By 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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
“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|
|World B. Free||920||77.83||13.54||8.82||22.36||24.84||2.24|
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|
|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: