Dec 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; American actor Jack Nicholson reads the stats during the second half of the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves begins at Staples Center. The Lakers won 104-91. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

How Much Do Statistics Drive the NBA Universe?

Is there any missing the blithe, easygoing world those lived in during the 1950’s and 60’s?

Baby boomers, don’t come knocking on my door ready to attack like a pack of wolves; I know the world was everything but “easy.”  The culture, financial hold, and war theatrics were tough to adjust to, and those born in this modern era won’t ever be able to get a grip on what people had to deal with.

Sports, on the other hand, were rather simplistic.

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Feb 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; NBA legend Bill Russell speaks during a special tribute to him during the 2014 NBA All-Star Game Legends Brunch at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell plundered the league from all their hopes and dreams by taking nearly every championship of the era, and filled arenas more than any ball-dominant stars before their time.

The game of basketball was everything but complex.  It wasn’t a minefield full of numbers, and general managers weren’t spending 30 hours analyzing a player’s statistical breadth before making decisions.

People dove deep into the X’s and O’s aspect of the game, and focused on the actual technicalities of what transpires on the court, not the statistical measures.  Rudy Gay, who infamously banned stat sheets from the Raptors’ locker room at one point, would be a proponent of this approach.

Flash back to when Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird, and Isiah Thomas were all fighting for the common goal of a title.

When, during that era, did you ever hear the use of advanced statistics shouted out during the NBA Finals?

“Jordan’s Win Shares are sky-rocketing to entirely new levels!”  No, everyone was just solely focused on his scoring dominance, and never letting a Finals reach seven games.

“Magic Johnson’s Assist Percentage and Offensive Rating are higher than any other point guard!”  Again, 95 percent of people were just worried about how he determined the pace of the game, and how well he complemented Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

What sparked the transition from the three basic statistical factors of player evaluation (points, rebounds, assists) to the extremes where we can put a player’s defensive impact, and how many wins he contributes to his team into one single  number?

It’s the most fascinating part of the switch between the older, physical era to the newer, more popular game.

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Feb 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; NBA legend Julius Erving speaks while Magic Johnson looks on during the NBA All-Star Game Legends Brunch at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most profound statisticians, Dean Oliver, introduced us to a different level of critiquing players and deciding who makes the largest impact.

Oliver’s “Four Factors” were generated to describe the four major ways in which winning and losing is determined by.  Measuring shooting, turnovers, rebounding, and free throw efficiency, according to Oliver, are the main ways in which you can place your finger on winners and losers.

However, it dives into those advanced analytical perspectives.

Oliver’s shooting facet involves determining a player or team’s Effective Field Goal Percentage, rather than just a normal mathematical field goal percentage.  This allows for analysts to account for 3-pointers being worth more than a regular field goal.  It’s become the best way to determine how well a person can score from all areas on the floor.

The turnover measure of the Four Factors has transformed to Turnover Percentagewhich has been defined as an estimate of turnovers per 100 plays.  That’s one of the beauties of the new statistical approach, as we’ve been given the ways to project how many turnovers a player would accumulate if he was a part of 100 plays.

In a typical NBA game, the number of possessions a team usually runs is around 93.6.  It was Orlando’s “Pace” rating last season, which they ranked 15th (average) in the league.  Since guys aren’t on the floor for an entire 48 minutes — unless you’re Jimmy Butler sweating your tail off for Coach Thibodeau — this scale allows for you to evaluate who deserves more minutes, and may even be influencing coaches to switch up their rotations.

Let’s not try to ignore the fact that statistics are making their way around the league.  Executives, owners, and coaches are paying more attention to the advanced sheets than people would realize.  Seriously, run and ask Daryl Morey about the Rockets’ identity of “dunks, layups, 3’s.”  He’ll tell you that’s all by technique, as they’ve wanted to rid themselves of mid-range jumpers for the last few years.

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May 2, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews (2) defends Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the first half in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center.Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Just observe their style, and realize Houston didn’t finish dead LAST in mid-range attempts (728) during the regular season for nothing.  No coincidence neither, as they also shot the worst percentage of all 30 teams from mid-range (34.5 percent).  Why?  The obvious reason would be … they don’t take their time to practice them.  The more practical reason?  If they did get caught practice them, it would be frowned upon.

Nonetheless, how comical was it when Houston was ousted from the playoffs by a league-leader in mid-range attempts?

Portland ranked 4th in mid-range attempts during the regular season (2,167) and shot the 7th best percentage on those attempts (41.2 percent).  That’s 1,439 more mid-range shots than Houston over 82 games, which comes out to about 17.5 more per game.   In their first round playoff series against each other?  Terry Stott’s Trail Blazers shot 95 more mid-range attempts …. over six games.  Make that 15.8 more per contest, and you really begin to see the differences.

Morey’s belief is that when you play at such an insane pace of getting up and down the court and firing up triples, it allows you to take advantage of this “make or miss league.”  They’ve been taking their chances from the outside, and they have just enough above-average shooters to knock them down.

You’re literally forcing your opposition to come down the court and match you.  What Houston isn’t understand, though, is that their defense is the epitome of abhorrent, and they’ve put all the defensive burden on the man in the middle, Dwight Howard.

Maybe Morey and the Rockets’ staff isn’t understanding how vital of a shot the 15-22 footer can be.  Or, maybe … it’s just a testament of how much statistics are fueling the NBA world.  More so than college, as you just want guys grasping the fundamental aspects and being able to work within a team.  This is big boy stuff, and it gets much more technical once those college kids enter this world.

Soon enough, it’s not going to be the old-fashioned GM’s running teams, you’re not going to have Larry Bird and All-Time legends running basketball programs with the foundation of “This is how we did it back in the ’80’s.”

I didn’t say very soon, but it’s on the horizon.

We’re all familiar with John Hollinger, and how Memphis completely bought into his duties as a statistician.  He took the Vice President of Basketball Operations position with the Grizzlies, and has been trying to shape the way they value certain things on the court.

More so than you realize, getting stat-lovers in these executive jobs is shaping the way a roster fills out, and who these teams bring in via signings and trades.  Guys that believe the stats way is the only path to go are making signings and deals to get the players that match their criteria.

Rebounding has also taken a twist into the advanced statistical era, and it’s the third portion of Oliver’s Four Factors.

It’s split up into two areas;  offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.  This has become more effective to use, since the “rebounding percentage” is the estimate of percentage of available boards a player grabbed while he’s in action.  It’s helpful now more than ever, as it really paints a picture of who is working their hardest to get in position for the rebounds.

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Jun 5, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) grabs a rebound against Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) during the first quarter in game one of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Something very similar to this, is NBA.com’s “Rebounding Chances.”

You want to talk about unbelievable efforts in the stats world?  SportVU software has taken this league and turned it upside down, they’ve placed six special cameras in each NBA arena, that keeps an eye on some of the craziest things — all informative.

They’ve been able to define a “rebound chance” as any rebound that happens within a 3.5 foot vicinity of the player.  Leave it to the cameras to measure accordingly, and track the stats for the world to see.  That specifically allows for us to evaluate who is making the most of the rebounds coming their way.

It’s extremely more efficient as well, since it’s not giving a point guard or shooting guard a “rebound chance” if they’re all the way out on the perimeter and a shot comes off near the rim.  When the guards crash the paint, then they’ll be measured and expected to battle for the boards.

The last member of the Four Factors has been free throw rate and efficiency. 

Free points in any sport should be, well …. easy, right?  For most in the league, it’s not a problem to step up to the line and knock down a pair of free throws.  It’s usually trying to get  to the line that creates the biggest problem.  Unless you’re near the superstar level, then you get all the “superstar calls” and the benefit of the doubt most of the time.

Free throw rate measures how frequent a team gets to the charity stripe, and how efficient they are once they get there.   There’s an absurd amount of correlation between knocking down your free throws at a great percentage, and being a top team in the league.  Especially the West, which has consistently had three or four teams in the top five of free throw efficiency.

Portland (81.5 percent), Oklahoma City (80.6 percent), Dallas (79.5 percent), and San Antonio (78.5 percent) led the league in the free throw department last season, and each can say they had great seasons.  Heck, Dallas came within an inch of knocking of the champions as an eight seed.

Altogether, the Four Factors really gets no complaint in terms of being the best four aspects that determine winners in this league.

Shooting gets 40 percent of the value (nearly half), and that’s justified from my eyes.  Take a look at the Spurs, who obliterated the 2nd round, West Finals, and NBA Finals.  Why?  They shot 40.9 percent from 3-point range throughout the entire  playoffs.  It goes a long way, doesn’t it?

Turnovers get 25 percent of the value, and that one gets a little hairy.  You have highly-prolific teams in the West (Golden State, Houston, OKC) that turn the ball over in the Top 10 rates, but their offensive attack overpowers their mistakes most of the time.  That’s why turnovers hold less power than shooting in this regard.

Rebounding percentages take 20 percent of the nod, and most believe that should have a larger proportion.  Giving yourself more second chance opportunities to score can truly break open a game, and that may need more recognition.

Free Throws hold the final 15 percent of the load, and that may be properly adjusted.  San Antonio didn’t come anywhere close to leading the playoffs in free throw attempts per game (23.5) and neither did Miami (22.0).  The Spurs ranked 10th of the 16 playoff teams, and Miami placed 15th.  Yet, we found ourselves watching a Finals rematch.

It may seem that the NBA is becoming too  invested with statistics.

In reality, you may be correct.  The game was made by Dr. James Naismith to provide a sense of enjoyment, and it didn’t sound too serious at the time.

Now, in today’s society that advances by the second, this is what people want.  This is what gets their blood moving.  This is their own type of “fun.”

We just have to take it for what it is, and calculate how effective it is.

 

**All statistical support and information credited to Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com**

Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for 8 Points, 9 Seconds and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.

Tags: Advanced Stats Dean Oliver Four Factors John Hollinger NBA NBA Stats NBA.com Statistics

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