Advanced Statistics: Game Changer?

What is the point of statistics, or for that matter, numbers? I think we can agree that numbers represent the relative value, or worth, of the subject in question. In effect, the more numbers, or statistics, that we have to measure value, the closer the perceived value gets to the actual value. Here the perceived value is the value based on all the information available as a whole whereas the actual value is the intrinsic, arguably unquantifiable, value. In basketball terms, numbers (for example points), represent how good a team is relative to its opponent. The objective is to have more points than your opponents at the end of 48 minutes which then translates to a win. Wins, in turn, measure the relative worth in relation to all the other teams in the league. Essentially, numbers in basketball are a simplified reference point to determine relative worth.

The point in clarifying all this number talk is to address the surging advanced statistics (AS) movement, encapsulated by the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Neil Paine does an excellent job of recapping the stat-filled weekend highlighted with (geek) celebrity appearances by Mark Cuban, John Hollinger, Daryl Morey among others.

Much of the analysis surrounding AS focuses on how owners and coaches use, or will use, them to make critical decisions regarding lineups, matchups and potential trades. AS have even permeated so far as to influence game-time decisions through their employed stat heads at hand on the bench. This convenience has proven invaluable to GMs like Cuban and Morey who consider their stat heads part of the coaching staff.

A recurring topic of the conference was how AS will translate to the average fan, or how fans can make sense of this statistical mumbo jumbo. While it’s certainly a topic worth addressing, I believe another vital, perhaps even more so, aspect is the impact it will have on the players. One couldn’t possibly analyze and dissect a player’s worth so aggressively and expect to not influence their game to some degree. After all, they check the box scores just like the rest of us.

Below are some examples of offensive and defensive statistics that I feel are valuable to track or make easily accessible:

Offense: Double teams drawn, successful screens, open shots taken, half-assists (0.5 assists for each ft made that resulted from a foul on a shot normally assisted), hockey assists (pass that leads to the assist), penetrations (beating own man and pulling a help defender), outlet passes (fast breaks initiated).

Defense: Deflections (passes deflected), strips (dribbles deflected), disruptions (dribbles stopped), offensive fouls drawn, shots goaltended, BIP (blocks kept in play), shots altered, loose balls gathered, screens avoided.

Obviously there are some here that are already recorded, like offensive fouls drawn, but are not league-wide as Cuban strongly advocates.  The key point here is the vast amount of useful, measurable information that isn’t being recorded much like blocks were before the ’73 season.

We all have this unfortunate, but undeniable side that both yearns for and thrives off instant gratification. For this exact reason I envision AS drastically affecting the way players not only play, but train for, the game. Dwight Howard serves as a fitting example as someone who would benefit greatly.

Before the start of the ’08-’09 season Howard vowed to lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots in addition to winning Defensive Player of Year. All admirable goals, which he did achieve, but rebounding and blocked shots are only the tip of the iceberg. More importantly, blocked shots aren’t as good of an indicator of defense as you might think. Now I’m not suggesting that Howard is terrible defensively because his presence in the paint is a huge reason they are second in defensive efficiency, but his predisposition towards swatting every shot in a 5-foot radius introduces a multitude of problems.

As the article points out, a majority of Howard’s blocked shots end up out of bounds. As a result, the opposing team essentially gets another opportunity to score, albeit with less time. Another problem that arises from his block-happy ways is his tendency to basically hand free points to the opponent via goaltends. Howard’s height coupled with his vertical leap allows to block shots most NBA players wouldn’t even attempt and yet at the same time he’ll swat shots he has no business touching. With AS in place Howard will see that he doesn’t need to block shots to be a defensive presence.

All the highlight reels in the world will never replace the glory of winning an NBA championship and AS will become, if it hasn’t already, a key cog in the world of basketball. Credit is given where credit is due and we can see that no more easily than in the numbers. It’s all right there; we just need to start paying attention.

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