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Friday, February 13, 2009

Rick Barry Interview

I caught up with Rick Barry just after the conclusion of the NWBA All-Star Game; he served as an honorary coach for the victorious West squad. I first interviewed Barry several years ago and he told me at that time that the only basketball statistic that cannot be manipulated is free throw percentage; every other stat is either subjective to some degree and/or can easily be recorded improperly due to human error. The issue of the reliability of basketball statistics is particularly timely now in the wake of the NBA recently downgrading a highly publicized triple double by LeBron James and considering that my ongoing (albeit preliminary) research suggests that Chris Paul's record setting assist numbers are not entirely legit.

Friedman: "When I interviewed you a few years ago, you told me that you thought that they only statistic that cannot be manipulated is free throw percentage. That leads me to ask a two-part question: First, what did you think about the whole thing with LeBron James and the triple double, that the NBA says that it examines all of the games and if the stats aren't right then they correct them? What is your reaction to that?"

Barry: "Well, yeah, if there is an error in the stats then obviously it should be corrected if they notice that it is there. I don't think that anybody should be entitled to get any kind of statistical record (falsely). That is nothing against LeBron, obviously. If you have a way to correct a problem that takes place, if someone makes a mistake then it needs to be corrected."

Friedman: "Do you remember the NBA doing anything similar to that during your career? Can you think of another instance similar to that?"

Barry: "No, not really. I don't recall something like that but I know that they try to stay on top of things so that they don't allow things like that to happen and it should be that way. A record is something special, so if a mistake is made and you can rectify or correct the mistake then you should do it."

Friedman: "The second part of my original question pertains to some charting that I have done about how assists are recorded. It seems to me that the definition of an assist has become very, very liberalized. I charted some games of Chris Paul in which he would pass to David West and West would do an up fake, several different moves and then score. Do you see a difference--not just with Chris Paul but in general--in the way that assists are recorded now compared to when you played?"

Barry: "It's not that there is a loosening of the rule; the rule is the rule. It's the interpretation of the rule by the individual who is keeping the stats (that has changed). It's always subject to an individual's observation of what took place. I would tend to agree that in a lot of places they are much more free in terms of giving an assist to someone. An assist is supposed to be a pass leading directly to a basket. In some places you can get to a point (at the other extreme) if a guy takes one dribble before shooting an open shot then they don't give the passer an assist, which is foolish. So, you can go to two extremes; you can be too tough in giving them out and you can be too liberal. I actually think that sometimes--a lot of the times--they are too liberal; if a guy catches a pass and has to make a move to lose his defender, that is not an assist. I mean, the guy made a great move to get himself open. If you pass the ball to a guy and he catches it on the move on a fast break and goes by somebody, I think that is an assist.

To be honest with you, I think that the NBA should be more like the NHL. What I love in the NHL is that the pass leading to the pass can also be scored as an assist--if that first pass had not been thrown, the second pass never happens. That is how they give assists out in hockey. But, definitely, there are times that they are way too liberal (in the NBA) and there are times that they are too difficult. I think that I still hold the record for assists in a game by a forward; I think that it was 19 and I did it on the road at Chicago where they hated me, so I figured that I probably had 23 or 24, because I know that they screwed me out of some of them. The thing is, I think that this is a part of the game that people should talk a little bit more about but also you don't want to make it so that the assist is not worthy of what a player accomplished. Again, you bring up the greatest example: if a guy catches the ball, makes moves, spins, does something else--that's not an assist, I'm sorry. I mean it really isn't. You have to bend a little bit but you also can't get carried away. I mean, if the guy catches the ball and makes a quick move to go by a guy then I say that is an assist because the pass led to a wide open opportunity down the floor--but if a guy catches the ball in the post and makes multiple moves then that is not an assist."

Friedman: "To summarize, you are saying that passing and assists should be emphasized and should be praised but not to the point that you are devaluing the assist; they should be awarded when someone really makes a pass that leads to a score--and maybe even institute a rule to make "hockey assists'" an official NBA stat--"

Barry: "They won't do the hockey assist. Listen, we're talking about the problems they're having recording assists when it is only one pass. My God, you start doing the other one (hockey assists) and God only knows what they will come up with. So, the bottom line of it is what they need to do is there should be somebody who reviews some of these games when someone gets a high number of assists to just check out and see what the stat person in each arena is doing. Look at a film, see what assists you think are there and see what they gave him and then talk to the stat person and say, 'Look, you are being way too liberal' and show the guy (on film) so that there will (eventually) be a more uniform way of doing it. If they really want to get serious about it, then somebody oversees it, looks at it and sees whether each stat person is doing it in a way that is fair--so they are not being too liberal and not being too tough, because there may be some guys who are not giving an assist when they should be giving an assist. You critique officials, you critique other people, so why not critique the stat keepers? It is a very subjective thing so if you provide more guidance then you have an opportunity to have them do it on a more uniform basis. That would be my suggestion, that someone oversees what each stat person is doing to make sure that it is according to what the rules specify and if he isn't then they talk to him and try to make an adjustment."

Friedman: "Yeah, because the NBA made such a big deal about LeBron's one rebound and they say that this is part of their whole process of looking at games but I have charted several of Chris Paul's games and some other games and (based on what I found) it is hard to believe that they are really looking at every game. That game was really publicized as a 50 point triple double, so maybe they felt like they had to step in but the play in question was semi-marginal and there have been other plays that were much more blatant (that were not corrected in the boxscore). That was not the most blatant scorekeeping error that I've ever seen."

Barry: "It happens because it is a human being making the decision. I mean, it is not like it's set in stone. If someone shoots and makes it or misses it, that's easy (to record). An assist is subjective and it is up to whether or not the guy who is doing the stats is willing to be fair about it. Some of them are but some of them are more liberal to their players than to opposing players. The only way to do it is if the league monitors this and has someone watching the films to see what is happening and makes an evaluation of each scorekeeper. If somebody does not correct himself and start doing things the right way, then the NBA needs to tell the team to replace that person."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:48 AM



At Friday, February 13, 2009 2:28:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


Way to get access to the sometimes ornery Rick Barry! If given the backing by a teams owner, he could be a good coach, though I fear he might be too abrasive for some players.

Good points, though, that Rick has about scorekeeper's. Basically, who watches the score keeper? Coaches only care about the points, so it gets neglected. Going further than that, I'd like to see "better" stats in the box score. I think "deflections" would be an awesome statistic. The current stats are okay, but they barely describe what happened in a game. I'm all for "better" stats being introduced, and I don't mean one that you need a formula to crank out. I mean better observable stats, like the deflections I mentioned above.

At Friday, February 13, 2009 5:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

I've never had a problem talking with Rick Barry. I think that there a lot of cases in which the way that a player responds to a journalist is merely a reflection of how that journalist approached that player. If you don't know your stuff, are antagonistic and ask stupid questions then why would you expect a positive interview to be the result? Sure, some players are more cordial than others but when I hear some writers who have tons of stories about how badly various players acted I start to wonder who was really at fault, because I have not had nearly as many negative interviewing experiences as some other writers claimed to have had.

A lot of teams chart deflections as a stat for internal use but it might be too subjective to be an "official" stat. Is a deflection a ball that is tipped out of bounds, a ball that is eventually stolen or merely any time a ball is touched by a defensive player?


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