Thoughts on some common statistics

We have entered the age where statistics (performance metrics) inform everything from player management/acquisition to game strategy. That’s a good thing for a nerd like me, but sometimes I think we misinterpret some metrics. Here are some thoughts I had about some of the more common basketball stats. Don’t yell too loud at me, I’m a nice guy.

Assists – I grew up listening to Chick Hearn tell me how Jerry West’s assists were just as important as his baskets. That sentiment hasn’t really changed in all these years. Nowadays I hear comments about team assist totals at or above 25 or so are reasonable targets for winning games. Personally, I have never bought the value of the assist as an independent outcome (my sincerest apologies to all the John Stockton fans). I think of it more as a regularly occurring byproduct of good play. That is, if the team scores a lot, there will be, by the nature of the game, a lot of assists. I don’t believe that a team that passes a lot will, as a natural consequence, score a lot. Sorry for all the commas.

The other day David Locke shared a new stat on his podcast that computes the shooting percentage of players who receive a pass from the selected player. As it turns out, Donovan Mitchell is near the top of the league. This is awesome as it indicates that his play generates points. But points are the goal, not the assists. The reason I bring this up is that assists (along with steals and blocked shots) are often treated as goals in the way these metrics are used to describe the game. They are not goals.

There is a term called, "Assist Selfish." This refers to players that won’t pass the ball until they are likely to feed a score and get an assist. IMO, Ricky Rubio falls into this category at times. Of course, we will all be delighted at nights when he has 8 or more assists, but that is a very poor way to grade his performance. The fact is, on nights where he has a lot of assists, it is just as much the product of his teammates being hot and where he lands in some passing sequences. Having him chase 10 assists (or any number for that matter) will likely hurt the Jazz’s chance of winning. John Stockton was a great player, but I really don’t think he chased assists. They were the byproduct of his precise execution of the offense (his greatness), the quality of his teammates (Malone’s greatness), and the fact that the offense (half court and transition) put him in that part of the passing sequence (Sloan’s greatness).

Blocked Shots – Man, do we love this stat! But let’s be clear, blocked shots have little to do with good defense for the typical NBA player. Take Ekpe Udoh as an example; he is a great shot-blocker, but IMO, an average defender (I know a lot of you will disagree with this). His play also demonstrates what happens when you try to block a shot and fail (which is most of the time); he loses position for a rebound and points are given away.

FYI, I am aware of the "Gobert Factor." First, it’s clear that the threat of a block is often as valuable as the block itself, and to generate that threat, Rudy has to block some shots (at least try). This is a real thing, and I am not dismissing it, but very few players can make this work. Just because there is a Gobert Factor doesn’t mean that every player should fly at every shot. I think it is far more profitable for players to maintain position, give up the poorest shot they can leverage, and get the defensive rebound. For the less than 5 extra shots the opponent gets off in a game, and any number of shots that are not disconcerted as a result of not trying to block everything, there is still a real payback that I think is worth it (i.e., better shot recovery and fewer fouls). I truly believe that most players would be more effective if they stayed on their feet and blocked out.

Steals – This is a weird statistic in the NBA. It should be noted that a turnover does not necessarily come from a steal, but a steal always generates a turnover. So, if you jump into a passing lane and the ball handler hesitates and travels, he gets the turnover, but you don’t get the steal. I have also seen players knock dribbles off knees out-of-bounds and again, turnover, but no steal. Taking a charge is not credited as a steal, but it too is a turnover. In any case, steals are a lot like blocked shots. They often involve risk resulting in easier baskets for the opponent when they are prioritized above team defense.

I agree that pass deflections are frustrating to an opponent and thus have both direct and indirect value. I also agree that aggression to the ball handler causes disruption in the offense, and those are the same behaviors that get steals; however, many deflections and dispossessions can take place while defensive position is maintained. Steals are great when you see them, but the cost of chasing them is rarely calculated. Just like assists, I think steals are the byproduct of good play and teams don’t benefit by chasing them independent of good defense. Again, sorry to the John Stockton fans, but I believe that his steals were a byproduct of his overall defensive skill, not the product of chasing steals independent of the team.

Offensive Rebounds – Ahhh, my pet peeve. I have heard it said that offensive rebound-totals don’t correlate with wins. I believe this to be true, but I also believe it has nothing to do with the value of offensive rebounds. Confounds obscure their true relationship to winning. For example, when your team shoots a higher percentage, there are fewer offensive rebounds available, so the team will have fewer of them, but will have a better chance of winning. This does not vitiate the value of offensive rebounds even in these circumstances.

Look at it this way. Most of the time, rebounds are defensive (typically 3 or 4 to 1). It’s easy, then, to see how an offensive rebound can be thought of as a steal and a new possession. Since possessions are worth about one point, offensive rebounds have a calculable value. But that value is not completely accurate. Offensive rebounds typically initiate the new possession right under the basket making them worth a lot more than one point, and that increased efficiency does equate to wins.

I would also point out that offensive rebounds have an emotional impact on the opponent (like deflected passes), giving them a qualitative value as well. The question becomes, what risk to guarding the transition does the team make chasing offensive rebounds? I would suggest minimal, given good coaching on transition defense. In the end, I think offensive rebounds are extremely under-appreciated and teams should not be faulted for sending 2, 3, even 4 players after them.

Turnovers – We all hate it when our team commits turnovers. There is no controversy in that. However, there seems to be a number for turnovers in a game that is deemed "acceptable." That number is often the league or team average. That makes maintaining possession a relative achievement. "Gee Mr. Announcer, we only had 10 turnovers tonight, our boys really took care of the ball."

IMO, the turnover goal should be zero (an actual goal, not a lucky happenstance). Turnovers are ALL bad. Now some might say that a low or even average number of turnovers suggests that your team is exploiting weaknesses in the defense without undue risk. Locke has recently called into question the value of only "conservative" passing. Well, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that questionable passes (or other ill-considered tactics) might lead to results unobtainable otherwise. Thus, a low turnover number should not suggest unrealistic caution, it should suggest better execution.

I realize that it is impossible(?) for any team to play 48 minutes without a turnover (the record is 2), or even a few, but I don’t think there should never be an "oh well that’s acceptable" amount.

Shot Selection: The Long 2 (15’) – This is not really a stat, but I wanted to rant about it anyway. There are a whole host of new statistics regarding shot selection. We can track the percent of shots in the paint, the percent of 3-pointers, even corner 3-pointers. From these data there is a consensus that long 2-point shots are inefficient and should therefore be avoided. Some teams build strategies with this as a guiding principle. Unfortunately, this is not as clear as the data might suggest. During the course of a game, open shots do not occur in a vacuum. A player might find himself open for a corner 3-pointer as a direct result of someone else just hitting (or even just taking) the long 2 on the prior possession.

Past Jazz teams have certainly benefitted from the long 2. Karl Malone killed teams with it, and more recently, Carlos Boozer was amazing as well (be nice, the guy could shoot the rock!). Ricky Rubio, despite 3-point woes, seems to be able to hit the long 2 well enough, and I think he should be encouraged to shoot that shot. Who knows, it might be the effectiveness of that shot that opens up more 3-point shots for Joe Ingles (and other Jazz players) or allows Rudy to roll more freely to the basket. The numbers around the long 2 might be fooling us.

That was a long post. I know I could have been more complete in my arguments and provided more examples, but then it would be a tome not a post. Anyway, I hope y’all enjoyed reading it. Maybe some of you agree with some of it and others are now yelling at their computer monitor. In any case, Go Jazz!

All comments are the opinion of the commenter and not necessarily that of SLC Dunk or SB Nation.