Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
The Sloan conference has inspired me to be more analytical in my approach to basketball coverage. Here's my first attempt.
Hi, my name is Jeff Clark and I'm a stat-a-phobe. Not a stat-hater, mind you. Just afraid of stats, or more specifically afraid of using them poorly in my analysis of basketball.
You see, there's this whole sub-culture that has gained great momentum in the world of blogging and basketball coverage that celebrates the advancements in effectively using stats (in concert with scouting and conventional knowledge) to gain a better understanding of the sport that we love so much. Yet for the most part I've been on the outside looking in.
I have great respect for the sharp minds that come up with and use advanced stats, but I've never taken the time to learn much about it for myself. I suppose the underlying fear is that I'll use a stat out of context and be exposed as a hack for trying to play at math with the smaat kids. Put another way, I feel a bit like the Ben Affleck character in Good Will Hunting.
Here's the thing though, I could happily go along as I've always done, blogging away without getting too far into the weeds of stats and analysis. I could keep quoting smart sounding articles written by logical thinkers and adding my own quick two cents in at the end. That would be fine and it has worked for me thus far. But I can't help but think that I'm missing out. I've never been one to be content and if this is something I can do to be a better blogger, then I'd like to at least give it a shot.
One way to go about that, would be to do weeks or even months of research and then cram all night on an article that I hope would blow everyone's socks off. Of course that would either be a spectacular failure or it would be given the old golf clap and then everyone would move on. Or worse, expect that from me every day!
That's not really my style. My approach is simple. Step 1: Admit to all of you that I'm an idiot. (Done) Step 2: Stumble through some analysis and invite you all along on the ride. Maybe some of you will teach me a thing or two and maybe we'll all learn a little bit together.
So you have to start somewhere, right? So I figured I'd start with one particular debate that has been going on around this blog for the whole year. Is Brandon Bass a "good" basketball player? Seems like a simple enough question, right? But you have to break it down a bit further than that. What does "good" mean? Nobody is expecting him to be a star on Paul Pierce's level but he's being paid like an average NBA starter. So to me that's the measuring stick.
So using traditional stats I can see that Bass is averaging 7.7 points per game (8th best on the team but right just about where Courtney Lee is and still ahead of where Jared Sullinger was at 6 per game) and 5 rebounds per game (good for 5th on the team - 3rd if you only count the players still walking). So, nothing great, but not garbage at first blush.
Of course, the big complaint with traditional stats is that they fail to adjust for guys that play different amounts of minutes. Given equal minutes, Sullinger may very well have averaged more points per game than him (and was already ahead of him in rebounds).
While there's no all-encompassing advanced stat but a good starting point is Hollinger's PER stat. Hollinger himself doesn't claim that this is perfect and is very up front with the fact that it completely ignores defense. Still, for a beginner like me, it seems to do a passable job of evaluating how "efficient" a player is offense.
PER takes into account positive accomplishments, such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative ones, such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls. The formula adds positive stats and subtracts negative ones through a statistical point value system. The rating for each player is then adjusted to a per-minute basis so that, for example, substitutes can be compared with starters in playing time debates. It is also adjusted for the team's pace. In the end, one number sums up the players' statistical accomplishments for that season.
A score of 15 marks the league average player - which is kind of the minimum you'd want out of Brandon Bass as your starting power forward, isn't it? Well, currently he's checking in with a PER of 10.83, which is really not that good. The only players on the team with a worse PER are either brand new (Terrence Williams) or in Maine (Fab Melo). Now, Avery Bradley only has a 10.9 but again, this doesn't account for defense, so ...yeah.
So based on that one stat, it appears that Brandon Bass is currently a below average player (at best). But again, we can't take one number and accept it as the end of the discussion.
For example, the eyeball test and conventional wisdom tells us that Bass doesn't rebound enough for a power forward and he never passes. His game is mostly that spot up jumper, so when it is falling, he's useful. When it isn't, he's really not much more than space filler. So basically, when his shot isn't falling, PER is going to be really harsh on him because that's his best talent.
Take a look back at last year and his PER was 14.2. The year before that (with the Magic) it was 16. So he's capable of being an average to "good" basketball player. What's the difference? Well, I think the stats back up the eyeball test. He's never been a good rebounder and he's never passed, but his shots simply aren't falling this year. He's gone from shooting 51% (FG percentage) two years ago, to 48% to a paltry 45% this year. That's the difference.
So what gives? Why is he shooting poorly? Part of that might be the fact that he's getting fewer looks. Last year he got up 10.7 shots per game while this year he's averaging just 6.9. That's not good for rhythm. But that's probably not all of it. There has to be more to it. So that leads us to more questions.
When does he shoot well? On the road or at home? On the block or at the elbows? Left side or right side? Off assists or creating his own shot? How about when Rondo is on the court vs. when he's off it? (There was some rumblings at one point that he wasn't getting enough looks from Rondo - well, is he doing better now that Rondo has been out?) There's a lot to go through there but I feel like I've rambled on enough at this point and I'll need more time to go into that kind of stuff.
But that's really kind of the point here isn't it? In my mind, effective use of stats isn't to end a discussion but to enrich it and promote further discussion.
"Wait Jeff, you mean to tell me you are going to make a big deal about writing about stats and then just toss out some PER numbers and shooting percentages and call it a day? How lame is that?"
Well, yes and no. I'm at the edge of my understanding at this moment, but I hope and plan to return to this topic in the days and weeks ahead. Maybe some of you can help point me in the right direction (without overwhelming a simple caveman blogger like me please). Maybe we can dig into some of the questions I posed above. Hopefully those will lead to further questions and so on and so forth.
Again, don't let this be the end of the discussion. It's never as simple as "Bass sucks" or "Bass is fine, leave him alone." Help me figure out if he's being used properly or if he's really just having a bad year.