per 100 possessions while he's "on" the court and they score 90 points while he's on the bench. However, at the same time, the other team scores 110 points while he's on the court and 90 points while he's on the bench.

    Therefore, his team is a net "minus-10" while he's on the court and a net zero while he's on the bench; his on/off plus/minus is minus-10, meaning his team is a net 10 points worse while he's on the court. The notion is that by factoring this in you can account for the "team effect." 

    According to this measure, Paul Pierce would have been the best player in the NBA last year. Pierce is good, but best in the NBA? Still not convinced. How about Nick Collison as the eighth-best player in the NBA? Steve Nash is a better overall player than LeBron James or Dwight Howard. Finally, the best player on the Chicago Bulls is Omer Asik.  

    The other problem is that it also doesn't even measure just that; it measures how a player's backup, with other backups, plays against the opposing backups. In other words, it actually doesn't tell you what it's trying to. 

    The tremendous number of variables that are there and the limited number of minutes the starters spend on the bench all make this a very hard thing to use to determine who the "best players" are. 

    To be fair, they weren't really intended to be a measure of "best players" and the stat's originators, Aaron Barzilai and Steve Ilardi, explicitly say that explaining:

    It is important to note that the adjusted +/- rating is not a “holy grail” statistic that perfectly captures each player’s overall value...the estimates suffer from the issue of skewed sampling—the fact that most players usually find themselves on the court in the company of certain teammates and not others. As a result, it can be difficult to accurately tease out the individual effects of two players who almost always appear on the court together.

    Rosenbaum and others have outlined different ways of addressing these issues, most notably using multiple years’ worth of data and augmenting regression results with additional analyses based on box score statistics.

    The problem with using multiple seasons though becomes that that teammates change, and some players improve while others don't.

    The bottom line is that while these stats can do a great job of telling us what units play well together, they don't tell us what makes a good player.

    The bottom line is that these stats don't belong in a "best player debate" and even the guys who made up the stat agree.  


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    How many rings has Kobe Bryant won? Is it two or five? He owns five. I know that much. Does that make him 25 percent greater than Shaquille O'Neal?

    Or do three of Kobe's rings belong to Shaq? But then one of Shaq's belongs to Dwyane Wade. So if Kobe gave three of his rings to Shaq, and then Shaq gave one of his rings to Wade, would Wade have the same number of rings as Kobe?

    Of course, LeBron James is "choker" because he's never won a ring, and he's now 0-2 in the finals. I recently had a reader argue that Wade's finals record is better than Jerry West's because Wade only lost one finals and West lost six.

    So since Derrick Rose didn't lose in the finals last year, is he greater than Dwyane Wade? I mean, he's never lost a finals. 

    Finally, who gets the ring from lat year? Is it Dirk's or Kidd's? Maybe they have a ring ceremony and give the whole team rings!

    I know I'm belaboring the point but can it be belabored any more than it has? The blah-blah-blah of it all.

    The next time a player goes through an entire season playing one on five 48 minutes a game and takes home Larry O'Brien, "he" will have won a ring. Until then, it's a team game.

    It's not just "who" wins either; there's the whole ridiculous notion of "what" wins rings.

    Scoring point guards don't win rings. How many real "scoring point guards" have there been? Four or five that can be genuinely described that way? And two of them are only 22. Only one has played for an elite-level defense.  

    The top seed doesn't win. That was a fun one from last year based on it being only three times in the last 11 years. The problem with that is that it's pitting the No. 1 overall seed against the field rather than any other specific seed. The No. 1 overall seed wins more than any other seed. 

    The arguments never end, but the thing is that you can look at any team and say why they "can't win." Remember last May when Dallas couldn't win because Dirk chokes in the playoffs?

    Whether it's talking about who did win or who will win, the "ring" argument is overrated. What goes into winning is a combination of so many factors, including what is happening elsewhere in the league. There's a certain amount of "luck factor" involved even for Michael Jordan, who got lucky his team got Scottie Pippen. 

Overrated and Underrated

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    Honestly, though, the argument that makes me shudder beyond all others is Player X is overrated or underrated and using that as an argument. Could there possibly be more opinion expressed without any basis or saying anything?

    I don't mean arguing that a player is overrated or underrated is dodgy. That's fine if you can establish that his accomplishments are under- or over-appreciated. 

    When you say that a player is overrated or underrated, you're firstly declaring you know what everyone else thinks, then you're arguing that you know better and finally you're saying it.

    Let's face it: If you are a normal person, and I assume most of us are, there are some players that for various reasons rub us the wrong way. Maybe it's his personality. Maybe it's that he plays for a rival team. Maybe it's just a gag reflex because the media has shoved him down your throat. 

    Whatever it is, we have players we don't like. 

    We also have players that, for whatever reason, we just really like. I mean specifically the ones who aren't superstars. Maybe it's the way they hustle, or the way they get after the ball and do little things really well. It might even be what you think of as unfair criticism. 

    Maybe it's because they keep missing the All-Star Game and you feel like they deserve it. 

    Players like that for me are guys like Andre Miller, LaMarcus Aldridge, Zach Randolph, Luol Deng and my newest player crush, Mehmet Okur. 

    Our natural tendency is to just call the players we don't like overrated and the players we do like underrated. Those things may even be true. We may actually dislike a player because of the very fact that he's so overrated (*cough* 'Melo Anthony). 

    Yes, I'm having fun at 'Melo's expense New York—deal with it! If it makes you feel better, Landry Fields is on my underrated list.

    We may actually have a sound logical reason for saying that someone is overrated or underrated. For instance Anthony, who is a below-average defensive player, only has the 10th-best APER in the league.

    He is commonly regarded as a top-10 player, and while he is a top-10 offensive player, I think his lack of defense drops him out of the top 10. Therefore, he is overrated in my opinion. He is, however, a top-20 player.  

    That's how you make an argument about overrated or underrated. You state your reasoning. You state what you believe is the common perception, then you state what you believe is the more accurate "rating."

    How to not make an argument is "Carmelo Anthony should not have been in the All-Star Game because he's overrated." (I actually do think he's an All-Star, just not top 10.)

    That's just stating an opinion as a fact (Carmelo Anthony is overrated) and then deriving from that opinion a conclusion (he shouldn't be an All-Star).

    Some people say there's no such thing as a wrong opinion but there is. It's an unsupported opinion.

    The other side of this is that even if you regurgitate at the sight of a player, you should still acknowledge his talents. For instance, if I have a game on the line and a one-shot scenario, 'Melo is my first choice to take that last shot. Dude is mega-clutch.

    I need to go cry now. Thanks for reading.  

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