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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Mike Wilbon and the New Math

It is amazing to see and hear the funny tricks that people do with numbers in order to find a way to denigrate Kobe Bryant. First, someone tried to say that 32 points plus 16 assists adds up to more than 65 points. Today I listened to a podcast of Mike Wilbon on the Dan Patrick Show. The subject was whether or not Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan. For the record, I'll take Jordan; Bryant is the current player who is most like Jordan and closest to Jordan's abilities but I'd still take Jordan--Bryant's career is not over, though. Anyway, Wilbon mentioned that he had been looking up some numbers (here's where the trouble always begins) and was amazed that Bryant shoots so much more often than Jordan did, claiming that Bryant shoots 29 times per game while Jordan shot roughly 25 times per game. Wilbon asserted that Jordan shot .540 from the field during his 37 ppg season and if he had shot an extra four attempts then he would have averaged 41 ppg. He also said that the NBA's recent changes restricting defensive contact on perimeter players favor Bryant; that is true, but it also favors every other great perimeter player in the league, none of whom have scored like Bryant has the past two seasons--but let's get back to Wilbon's numerical "research" because I don't think that "Stat Boy" Tony Reali is going to want to take any credit for it. Here are Jordan's actual numbers from 1986-87, when he averaged 37.1 ppg: 1098 FGM, 2279 FGA, .482. Jordan shot 12-66 (.182) from three point range that season. Jordan played in all 82 games that year, so that works out to 27.8 FGA/game, not 25. Also, note that MJ shot .482, not .540. Here are Bryant's numbers so far this year (he is averaging 30.8 ppg): 671 FGM, 1449 FGA, .463. Bryant has shot 125/347 (.360) from three point range, which of course drags down his overall field goal percentage; Bryant's "adjusted field goal percentage" (calculated by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two) is .505, compared to .484 for Jordan in '87. Bryant has played in 66 games, so he is shooting 22.0 FGA/game, not 29.

In Wilbon's defense, maybe he was just looking at the numbers for Bryant's five game streak of 40 point games, when he shot about 35 times per game--but in those contests Bryant shot nearly .530 from the field, including .477 from three point range, far better than Jordan's percentages in 1987, so the numbers still don't add up the way that Wilbon said. Was Wilbon referring to Bryant's numbers from last season? Bryant averaged 35.4 ppg (the best average since Jordan's 37.1) with these shooting numbers: 978 FGM, 2173 FGA, .450. Bryant shot 180/518 (.347) from three point range, so his adjusted field goal percentage was .491--not as good as this year, but still better than Jordan's in 1987. Bryant played in 80 games, so he attempted 27.2 FGA/game--again, not 29 and not more than Jordan shot in 1987.

What does all of this mean? Wilbon is wrong to say that this year Bryant is shooting four times per game more than Jordan did in 1987. In fact, Bryant is attempting nearly six fewer shots per game this year than Jordan did in 1987. Even last year, Bryant attempted more than half a shot a game fewer than Jordan did in 1987. Jordan's 1987 field goal percentage was better than Bryant's from last year or this year but when you factor in three point shooting Bryant's adjusted field goal percentage moves ahead of Jordan's. By the way, the free throw percentages are basically a wash: .857 for Jordan, .850 for Bryant last year, .866 for Bryant this year.

Jordan did have three seasons in which he shot .535 (1988), .538 (1989) and .539 (1991) from the field, averaging 35.0 ppg, 32.5 ppg and 31.5 ppg respectively. He attempted 24.4, 22.2 and 22.4 FGA/game in those seasons and his adjusted shooting percentages in those seasons were .537, .546 and .520. However, if Wilbon meant to reference Jordan's seasons after 1987 he did not make that clear because he kept emphasizing the erroneous .540 number in connection with Jordan supposedly being able to score 41 ppg if he shot as much as Bryant. Looking at the three years when Jordan did shoot close to .540 from the field, his adjusted shooting percentages in those seasons are better than Bryant's from last year or this year--but Wilbon is still wrong about the field goal attempts, because in each of those three seasons Jordan shot more than Bryant is this year.

Maybe Wilbon meant to compare Bryant's numbers from last year to Jordan's numbers from 1988. If so, would it be too much to ask to say what you mean and mean what you say? With the whole weight of the research staff of the "Worldwide Leader" behind you it shouldn't be too much to get the years and the numbers right.

The bottom line is that overall Bryant is shooting less than Jordan did in his prime, not more. When Bryant's greater three point range is factored into the equation, he shot better in his career-high 35.4 ppg season than Jordan did in his career-high 37.1 ppg season. Jordan's main trump in this regard are three seasons during which he averaged at least 31.5 ppg while maintaining a terrific adjusted shooting percentage.

What are their career numbers? Jordan's statistics are skewed a little by his comeback with the Wizards, while Bryant's numbers are dragged down by his low key first few years coming straight out of high school. Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg while shooting 22.9 FGA/game for a .509 adjusted field goal percentage; Bryant has averaged 24.5 ppg while shooting 18.7 FGA/game for a .484 adjusted field goal percentage.

To summarize, Jordan's career numbers are somewhat better than Bryant's but the story is not the one that Wilbon told: Bryant is not shooting more than Jordan; Jordan shot more than Bryant did. Jordan did not shoot .540 from the field in his 37.1 ppg season; he shot much worse than that--.482, his worst shooting percentage in a full season prior to the last season of his first comeback. Also, Jordan's best shooting seasons coincide with the emergence of Scottie Pippen, whose playmaking provided Jordan and the other Bulls with easier scoring opportunities. Bryant does not have a Pippen; in fact, during the Lakers' title run he was Pippen--albeit a higher scoring version--leading the team in assists while Shaquille O'Neal generally took on an attacking role in the triangle offense (in theory the offense is "equal opportunity" but in practice an O'Neal, a Jordan or now a Bryant looks to attack more aggressively from certain areas than other players do).

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM



At Thursday, March 29, 2007 8:21:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

You cant count the Wizards with Mike's numbers. He was there to improve the popularity of the franchise, which he has done. They have made the playoffs (of course there are different players) and people in DC actually go to the games. Offensively Bryant has done some things Mike didnt do (81 points and 50 in 4 games.) But Bryant is no where near Mike. I dont care about statistical analysis or what Wilbon has to say. I know what Ive seen.

At Thursday, March 29, 2007 9:46:00 AM, Blogger Joe Grossberg said...

And, don't forget, for most of MJ's career, his opponents were forced to play him man-to-man.

As you said in the previous post, "Memphis used a combination of a two-three zone and a box and one zone against Bryant on Tuesday."

Jordan never faced that; defenses were limited in their options.

At Thursday, March 29, 2007 4:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I just included the career numbers for comparison purposes and I duly noted why that particular comparison has to be taken with a grain of salt. MJ's Wizards years are no different that Kobe's first couple years coming out of high school--those seasons don't reflect who those players were/are at their peak, but that is the nature of comparing career numbers. I talked about this subject once in a Basketball Digest article, noting that comparing the career numbers of two players can be deceptive if one player's career is not over or if one player kept playing well past his prime.

I wonder how many people would guess off the top of their heads that MJ averaged several more FGA/game in his career than Kobe?

At Sunday, April 15, 2007 11:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to know why we adjust Kobe's field goal percentage simply because he shoots more three pointers, which "drags" down his shooting percentage...the fact that Kobe takes lower percentage shots is his own fault, is it not? You shouldn't reward him with an increased FG percentage simply becuase he takes more three point shots. Thats ridiculous.

At Monday, April 16, 2007 2:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You get an extra point for making a three pointer. That is the point of adjusting the percentage.

For example:

Player A shoots 50/100 from 2-point range: this equals 100 points.

Player B shoots 34/100 from 3-point range: this equals 102 points.

If you simply say that Player A shoots 50% and Player B shoots 34% then you are not really giving a complete picture of their respective impacts.

The point of adjusting the field goal percentage is to calculate how close a player comes to scoring the maximum amount that he could have based on the kinds of shots that he took. Other issues, such as offensive rebounding, the time and score when the shots were taken, are of course not included. I made this point in an earlier discussion about Arenas. When Arenas' field goal percentage is adjusted it doesn't look so bad--but he is a point guard who jacks up threes early in the shot clock, so I would argue that he does his team a lot of harm with his three pointers. Kobe uses the three point shot much more judiciously. In fact, because he can shoot from there players have to guard him all the way to the three point line, which can open up driving lanes or free up his teammates if Kobe is double-teamed out there.


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