Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Baseball vs. Basketball

This is only marginally related to the Yankees. Extremely marginal connection here. I was looking at a feature article in the NBA section of, and was struck by how stone aged the analysis of basketball is when compared to baseball. I know there are people who are doing more advanced metrics for hoops, but it hasn't come anywhere near the mainstream in either the journalistic sense or even in the realm of fantasy geekdom, where people like me would revel in all the statistical glory of shots made/missed in the primary circle, or some such thing.

The conversation is about the 10 greatest centers of all time. They list a distinguished group of names and begin compiling the ranked list of players for all of us to gobble up and discuss. I see that Abdul-Jabbar is one, and Wilt is two, with Russell at number three. I began to ask myself how they came up with these rankings? I know Bill Russell, for example, was considered one of the greatest players of all time, but he didn't stack up favorably against the other more offensive minded players of his own generation. Most people rate him highly for his contribution to the Celtics one billion championship banners and his uncanny defensive prowess. That's all fine, but is there a statistical way to measure his performance compared to, say, Moses Malone or David Robinson? Is it so easy to say that Russell is better than Hakeem Olajuwon? How did they rank these guys?

The answer is, they got 20 writers together and had them rank the players from 1-10, giving the top player 10 points, the next player 9, and so on down to 1 point for 10th place. Is that arbitrary enough for you? The thing that made me take notice about how stupid that system is, beyond all the very obvious reasons, was that one guy gave Dwight Howard a vote. Howard is in his 3rd season in the league and sports career averages of 15 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. What's more, he barely played a lick of center until this season. This is almost the David Eckstein thing in a basketball medium, except that Howard may actually one day belong on this list. No evidence whatsoever exists as to why one guy is deserving of #1 and the next guy #7. Where is VORP? That seems like the most basic and easy way to calculate this argument in a quantifiable way. It's at least a good start to the argument, before diving into All Star appearances, scoring titles, and womanizing binges (Way to go Big Dipper!).

The other thing they need to do is adjust the numbers across eras. There has to be a way to discuss the 22+ rebounds a game that Chamberlain averaged for his career in a way that makes sense next to Hakeem Olajuwon's 11.1 per. I refuse to believe that Wilt was twice the rebounder that Olajuwon was. It just doesn't make sense. It's like comparing Bob Gibson's 2.18 ERA in 1969 and Johan Santana's 2.77 in 2006. Both players had ERA+ numbers in the 160s, so we can more easily see what the two seasons were in comparison to the league average. It's possible that the numbers that Wilt put up in those days were so nuts even when evening the playing field that the list doesn't change, but it should be done. It should also be more closely examined, the average height of an NBA player in each era. Certainly, Wilt would not have put up the crazy numbers he did if there had been a 7-footer opposing him every night. Quite often he was defended by guys standing 6'7" or maybe 6'9". Olajuwon was defended almost every night by a guy at 7-foot.

If you can start the conversation by telling me that Wilt Chamberlain posted career adjusted averages of 28 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 4 assists and averaged a 75.5 VORP over his career and compared that to the rest of the field, I would then be able to put the fact that he never fouled out of a game and forced the league to create a goaltending rule into the conversation. It would certainly be better than pulling names out of a hat and ranking them 1-10.


Nathan said...

There are stats for basketball. I wish I could find the article that I read them in. The Mercury News did an article about statistics and showed that the Warriors trade to Indiana was not a good one.

The article stated that the statistics that the true statisticians use cannot be found on the web. Also, every team uses some form of statistics to help them make a decision. Chris Mullin, the GM, obviously had the statistics, but he was quoted as saying something to the effect of "It affects my decision, but the decision is still mine".

Mark Cuban uses a statistician and I believe that his was interviewed. The statistician used something called WINVAL, I believe. It is win value over replacement player (?). I'm not exactly sure, I don't have the article with me, and it was in the news a while ago.

The article also said that David Lee is one of the top rebounders in the game. There is some stat that proves that he is within the top 10, possibly even top 5.

Anyways, back to the point. Basketball does have stats. It does have items like baseball, in particular a stat much similar to VORP. The stats however, are not found on the internet.

Ah wait, I found it. Here's the google cache of the article:

Good luck finding the stats!

joejoejoe said...

ESPN's John Hollinger included a stat like that called PER - Player Efficiency Rating.

From ESPN: Player Efficiency Rating "includes 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. Two important things to remember about PER is that it's per-minute and pace-adjusted."

The one thing it doesn't account for is changing FG% over the years. There are just a lot more rebounds to get if your team shoots 38% instead of 48% and team FG% has improved a lot since Bill Russell played for whatever reasons (bigger pool of players, more dunks, softer rims, etc.). PER is off somehow (like MLB fielding measures) because Russell has the worst score of the Top 10 (look again and you'll see the PER ratings at the left of the chart in the ESPN story)

I use a site called to view a historical databases of basketball stats and they have all kinds of per minute and performace ratings. It's sortable and fun to goof around with if you are a basketball fan.

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