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.

CentersGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Wilt Chamberlain1205177.3723.5513.3236.87 34.8312.27
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar1797215.8619.2214.6933.91 30.697.75
George Mikan61190.8323.799.5333.32 39.697.88
Shaquille O’Neal1423177.2919.9313.3233.25 32.377.50
Hakeem Olajuwon1383160.8018.6012.6831.28 28.658.56
David Robinson1110124.1217.8911.1429.03 26.649.14
Patrick Ewing1322138.9716.8211.7928.61 26.377.27
Bill Russell1128116.0616.4610.7727.24 20.2612.66
Artis Gilmore1429136.5515.2911.6926.97 22.218.36
Walt Bellamy1089106.6715.6710.3326.00 23.208.14
Bob Lanier1026101.4415.8210.0725.89 25.216.43
Dave Cowens85584.4415.809.1924.99 23.728.03
Jerry Lucas90184.9715.099.2224.31 20.849.34
Robert Parish1795136.0712.1311.6623.79 17.696.57
Alonzo Mourning93382.7814.209.1023.29 21.257.14
Jack Sikma120999.5613.189.9823.1519.556.80
Willis Reed72866.2414.568.1422.70 21.357.76
Dikembe Mutombo129788.0910.879.3920.25 12.689.05
Bill Walton51739.7312.306.3018.60 17.816.78

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-ForwardsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Tim Duncan1643182.4917.7713.5131.28 27.378.17
Kevin Garnett1605176.4117.5913.2830.87 27.547.63
Elvin Hayes1399142.3416.2811.9328.21 24.977.59
Dan Issel1351132.2615.6611.5027.16 26.374.95
Moses Malone1555145.4914.9712.0627.03 22.927.02
Dolph Schayes1093109.7316.0610.4826.54 25.206.93
Chris Bosh98296.6015.749.8325.57 24.836.65
Bob McAdoo94692.7915.699.6325.33 26.275.11
Rasheed Wallace1286111.8313.9110.5724.49 21.006.83
Elton Brand109899.5514.519.9824.4822.086.93
Nate Thurmond104588.4713.559.4122.95 18.208.89
Zelmo Beaty100482.0213.079.0622.1319.206.95
Wes Unseld110386.0112.489.2721.75 15.509.46

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 ForwardsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Karl Malone1669203.0219.4614.2533.71 32.786.14
Bob Pettit880108.3419.7010.4130.11 31.218.18
Dirk Nowitzki1667173.3216.6413.1729.80 27.855.42
Charles Barkley1196135.0518.0711.6229.69 28.807.33
Chris Webber911104.8018.4110.2428.64 31.045.78
Adrian Dantley1028104.5116.2710.2226.49 28.224.31
Bailey Howell103695.0814.689.7524.44 20.848.53
Kevin McHale114098.6813.859.9323.78 21.506.21
Dave DeBusschere97182.0413.529.0622.58 19.917.13
Tom Chambers121596.2412.679.8122.48 21.483.87
Otis Thorpe1335100.1912.0110.0122.0218.125.89
Tom Heinsohn75865.7213.878.1121.98 22.295.45
Horace Grant133599.0611.879.9521.83 15.917.84
Buck Williams1415100.1111.3210.0121.33 15.287.36
Dennis Rodman108064.579.578.0417.60 10.158.98

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 ForwardsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Larry Bird1061129.9019.5911.4030.99 32.616.56
Julius Erving1432162.7418.1812.7630.94 30.216.16
Elgin Baylor980119.9219.5810.9530.53 32.286.88
Rick Barry1125125.0717.7911.1828.97 31.424.16
Dominique Wilkins1130121.2117.1611.0128.17 30.054.27
John Havlicek1442143.3615.9111.9727.88 27.114.71
Scottie Pippen1386134.7215.5511.6127.16 24.836.27
Alex English1261120.6415.3110.9826.29 27.672.95
Bernard King90288.7515.749.4225.16 27.963.53
Billy Cunningham82481.8615.909.0524.94 26.185.61
Shawn Marion1272112.5014.1510.6124.76 21.297.02
Bob Dandridge93786.4614.769.3024.06 24.105.43
James Worthy106994.9214.219.7423.95 23.544.87
Glen Rice105592.0813.969.6023.56 23.794.14
Mark Aguirre102589.2613.939.4523.38 24.703.17
Chris Mullin105791.2013.819.5523.35 23.823.79
Chet Walker113793.5213.169.6722.83 21.025.31
Cliff Hagan93477.6113.308.8122.10 22.194.40
Jack Twyman85772.5513.548.5222.06 22.734.24
Detlef Schrempf125092.1711.809.6021.40 18.964.63

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-ForwardsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Clyde Drexler1231128.5416.7111.3428.04 28.644.77
Paul Pierce1506147.5915.6812.1527.83 27.024.34
George Gervin1144119.0916.6610.9127.57 29.923.39
Tracy McGrady988102.6616.6310.1326.76 29.263.99
Paul Arizin76282.5117.329.0826.41 28.915.73
Joe Johnson1396119.5813.7110.9424.64 23.673.74
Walter Davis111193.7113.509.6823.18 24.682.31

“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 GuardsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Michael Jordan1251179.0022.8913.3836.27 40.365.43
Kobe Bryant1566188.4319.2513.7332.98 35.363.15
Allen Iverson985129.3921.0211.3732.39 39.452.58
Dwyane Wade1231138.8318.0411.7829.83 31.954.14
Ray Allen1471138.2815.0411.7626.80 25.994.09
Reggie Miller1533135.5314.1511.6425.79 24.044.25
Pete Maravich68472.2416.908.5025.40 31.482.31
Mitch Richmond99995.6915.339.7825.11 27.912.74
Hal Greer1214108.0914.2510.4024.64 24.054.44
Gail Goodrich111195.1313.709.7523.45 24.303.10
Reggie Theus104389.1313.679.4423.11 24.812.53
Jeff Hornacek121799.8113.129.9923.11 21.814.44
Joe Dumars113094.2513.359.7123.05 22.863.83
Bill Sharman78971.8214.568.4723.04 25.463.67
Earl Monroe100885.8213.629.2622.89 23.973.27
World B. Free92077.8313.548.8222.36 24.842.24
Michael Redd64557.1414.177.5621.73 25.412.94
Sam Jones102580.8112.618.9921.60 21.383.85
Manu Ginóbili127593.0711.689.6521.33 19.603.76
Steve Smith103277.7212.058.8220.87 20.223.87
Sidney Moncrief86066.4212.368.1520.51 19.774.94
Paul Westphal93068.1811.738.2619.99 20.842.62

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 GuardsGamesTotalPer 160Sqr RtSum OffDef
Oscar Roberston1126143.8320.4411.9932.43 34.546.34
Jerry West1085132.7019.5711.5231.09 34.095.05
Magic Johnson1096125.5718.3311.2129.54 31.535.13
Gary Payton1489148.0615.9112.1728.08 27.294.53
John Stockton1686158.7415.0612.6027.66 25.754.38
Bob Cousy1033110.5517.1210.5127.64 30.563.69
Isiah Thomas1090114.4416.8010.7027.50 30.103.50
Jason Kidd1549147.2215.2112.1327.34 24.835.58
Walt Frazier91893.7016.339.6826.01 26.536.13
Tony Parker1480133.5214.4311.5625.99 25.653.22
Tim Hardaway92393.5216.219.6725.88 29.363.06
Steve Nash1337123.3914.7711.1125.87 27.232.30
Kevin Johnson84084.5816.119.2025.31 29.282.94
Dave Bing93289.4215.359.4624.81 27.053.65
Tiny Archibald92386.8815.069.3224.38 26.773.35
Lenny Wilkens114199.8214.009.9923.99 22.945.06
Chauncey Billups1189102.0613.7310.1023.84 23.753.72
Jo Jo White91781.0114.139.0023.14 24.553.72
Calvin Murphy105388.5113.459.4122.86 24.092.81
Dennis Johnson1280100.8912.6110.0422.66 20.494.73
Terry Porter1398100.0111.5610.0021.45 19.383.51

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:

Larry Nance
Bill Laimbeer
Vince Carter
Sam Perkins
Maurice Cheeks
Baron Davis
Ben Wallace
Hersey Hawkins