Stats, stats, stats!

Hello everyone, and welcome to another season of Dumpy’s Statistical Analysis. For the record, I’m Dumpy (not my real name), and what I try to do in this space is to take a numerical approach to analyzing the performance of the Nets and the individual players. I’m not a statistician by trade, but I love crunching numbers and detecting behavioral patterns, and so here we are. I had to end these reports in the middle of last season because of unexpected time constraints, but I’ll try to keep this going as long as my schedule permits [read: definitely not when the Nets play five in seven days], and we’ll see what happens.

There has been an explosion of basketball-related numerical data in recent years, such as John Hollinger’s work and that of the web site www.82games.com. However, we won’t blindly follow their analysis. Some of these other sources "hide" their formulas, and just present their data without context. What does it really mean that Jason Kidd has a "Hands" rating of 31.8? Is this good? How is this number derived? I have no idea, and, as far as I can tell, 82games.com doesn’t tell us anywhere on their site. In these columns, I try not to simply present numbers, but to explain where they come from and what they might mean. There’s no "magic formula" that can tell us, in one number, what player is better than another or why the team is successful. Numbers are just tools that inform our analysis, but they can’t replace it. That’s why it is imperative that we understand exactly what the numbers represent.

One statistic I happen to like a lot, which has gained momentum and become more mainstream, is the plus-minus figures earned by each player and combinations of players. The plus-minus rating is a way to measure each player’s combined offensive and defensive total contribution to the team. Two simple examples will show how this works, taken from a game against Miami on February 4, 2006 (why not?). In that game, Vince Carter was on the floor for 40.0 minutes, during which the Nets outscored Miami by a total of 21 points—so Carter earned a +21 rating. In Jacque Vaughn’s case in that same game, the Nets were outscored by the Heat by 10 points during the time he was on the court, so he "earned" a -10 rating. That’s all there is to it. Sometimes, you’ll see the plus-minus figure incorporate data of how the team did when a player was NOT on the court, but I don’t think that is too significant, since it essentially just compares the starter’s performance to that of his backup. In fact, each player’s plus-minus rating is now reported in the box scores found on www.NBA.com.

We can also measure plus-minus based on two-man combos, three-man combos, 5-man combos, etc., which can enable us to identify groups of players that play exceptionally well or poorly together. Data on 5-man combinations can help us identify the players that contribute the least or the most to team success by comparing different combinations that differ by one player. For instance, if we know that, over the course of the season, a unit consisting of [Kidd, Carter, RJ, Collins and Krstic] has outscored its opponent by a greater margin than a unit consisting of [Kidd, Carter, RJ, Magloire and Krstic] in the same number of minutes, then we can generally conclude that Collins adds more to the team success than does Magloire. However, we have to be careful not to make a sweeping generalization that Collins is better than Magloire; there may very well be other four-man combinations that Magloire plays better with than Collins does—it is just up to us to identify them. A web site called www.popcornmachine.net provides plus-minus figures on a game-by-game basis, and I rely on these figures.

This season, I’ll continue to attack those questions. In addition, I’ll continue some of the analaysis I did last season, which was based on the work of Dean Oliver, as set forth in his recent book, "Basketball On Paper."

Oliver describes methods for determining the efficiency of a team’s offense, as well as that of individual players. This season, we’re going use these methods to measure the efficiency of the Nets on a game-by-game basis. Here are some of the statistics that you’ll see:

Possessions
Basically, possessions are the number of times a team brings the ball up court. Counting the number of possessions in a game is a good way to measure the pace of the action. For games involving running or trapping teams, the number of possessions will be high—possibly more than 100. For more methodical teams, the number of possessions may be closer to 80. Regardless, the number of possessions will be approximately the same as the opposition in each particular game. Possessions can (generally) end one of three ways: on a field goal attempt that is not rebounded by the offense (this includes successful FG attempts); on a turnover, or through some free throws. Even though the NBA doesn’t count actual possessions, it can be estimated using those stats as they appear in the box score. You’ll see that we’ll also present the "average" number of possessions for both teams for better accuracy.

Offensive Rating
A team’s offensive rating is just the number of points scored per 100 possessions.

Defensive Rating
A team’s defensive rating is just the number of points scored by the opponent per 100 possessions.

Assist Percentage
This one is easy. The Assist Percentage measures the percentage of successful field goals that have been assisted.

"Big Four" Factors
Through his research, Oliver has discovered that there are four primary factors that determine the outcome of a basketball game: field goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage, turnovers, and the ability to get to the line and hit free throws. We’ll refer to these as the "Big Four" factors, and will measure them for both the Nets and their opponents. Offensive rebound percentage is measured as indicated above, as a percentage of opportunities. Likewise, turnovers will be measured as a percentage of possessions. We’ll measure free throws by measuring the percentage of time the team got to the line in relation to field goal shot attempts.

Scoring Possessions
This is an estimate of the number of times a team scores at least one point on a possession.

Field Percentage
This is an estimate of the percentage of times a team scores a basket on possessions where no free throws are awarded. This illustrates how well a team scores when not drawing fouls.

Number of plays
This is an estimate of the number of times that a team both gains control of the ball and when they lose control of the ball, either when the opposing team gains control or when a shot goes up. The number of plays will be greater than the number of possessions. For example, if a team misses a shot, gets the rebound, and then makes the follow-up, that would count as two plays and only one possession.

Play percentage
An estimate of the percentage of a team’s plays on which it produces a scoring possession.
In addition, we’ll use many of these same concepts to look at the efficiency of individual players within a game. These are the source of the individual "Offensive rating" numbers that can be found places such as www.basketball-reference.com. Applying these concepts to individuals is a complicated process, and, if I may say so, Mr. Oliver could do a better job at explaining them, and never addresses the error rate of the "points produced" stat (which we’ll address next time). Nevertheless, we’ll try to use these concepts as best we can, and in the next Analysis, I’ll try to tackle exactly what they mean and what they measure.

Let me add, too, that Oliver has devised a method of calculating an individual’s "defensive rating," which you may have heard of. Problem is, the data required to compute this figure is not recorded by the NBA. Oliver does the best he can, using a series of assumptions, but I have concluded that the number and scope of these assumptions really limit the value of this statistic. Upshot: You won’t see it here.

So this will be the typical format of one of my Analyses this coming year, and from time to time I’ll tackle a more challenging question as the mood strikes. Also, from time-to-time, we’ll provide year-to-date figures for these measurements, and compare them to those of other teams so you can see how the Nets stack up.

Because this intro has been so long, I’ll present just the basic information from the first game:

Possessions: 99
Offensive Rating: 113.6
Defensive Rating: 104.5
Assist Percentage: 72.5
"Big Four" Factors. As mentioned above, the four primary factors that determine the outcome of a basketball game are: field goal percentage, offensive rebound percentage, turnovers, and the ability to get to the line and hit free throws. Offensive rebound percentage is measured as a percentage of rebound opportunities; turnovers are measured as a percentage of possessions; and free throws are measured by the percentage of time the team got to the line in relation to field goal shot attempts.

Chicago New Jersey
FG% 39.6% 40.2%
OREB% 35.8% 35.0%
TOV% 16.2% 17.2%
FTA/FGA 27.1% 50.0%

And the effective field goal percentage:

Chicago 43.8%
New Jersey 45.7%

That’s about enough for today. Let me just add that, on the individual front, Antoine Wright earned an offensive rating of 133.9 for his fine play, while Jefferson earned a sterling 138.4. Nenad Krstic, however, earned just a 75.1—even though he shot 50% from the floor, he committed more turnovers than assists, steals, and blocks combined, grabbed just a handful of rebounds, and failed to get to the line. Well, it’s early.

So, I hope to see you around. Have an enjoyable season! And don’t forget to write.
–Dumpy.

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