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UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM
Is everything we know about basketball wrong?
BY AARON SCHATZ

It has been 25 years since new Red Sox statistical adviser Bill James began writing about baseball statistics, starting a revolution that transformed the game. But while stat-based innovations changed baseball, there has never been a similar movement in other sports.

Now John Hollinger is ready to extend statistical analysis to the NBA and explode the conventional wisdom. According to Hollingerís new book, Pro Basketball Prospectus 2002 (Brasseys, Inc.), Jason Kidd does not make his teammates better, defense doesnít necessarily win championships, and Antoine Walker isnít close to being an All-Star.

The heart of Hollingerís analysis is the idea of " pace. " Baseball always gives a team nine opportunities to score, but in basketball the number of opportunities to score changes depending on team strategy. A game with a fast-tempo team like Dallas will have many more possessions than a game with a slow-tempo team like Miami.

For example, conventional statistics show that Sacramento and Houston both had middle-of-the-pack defenses last season. Each gave up the same number of points per game, about 97. But according to Hollingerís statistics, Sacramento has the sixth-best defense in the league, while Houston has the worst ó because Sacramento gave up those 97 points in games with the most scoring opportunities of any team in the NBA, while Houston gave up those 97 points in games with the second-fewest scoring opportunities of any team in the NBA.

Hollinger writes a section on each team and tackles a number of conventional NBA beliefs. Last year we heard over and over that New Jersey turned things around because Jason Kidd makes his teammates better. So Hollinger analyzes each of Jason Kiddís teammates to see if he performed better after playing with Kidd. Then for good measure, he examines the influence of Michael Jordan by checking his teammates before and after both of his comebacks. The result shows that great players make their teams better because their own playing is great, not because they have an effect on their new teammates.

Hollinger also explodes the canard that defense wins championships. It turns out that over the past 14 years, the average rank for an NBA champion in offensive efficiency was fifth ó and the average rank in defensive efficiency was also fifth. Other questions Hollinger poses include, " Should teams draft big men late in the lottery? " and " Do players perform better with consistent minutes? "

Hollinger combines this analysis with commentary on each player and biting humor. Steve Francis was bothered all season by migraines, " perhaps induced by watching Glen Rice try to play defense. " Shawn Kemp has gone downhill " thanks to a unique training regimen that combined the worst vices of Henry VIII and William S. Burroughs. " About Keith Van Horn: " There have been guys with bad hair, and there have been guys with bad socks, but never has someone combined the two as sublimely as Van Horn has. "

What about our boys in green? Hollinger writes that Antoine Walkerís poor shooting costs the Celtics points, that defense was the key to last yearís success, and that no 31-year-old player who has declined for four straight seasons has ever turned his career around. Thatís bad news for Vin Baker fans. Maybe the Celtics need Hollinger more than the Red Sox need James.

Issue Date: November 21 - 28, 2002
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