Basketball

BasketballBy the time Apples & Oranges got to basketball, the system was pretty well set. Applying the lessons from the previous sports made dealing with the data a snap, and it was all smooth sailing.

Offense 1 is easy: simply dividing total points by the league average. Offense 2 was going to be assists, but that ran into a few problems. First, the definition of an assist has changed over time, giving modern players an advantage. Second, assists are, as a matter of tactics, not distributed evenly. Point guards have the ball more than other players and run the offense, so using straight assist numbers would give lopsided results — we needed a way to put them in context with overall offensive output. At the same time, I was deciding that missed field goals needed to be part of a player’s defensive record (more on that below), which meant that I needed to include made field goals somewhere to balance it out.

By making Offense 2 an average of made field goals and assists (similar to how runs and RBI were averaged in the baseball ratings), we get a full view of a player’s tactical contribution to the offense.

Defense 1 is possessions. Steals and rebounds are positive, missed field goals and turnovers are negative. Each missed shot or rebound counts as half a turnover. All rebounds, offensive and defensive, go on the defensive side of the ledger. The idea here is that by missing shots, a player is putting the team’s defense under pressure. A missed shot is up for grabs — if the defensive team rebounds it, it completes the turnover; if an offensive teammate gets it, that negates the turnover.

Defense 2 is based on points allowed by the team, distributed according to minutes played, with a bonus for blocked shots. We only have data for blocks, steals and turnovers since the 1973-74 season, so the balance between Defense 1 and Defense 2 is different before then. Players (especially centers) have higher Defense 1 and lower Defense 2 numbers before the change, but it tends to balance out.

At the end of the 2017-18 season, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain for the top spot on the basketball list. After 2019, he sits at 37.07. Things could still change, but when all is said and done, I expect him to be challenging Pelé and W.G. Grace for the overall No. 1 ranking.

Centers Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Wilt Chamberlain 1205 177.37 23.55 13.32 36.87 34.83 12.27
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1797 215.86 19.22 14.69 33.91 30.69 7.75
George Mikan 611 90.83 23.79 9.53 33.32 39.69 7.88
Shaquille O’Neal 1423 177.29 19.93 13.32 33.25 32.37 7.50
Hakeem Olajuwon 1383 160.80 18.60 12.68 31.28 28.65 8.56
David Robinson 1110 124.12 17.89 11.14 29.03 26.64 9.14
Patrick Ewing 1322 138.97 16.82 11.79 28.61 26.37 7.27
Bill Russell 1128 116.06 16.46 10.77 27.24 20.26 12.66
Artis Gilmore 1429 136.55 15.29 11.69 26.97 22.21 8.36
Dave Cowens 855 84.44 15.80 9.19 24.99 23.72 8.03
Jerry Lucas 901 84.97 15.09 9.22 24.31 20.84 9.34
Robert Parish 1795 136.07 12.13 11.66 23.79 17.69 6.57
Alonzo Mourning 933 82.78 14.20 9.10 23.29 21.25 7.14
Willis Reed 728 66.24 14.56 8.14 22.70 21.35 7.76
Dikembe Mutombo 1297 88.09 10.87 9.39 20.25 12.68 9.05
Bill Walton 517 39.73 12.30 6.30 18.60 17.81 6.78

The great centers, who dominated the NBA through the second half of the 20th century, are now an endangered breed. Now understanding the full mathematical implications of the three-point shot, NBA coaches don’t have the time or patience to run the offense through a dominant big man anymore.

Wilt scores huge, of course, but maybe not as high as expected, given that he scored 100 points in a game once, and average 50 for the season. You can divide his career into three phases, roughly corresponding to his time with the Warriors, 76ers and Lakers — the eye-popping scoring numbers belong to the Warriors phase. At each stop, his shot attempts and scoring declined. By the time he got to Los Angeles, he was still great, but not the points machine he had been.

Shaq should have rated a lot higher, but lacked the intensity and dedication to the game that most of these other players had. He was still the dominant big man of his era, but he could have been the best ever. I suppose he’ll just have to satisfy himself with being fabulously wealthy and leading a happy, well-rounded life.

Center-Forwards Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Tim Duncan 1643 182.49 17.77 13.51 31.28 27.37 8.17
Kevin Garnett 1605 176.41 17.59 13.28 30.87 27.54 7.63
Elvin Hayes 1399 142.34 16.28 11.93 28.21 24.97 7.59
Dan Issel 1351 132.26 15.66 11.50 27.16 26.37 4.95
Moses Malone 1555 145.49 14.97 12.06 27.03 22.92 7.02
Dolph Schayes 1093 109.73 16.06 10.48 26.54 25.20 6.93
Bob McAdoo 946 92.79 15.69 9.63 25.33 26.27 5.11
Nate Thurmond 1045 88.47 13.55 9.41 22.95 18.20 8.89
Wes Unseld 1103 86.01 12.48 9.27 21.75 15.50 9.46

These players straddled the position between center and power forward. Some were undersized centers who moved to the four spot as they slowed down and could no longer use their quickness to make up for their lack of height. Others, generally taller forwards, went the other way; as they slowed down they found centers easier to guard than forwards.

Tim Duncan always insisted he was a power forward and not a center. I think, tactically, he was a classic center and his numbers bear that out, but the Spurs generally paired him with a bigger, slower player on the front line, especially in the first half of his career, so it’s hard to argue.

Kevin Garnett, whose career paralleled Duncan’s, had an outside-in game that was more like a forward’s. They finished neck-and-neck.

Power Forwards Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Karl Malone 1669 203.02 19.46 14.25 33.71 32.78 6.14
Bob Pettit 880 108.34 19.70 10.41 30.11 31.21 8.18
Dirk Nowitzki 1667 173.32 16.64 13.17 29.80 27.85 5.42
Charles Barkley 1196 135.05 18.07 11.62 29.69 28.80 7.33
Chris Webber 911 104.80 18.41 10.24 28.64 31.04 5.78
Adrian Dantley 1028 104.51 16.27 10.22 26.49 28.22 4.31
Bailey Howell 1036 95.08 14.68 9.75 24.44 20.84 8.53
Kevin McHale 1140 98.68 13.85 9.93 23.78 21.50 6.21
Dave DeBusschere 971 82.04 13.52 9.06 22.58 19.91 7.13
Tom Chambers 1215 96.24 12.67 9.81 22.48 21.48 3.87
Tom Heinsohn 758 65.72 13.87 8.11 21.98 22.29 5.45
Dennis Rodman 1080 64.57 9.57 8.04 17.60 10.15 8.98

Malone may be a surprise at top overall forward (pending LeBron’s retirement, of course). He didn’t have the prettiest style, but he played a ton of games, scoring 2,000 points a year for a dozen years.

Dennis Rodman, as one-dimensional a player as you’ll ever see, is massively overrated. He was a great rebounder, when he tried, but averaged only 30 minutes a game for his career, gave inconsistent effort when he did play and was a total liability on offense. He knew how to get attention, though.

Power forward isn’t much of a glamour position. Nowitzki, Barkley and Webber made it sexy … the rest of these guys are bangers, better versions of the ham-and-eggers who usually fill out the roster at this spot.

Small Forwards Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Larry Bird 1061 129.90 19.59 11.40 30.99 32.61 6.56
Julius Erving 1432 162.74 18.18 12.76 30.94 30.21 6.16
Elgin Baylor 980 119.92 19.58 10.95 30.53 32.28 6.88
Rick Barry 1125 125.07 17.79 11.18 28.97 31.42 4.16
Dominique Wilkins 1130 121.21 17.16 11.01 28.17 30.05 4.27
John Havlicek 1442 143.36 15.91 11.97 27.88 27.11 4.71
Scottie Pippen 1386 134.72 15.55 11.61 27.16 24.83 6.27
Alex English 1261 120.64 15.31 10.98 26.29 27.67 2.95
Bernard King 902 88.75 15.74 9.42 25.16 27.96 3.53
Billy Cunningham 824 81.86 15.90 9.05 24.94 26.18 5.61
Bob Dandridge 937 86.46 14.76 9.30 24.06 24.10 5.43
James Worthy 1069 94.92 14.21 9.74 23.95 23.54 4.87
Chris Mullin 1057 91.20 13.81 9.55 23.35 23.82 3.79
Cliff Hagan 934 77.61 13.30 8.81 22.10 22.19 4.40
Jack Twyman 857 72.55 13.54 8.52 22.06 22.73 4.24

Bird was an amazing talent, cut down prematurely by back trouble. Three more healthy seasons and he’d be up there with anyone. LeBron is coming for his spot, though.

There’s a lot of star power at the top of this list, but the bottom half is mostly good-but-not-great guys. A half-decent NBA player can put up great numbers for a long time at the three-position.

Guard-Forwards Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Clyde Drexler 1231 128.54 16.71 11.34 28.04 28.64 4.77
Paul Pierce 1506 147.59 15.68 12.15 27.83 27.02 4.34
George Gervin 1144 119.09 16.66 10.91 27.57 29.92 3.39
Tracy McGrady 988 102.66 16.63 10.13 26.76 29.26 3.99
Paul Arizin 762 82.51 17.32 9.08 26.41 28.91 5.73

“Swingman” isn’t usually a star’s role in the NBA. If you’re not good enough to hold down a position and make it yours, the team’s focus is going to be elsewhere. But these players managed to do it. They were generally bigger guards who moved to the small forward spot as they aged and kept their numbers up.

Shooting Guards Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Michael Jordan 1251 179.00 22.89 13.38 36.27 40.36 5.43
Kobe Bryant 1566 188.43 19.25 13.73 32.98 35.36 3.15
Allen Iverson 985 129.39 21.02 11.37 32.39 39.45 2.58
Dwyane Wade 1231 138.83 18.04 11.78 29.83 31.95 4.14
Ray Allen 1471 138.28 15.04 11.76 26.80 25.99 4.09
Reggie Miller 1533 135.53 14.15 11.64 25.79 24.04 4.25
Pete Maravich 684 72.24 16.90 8.50 25.40 31.48 2.31
Mitch Richmond 999 95.69 15.33 9.78 25.11 27.91 2.74
Hal Greer 1214 108.09 14.25 10.40 24.64 24.05 4.44
Bill Sharman 789 71.82 14.56 8.47 23.04 25.46 3.67
Earl Monroe 1008 85.82 13.62 9.26 22.89 23.97 3.27
Joe Dumars 1130 94.25 13.35 9.71 23.05 22.86 3.83
Michael Redd 645 57.14 14.17 7.56 21.73 25.41 2.94
Sam Jones 1025 80.81 12.61 8.99 21.60 21.38 3.85
Steve Smith 1032 77.72 12.05 8.82 20.87 20.22 3.87
Sidney Moncrief 860 66.42 12.36 8.15 20.51 19.77 4.94
Paul Westphal 930 68.18 11.73 8.26 19.99 20.84 2.62

Subjectively, I’ll still take Jordan over anyone. He’s behind Chamberlain, and will end up behind LeBron James, because he took two years off in his prime to play minor-league baseball.

Allen Iverson, like Jordan, could physically dominate from the guard position. His numbers look a lot better in the context of the low-scoring era he played in.

Even more than center, shooting guard is the cradle of stars. They’re usually the team’s primary scorer and have the most freedom to take over the game. With the rise of the three-point shot, their influence is only growing.

Point Guards Games Total Per 160 Sqr Rt Sum Off Def
Oscar Roberston 1126 143.83 20.44 11.99 32.43 34.54 6.34
Jerry West 1085 132.70 19.57 11.52 31.09 34.09 5.05
Magic Johnson 1096 125.57 18.33 11.21 29.54 31.53 5.13
Gary Payton 1489 148.06 15.91 12.17 28.08 27.29 4.53
John Stockton 1686 158.74 15.06 12.60 27.66 25.75 4.38
Bob Cousy 1033 110.55 17.12 10.51 27.64 30.56 3.69
Isiah Thomas 1090 114.44 16.80 10.70 27.50 30.10 3.50
Jason Kidd 1549 147.22 15.21 12.13 27.34 24.83 5.58
Walt Frazier 918 93.70 16.33 9.68 26.01 26.53 6.13
Steve Nash 1337 123.39 14.77 11.11 25.87 27.23 2.30
Kevin Johnson 840 84.58 16.11 9.20 25.31 29.28 2.94
Dave Bing 932 89.42 15.35 9.46 24.81 27.05 3.65
Tiny Archibald 923 86.88 15.06 9.32 24.38 26.77 3.35
Lenny Wilkens 1141 99.82 14.00 9.99 23.99 22.94 5.06
Jo Jo White 917 81.01 14.13 9.00 23.14 24.55 3.72

Magic came in a bit low. His scoring took a while to get going and, of course, his career was cut short by an HIV diagnosis. Jordan, Johnson and Bird, the three players most cited in the explosion of basketball’s popularity in the 1980s all ended up playing less than they should have, leaving us to wonder what could have been.

To do list:

Bob Lanier
Dennis Johnson
Tim Hardaway
Gail Goodrich
Tony Parker