Stat Inflation

by Jeff Fogle 27. March 2011 23:42

It's one of the biggest migraines statheads have to deal with in all sports. To what degree is the statistical record a reflection of reality? To what degree is the record disturbed by pollution?

In football, quarterbacks can pad their passing yardage and TD totals when facing prevent defenses after they've fallen way behind. In baseball, hitting in Colorado guarantees stat inflation...while pitching in the poor visibility and heavy marine air of San Diego will guarantee ERA deflation. In college basketball, tempo...strength of schedule...when the head coach calls off the dogs in a blowout...(and probably a dozen others we could think of after watching March Madness this year)...can muddy the waters significantly.

In the NBA, stat inflation can be at the mercy of these elements:

*Tempo: which is why so many methodologies try to pro-rate to 100 possessions or other equalizers.

*Role on Your Team: which can wreak havoc in either direction depending on which stat you're talking about.

*Whether Your Games Matter or Not: meaning that it's easier to compile stats in games where one or both teams are just kind of playing out the string rather than battling with peak intensity. The lack of parity in the NBA leads to several teams that are out of the playoff picture by midseason.

There are a lot more we could think of. But, I want to stop right there because I think those are the three that are at the heart of the Kevin Love conundrum right now.

Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves is a hustling 22-year old power forward (who plays like a center) with a great future ahead of him. He certainly is somebody you'd want on your team. Is he one of the best players in the league? Is he THE best player in the league?

If you were watching Portland/Oklahoma City on ESPN Sunday night, you saw the scroll at the bottom of the screen listing John Hollinger's top five players in the NBA. Love ranked fifth out of everyone. The mainstream audience might find that odd. But, the stathead audience may not argue. In fact, Love ranks very high pretty much any which way you can measure anything. On the individual players page here at HoopData, Win Shares and Adjusted Win Shares actually rank Love as FIRST in the NBA. Best of everyone. Better than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, and any player on either All-Star team.

It's worth noting that Love is right in the sweet spot for stat inflation.

Tempo: Minnesota currently ranks as the fastest team in the league, meaning that point and rebound production are not quite what they seem in their games. Some methodologies account for this influence. If you're the type to just see 20 points and 15 rebounds per game and draw a gut sure you're making a mental adjustment for Minnesota's very fast pace.

Role: Love's a key player on a horrible team...meaning he's an important part of the offense, and the man in the heart of the defensive scheme. The ball is going to find his hands a lot. The easiest things to measure in basketball are the things that happen when a ball is in somebody's hands. Also, current research on rebounding is looking into the role that choice plays within a defensive structure. If there's a ball that a few guys can get, do some players defer while others grab the ball? Is Love getting his share of rebounds, PLUS more than his share of the "optional" rebounds because his teammates just let him grab everything? There's a theory that this played a role in David Lee's big numbers in New York.

Meaningless Games: Minnesota's horrible. Their games don't matter. Opponents who need the win will usually get the win. They don't have to go all out for four quarters to take care of business. They can trade baskets much of the night, and have the one big quarter that gets the job done. Could Love be benefitting from the equivalent of a football's "prevent" defense much of the time? There's no reason to clamp down on Love if the game's already won...or if you know that you can trade baskets now and clamp down in the fourth quarter if needed.

I won't pretend to offer up certain answers tonight. I will point out what's happened to the players who have replaced Love (and his role) for the T-wolves the last three games while he was recovering from a groin injury.

Kevin Love's per game numbers:
20.3 points, 15.4 rebounds, 36 minutes per game (99 possessions)

Anthony Randolph vs. Dallas:
31 points, 11 rebounds, 36 minutes (96 possessions)

Anthony Randolph vs. Oklahoma City:
24 points, 15 rebounds, 37 minutes (101 possessions)

Anthony Tolliver vs. Boston:

16 points, 15 rebounds, 36 minutes (mid 80's in possessions)

Randolph started Sunday vs. Boston, but committed 3 fouls in 3 minutes of action. That brought in Tolliver to fill the role of the big man for the night...and he basically did what the others were doing after you adjust for tempo. Fifteen rebounds in a slow game is pretty darned good!

The three replacements pro-rate to roughly 25 points per game and 14 rebounds in 36 minutes using the 99 possession benchmark. Hey, it's only three games, and anything can happen in three games. Those three games do provide some evidence, though, that it's not that hard to compile Love-type stats if you're playing in the paint for Minnesota at this stage of the season. Even for horrible teams, somebody has to score the points in losses...and somebody has to grab the rebounds off shots the opponents are destined to miss.

Is Love truly one of the best five players in the league? Or, is he hitting clean-up for Colorado? Or passing for almost 4,000 yards on a 4-12 team like Carson Palmer did for the Cincinnati Bengals last year?

Fun player to root for. Extremely bright future. Would he strike you as one of the best players in the league if he played on one of the best teams in the league? It's a bit tougher to make that case based on what Randolph and Tolliver just did the past few nights. Let's see if we get additional data points before Love returns to the lineup.

Transition Points

*Boston beat Minnesota 85-82 Sunday night, blowing a huge lead before finishing off the job late. Once again, the bench was a problem for Boston. Nobody on the Celtics bench had a positive plus/minus even though they were facing a very bad team. All five starters were positive. Note though that Rajon Rondo didn't play because of a bad thumb. So, the team was even more shorthanded than usual.

*Houston and Miami played a wild one, providing some evidence for the "teams will trade baskets until it's time to decide a winner" line of thinking.

Miami led 38-37 after one quarter
Miami led 71-68 at the half
It was tied 93-93 heading into the fourth quarter

So much for Miami having a playoff caliber defense. Of course, we KNOW that they do have a playoff caliber you almost have to throw this one out when thinking about what will happen in the playoffs. It was more of a 125-119 scrimmage with a serious ending rather than a game matching playiff contenders.

*Kendrick Perkins is having an immediate impact in Oklahoma City. He had a plus/minus of +13 in 31 minutes on Sunday's 99-90 victory over Portland. Mentioned earlier that was an ESPN game. Great energy. It definitely had a playoff feel to it much of the night.

You get the sense Russell Westbrook is tired of hearing so much about Derrick Rose. Westbrook had 28 points and 7 assists. As I mentioned the other day, it's very hard to separate Westbrook from Rose in a meaningful way in the stats. The case for Rose seems to be that Westbrook has teammates who can score, so he doesn't have to carry all the load. Is a player's value based on what he accomplishes? Or, who his teammates are? Age old questions.

*Virginia Commonwealth had a great first half from behind the arc in a 71-61 upset of Kansas today. They join Butler in the final four as a team scoring more than 30% of its points from long range this season. I didn't think my "no #1 seeds in the Final Four" prediction was going to have a chance with Kansas such a heavy favorite. Congrats to VCU for rising to the occasion.

Three-Point Shooting Today:

VCU: 12 of 25
Kansas: 2 of 21 (!!!)

Kentucky: 12 of 22
N. Carolina: 3 of 16

Four Weekend Losers: 12 of 72 (17%)

All four games were certainly dramatic. I don't think I'll ever be a fan of the impact trey randomization can have in small sample sizes in this sport. The drama of watching a ball spin around a roulette wheel loses its zing after awhile. That can wreak havoc with efficiency data a string of five blacks will look more efficient than a string fo three reds...but that won't influence what color comes up next.

There will be a mid-major in the finals for the second straight year because VCU and Butler are in the same half of the bracket. Gotta be driving the power brokers nuts!

Back late Monday to talk about Orlando/New York, Philadelphia/Chicago, Boston/Indiana, and maybe Portland/San Antonio. Manu Ginobili only played 19 minutes Sunday in Memphis after suffering a "left quad contusion."

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Love is a Four Factor Word

by Matt Scribbins 2. March 2011 18:59

Matt Scribbins can be followed on Twitter @MattScribbins

For many, love is a four letter word. For NBA stat nerds, Love is a four factor word. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love is putting up huge box scores this season and grabbing headlines. However, critics discredit Love because he plays on the league's fastest team and has ample opportunities to rack up rebounds and points. For example, Minnesota has almost eight more possessions per game than LaMarcus Aldridge’s Portland squad. Bill Walton said a double-double is one of the most overrated basketball statistics during the Celtics and Clippers broadcast last week. Maybe he is right. I compared Love to top NBA big men using rate statistics to see how productive he truly is.

Dean Oliver’s basketball research showed four factors play a critical role in deciding the outcome of basketball games. The four factors are effective field goal percentage (EFG %), offensive rebounding rate (ORR), free throw rate (FTR), and turnover rate (TOR). Effective field goal percentage compensates for made 3-pointers being worth 50% more than a successful 2-point field goal. The equation for EFG % = (FG + 0.5 * 3P)/FGA. Offensive rebounding rate is the percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed by a player while he is on the floor. Free throw rate measures how often a player gets to the line per shot attempt and is calculated by FTA/FGA. Turnover rate is the percentage of possessions used by the player ending in a turnover. Oliver’s research focused on team statistics, but this analysis studies the four factors of individual players.

Here is a comparison of the top big men in the NBA using Oliver’s four factors.

*All statistics from and updated through 2/28*

(Cells in dark tan indicate statistics better than Love’s. The number inside the parentheses is Love’s rank among the listed players.)

Is Kevin Love one of the best offensive players at his position? By statistical measures, definitely. If Dean Oliver adds a fifth factor, outlet passes, he will become a legend.

Determining which of the four factors is most important for big men is difficult, but offensive rebounds are vital. In addition to providing a team an extra scoring opportunity, offensive rebounds are typically secured in areas leading to high percentage shots. Love grabs offensive rebounds at an elite rate, only trailing Z-Bound himself.

Critics will argue Love’s EFG% is greater than other centers because he shoots more three pointers than anyone on the list. This increases his chances of earning a high EFG% and is a valid point. However, Love probably isn’t taking long shots with aspirations of boosting his EFG%. The Wolves simply do not have a guard who can consistently feed Love in the post. Consider the supporting cast of the comparison players. It is almost comical to consider Love’s teammates have the same job description.

League averages show shots near the rim are the most likely to go in, but they aren’t the easiest shots to create. Many of the same skills NFL running backs need to blast across the goal line are also needed to frequently attempt shots near the rim in the NBA. These players need athleticism, size, strength and a high motor. Love possesses the size, strength, and high motor, but many doubt he has the freak athletic ability of other rim finishers. Blake Griffin shoots about 2.5 more shots at the rim per game than Love. Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge attempt at least 1.3 shots more per game at the rim.

Love may be forced outside due to factors beyond his control, but his shooting ability is elite. None of the other players on the list have a three point shot worth comparing. Just because Kevin lets it fly from behind the arc doesn’t mean he automatically increases his EFG%. He still has to make the shots. Love attempts 3.1 three pointers per game. For comparison, Eddie House and Hedo Turkoglu attempt 3.2 three pointers per game. Love‘s EFG% of 64.2% on three pointers is much higher than House’s and Turkoglu’s EFG%’s, 59.0% and 57.8% respectively. An encouraging sign is Love’s knack for knocking down the three will make him effective for years, as it is a somewhat ageless quality. Blake Griffin won’t always dunk ferociously and someday will need to improve his below average shooting from everywhere outside 10 feet. Kevin Love will still contribute in the NBA once his physical skills decline due to his prolific outside game.

One surprising aspect of Love’s game is his ability to draw fouls. He isn’t jumping out of the gym or blowing past defenders on the key. He will never become dunk contest immortality like the comparison players with better free throw rates. Howard and Griffin have higher FTR’s, but Love is considerably better than either once they reach the stripe. Griffin shoots 62.6% and Dwight Howard avoids abusing the rim only 59.2% of the time. Love is making 86.7% of his freebies this year. For Kurt Rambis, that’s amore.

The New York Knicks play at the second fastest pace of any NBA team, using nearly 98.3 possessions per game. As mentioned earlier, the Wolves are fastest team in the league and use 99.7 possessions nightly. It is interesting to compare Love and Stoudemire on per game averages and the four factors. Amare scores about five more points per game, but also attempts five extra shots. Love grabs nearly seven more rebounds and has better numbers in all four factors. Amare is glorified for his offense, but it appears Kevin Love is virtually just as valuable. Both may check in at the other end of the spectrum if defensive measures were included in this analysis.

The Timberwolves decided all they needed was Love and shipped Al Jefferson to Utah in July of 2010. Surprisingly, David Kahn made the correct choice. Love is putting up superior statistical measures in every category besides TOR this season. Love even boasts a FTR twice as large as Big Al’s.

With the departure of Jefferson, Love’s supporting cast is desolate. Many of the top big men in the NBA have teammates who demand attention. For example, Pau Gasol benefits from playing next to Andrew Bynum and having the offense run through Kobe Bryant. Kevin Love does not play with any good players, let alone superstars. Pairing with Darko Milicic doesn’t exactly ease the burden on Love. How many Lakers fans would believe Andrew Bynum is better than manna from heaven?  

It is fair to wonder if NBA teams could shut down Love if they had to. Did Phil Jackson fret last night about Love leading the Wolves to victory? Probably not. But who else would they game plan for? Right now, Love is a really good player on a really bad team. Consider he has scored less than 15 points only nine times and has snared less than 15 rebounds just 15 times during his 47 game double-double streak. All of his monster performances have only resulted in 10 wins for Minnesota during the streak.

There is no doubt Love’s defense must improve. Heck, he was benched Opening Night in favor of Anthony Tolliver. He may never be a stopper, but who knows what would happen if he is surrounded by great defenders? If Love can convince David Stern to adapt the old Iowa high school girls’ rules of three players on offense and three players on defense, he may become one of the most productive players in history.

With no help around him and no reason for teams to spend days crafting ways to stop him, it is hard to know just how great Love is. Basketball fans should eagerly wait to see Love’s performance when he plays with competent teammates. Whether this is in Minnesota or another city remains to be seen. Until then, NBA fans should just launch League Pass Broadband and marvel as one of the game’s most productive big men wreaks havoc on NBA nerd’s spreadsheets.


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