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Sunday, January 16, 2011

News Flash: Teams Generally Perform Well When Their Leading Scorers Score at Least 30 Points

Some NBA commentators enjoy cherry picking numbers to support their favorite storylines; for instance, Mike Wilbon long ago fell in love with the idea that the L.A. Lakers' success is directly linked to Kobe Bryant attempting less than a certain number of shots. Wilbon articulates this sentiment with such conviction that you half expect Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to jump out of his special "throne chair" on the sidelines to tackle Bryant if Bryant is approaching Wilbon's magical number (a number that Wilbon seems to adjust from time to time to make sure that the winning percentages superficially correlate with his "theory"). After all, if the Lakers are all but guaranteed to win as long as their best player shoots less frequently--reread that again in case the crux of Wilbon's contention escaped you the first time around--then wouldn't Coach Jackson do anything in his power to stop Bryant from shooting? Do not be deceived by the fact that Jackson won six championships in Chicago with Michael Jordan capturing the scoring title each time; Wilbon is an ESPN-certified NBA expert and he has decreed that the secret to winning in the NBA is to take the ball out of the hands of your best player and distribute shots to less talented players who are not as willing and/or able to create their own shots under pressure.

Sarcasm aside, Wilbon's "theory" sounds less than convincing to anyone who is intelligent and thinks about the subject for at least 10 seconds. Field goal attempts are an odd way to evaluate a scorer, because FGAs can consist of "hand grenades" (shots fired up to beat the shot clock buzzer after a teammate passes the ball to a player right before the shot clock "explodes"), half court heaves at the end of quarters, late game shots launched in a flurry as a trailing team desperately tries to come back and other anomalies; the chicken-egg question that Wilbon never discusses is whether Bryant's "extra" field goal attempts cause losses (as Wilbon apparently believes), whether they are the result of Bryant picking up a heavier load in games that the Lakers are losing because his teammates disappeared or whether other factors are involved.

Rather than arbitrarily designating a certain number of field goal attempts to be good or bad, let's take a look at the NBA's top scorers this season and examine how their teams do when they have big scoring nights. No NBA player is averaging 30 ppg this season but all of the top scorers have had several 30-plus point scoring games, so that seems to be a reasonable cutoff point to designate a "big" scoring game--40 point games would provide a very small sample size, while 20 or 25 point games would just be "average" performances for these guys.

Here is a list of the NBA's top 10 scorers this season, including their scoring averages, their teams' records and their teams' records when they score at least 30 points:

1) Kevin Durant, 28.5 ppg. The Oklahoma City Thunder are 27-13 overall (.675) and 13-2 (.867) when Durant scores at least 30 points.

2) Amare Stoudemire, 26.0 ppg. The New York Knicks are 22-17 overall (.564) and 9-4 (.692) when Stoudemire scores at least 30 points.

3) Monta Ellis, 25.7 ppg. The Golden State Warriors are 16-23 overall (.410) and 7-4 (.636) when Ellis scores at least 30 points.

4) LeBron James, 25.4 ppg. The Miami Heat are 30-11 overall (.732) and 9-2 (.818) when James scores at least 30 points.

5) Kobe Bryant, 25.3 ppg. The L.A. Lakers are 30-11 overall (.732) and 9-3 (.750) when Bryant scores at least 30 points.

6) Dwyane Wade, 25.1 ppg. The Miami Heat are 30-11 overall (.732) and 10-2 (.833) when Wade scores at least 30 points.

7) Derrick Rose, 24.5 ppg. The Chicago Bulls are 26-13 overall (.667) and 6-3 (.667) when Rose scores at least 30 points.

8) Eric Gordon, 23.7 ppg. The L.A. Clippers are 13-25 overall (.342) and 2-3 (.400) when Gordon scores at least 30 points.

9) Dirk Nowitzki, 23.6 ppg. The Dallas Mavericks are 26-12 overall (.684) and 4-2 (.667) when Nowitzki scores at least 30 points.

10) Carmelo Anthony, 23.5 ppg. The Denver Nuggets are 22-16 overall (.579) and 5-4 (.556) when Anthony scores at least 30 points.

One could enlarge this survey by looking at more players and/or a longer period of time and one could break down the data based on opposing teams' winning percentages among the 30 point games but there is little reason to believe that a team--whether it is contending for a title or languishing at the bottom of the standings--does worse when its best scorer exceeds his scoring average. That is probably why teams tend to focus their defensive game plans on stopping elite scorers, which is also why lesser players can sometimes accumulate the gaudy field goal percentages that fool so-called experts (and stat gurus) into believing that teams should allocate field goal attempts based strictly on field goal percentages; earlier this season, a prominent NBA scout told me that a "stat guru" had once said to him that teams should "start the players with the five highest field goal percentages because field goal percentage is such an important statistic." The "stat guru" was completely oblivious to the reality that this would result in ludicrous lineups consisting of role players who have limited capabilities to create their own shots.

I know that every TV and radio talking head has a stack of statistics and facts placed in front of him before each broadcast plus a producer constantly talking to him in his ear; what I simply cannot fathom is why so many people on TV and radio say things that just do not make sense and then try to support this nonsense with faulty and/or misleading data. Is it really that hard to think logically, are media members so devoted to storylines that they consider to be "higher truths" that they make intentionally misleading statements or do certain people simply lose all sense of pride/self respect regarding their work once they have "made it" (in terms of receiving huge salaries)? Consumers should be disappointed that many of the people who get paid the most to provide commentary/analysis are so unprofessional about their work; paraphrasing a line from "Fiddler on the Roof," would it spoil some vast eternal plan if the large scale content providers hired more people who both understand the subject matter at hand (whether that subject is NBA basketball or anything else) and possess top notch writing skills? I have file folders that are packed with old articles that I have cut out from various newspapers and magazines because those articles contain interesting facts, perspectives and opinions--you can find some of them here--but far too much of what is published today is unreadable, let alone being worthy of being reread and savored.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:41 AM



At Tuesday, January 18, 2011 10:45:00 PM, Anonymous dsong said...

I think the only thing you've really proven is that people hate Kobe.

No matter what he does on the floor, if the Lakers lose the game he always gets the blame. If he shoots poorly, it's because he shot the ball too much. If he shoots well, it's because he was too selfish and didn't get his teammates involved. If he doesn't shoot the ball a lot, then it's because he quit on the team. Do you see where this is going?

I think there are a lot of people who are afraid that Kobe is a threat to Michael Jordan's "legacy" if Kobe retires with 6 or more championship rings. We know that's garbage because basketball is a team sport, Jordan was an amazing player in his time and he won't become less amazing just because some other player has more championships. Let's not forget that Russell has 11 championships in 13 seasons and 2 NCAA championships on his resume as the undisputed team leader.

It may seem silly but alas, even Michael himself got caught up in such pettiness - so there may be something to it.

At Wednesday, January 19, 2011 4:58:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It does seem like many people manufacture various reasons/excuses to not like Kobe Bryant and/or downgrade his accomplishments.

It is also interesting that many people act like MJ set some kind of record by winning six championships. Bill Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons, Sam Jones won 10 championships (all alongside Russell) and John Havlicek won eight championships (six with Russell/Jones, two later on in the 1970s). What Kobe is really contending for now is the "non-Russell Celtics" record if he can match or surpass MJ. It is worth noting that Robert Horry won seven championships as a role player for three different franchises in the 1990s and 2000s and that Scottie Pippen is the only other Bull who was on all six championship teams with Jordan in the 1990s.

For the record, three other Celtics won eight rings playing with Russell: Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Tom Sanders. Frank Ramsey won seven championships during the Russell era, while Bob Cousy and Jim Loscutoff won six each.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won one ring in Milwaukee and then five more with Magic Johnson.

Kobe Bryant is the biggest winner of the post-MJ/Pippen era (along with role player Derek Fisher), with Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal right behind (four rings apiece).

At Friday, January 21, 2011 1:10:00 AM, Anonymous chris b said...

Yeah, but Russell was champion over what an eight team league, Kobe's eight conference title out weight Russell 11 NBA titles.

I would like to hear your opinion of what Russell and Wilt were actually champion over.

In 2011, Kobe is reigning champion over history greatest athletes: seven foot centers who dunk from the free three line that is when they are not launching threes.

He routinely drop 50 points on defense that were designed by nuclear physicists

Hell, in his younger days he used to warm up for games by jumping over speeding convertibles in the staples center parking lot

At Friday, January 21, 2011 6:04:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris B:

You say that Russell and Chamberlain had an easier path to the championship because during their era the league had fewer teams and playoff rounds but one could just as easily argue that their league was more competitive while today's league is watered down. The reality is that this is a very nuanced question that cannot be answered simply; the modern NBA is larger and more diverse than the NBA of the 1960s but it is also obvious that there are some bad teams and subpar players who would not be in the league if the NBA were contracted to 20 teams (never mind just eight).

At Friday, January 21, 2011 4:51:00 PM, Anonymous dsong said...

chris b,

This argument has been made in every sport, both individual and team.

The fact is that the game evolves and the level of play becomes higher. Comparing players of different eras is like comparing apples and oranges.

50 years from now, Kobe's accomplishments will be regarded as "ancient history", and people will look at his highlight films and wonder why everyone was so small and slow.

All you can really do is compare players to their peers. And no matter what the era, I think 11 championships in 13 seasons is an unbelievable feat, along with 2 college titles in 3 seasons.

Russell's legacy as a winner is hard to question. He led a mid-major college program to 55 consecutive wins and back-to-back championships! Just think about that for a moment. And as a pro, Boston won 11 championships in 13 seasons. The only two times they did not win was when Russell got hurt during the playoffs, and when they went up against a great 76'ers team that included Wilt Chamberlain.

At Monday, January 24, 2011 10:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I can't remember if it was on here where I read this, but someone contacted the Elias Sports Bureau to ask if anyone had ever counted how many blocks that Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain recorded in the course of a game. Obviously, those weren't stats recorded by the NBA at the time, but there were a couple of times that a scorekeeper decided to keep count. They found multiple instances where Russell or Chamberlain recorded 25+ blocked shots...and these weren't necessarily career high games.

Now I'm not saying that either of those gentlemen could have posted those types of numbers in today's NBA, because they couldn't possibly have. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and probably more skillful today. The defensive 3 second rule was instituted in 1966, and that was a big game changer for shot blocking as well.

But you also don't get 25 blocks in a game off of a fluke. You don't get 50 rebounds by accident. The numbers are inflated because of the era, but they were still incredible athletes.


Check this video of Wilt's speed. That's Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant type full court speed from a SEVEN FOOTER. He went from free throw line to free throw line in only eight strides.

Obviously if Wilt had gone up against an in his prime Shaq, he would have been at a physical disadvantage. Who wouldn't have been? Russell wouldn't even play center in the NBA today. But the skill and physical gifts were clearly there. They could excel in any era.

I should say that you can't necessarily extrapolate this argument to all other players, though. Personally, I feel like a lot of smaller players from the 60's and 70's would have trouble keeping up in today's NBA (but this is also coming from my limited perspective of old footage).

Oscar Robertson was a big guard in the 1960's, but he's shorter than Dwyane Wade, who is considered slightly undersized. What I've seen would definitely not indicate that he rivals Wade in speed or quickness. Then again, if the Big O was playing today he'd also be on a modern NBA weight lifting program.

It's honestly impossible to say how anyone would fare against a different generations game.

At Tuesday, January 25, 2011 6:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I'm not sure what rule you are thinking of or what your source of information is but the NBA's defensive three second rule was instituted less than 10 years ago; prior to that, the NBA had an "illegal defense" rule that essentially outlawed zone defenses (it was only legal to double team the player who had the ball and any defender who was not guarding his man or guarding the man with the ball was guilty of playing "illegal defense"). In the 1960s, NBA defenses were less sophisticated than they are now; obviously, teams did not have the benefit of modern technology (video scouting reports, etc.) and generally defense simply consisted of guarding your own man, though Wilt was one player who often faced double or triple teams (Wilt liked to point out that he guarded Russell one on one but that Russell often had help to guard him).

The NBA did not officially keep track of blocked shots until the 1973-74 season (i.e., after Wilt retired). However, Harvey Pollack--a true "stat guru" who has been affiliated with the NBA in some capacity throughout its entire existence--once informally kept track of Wilt's blocks for about 10 games or so and he said that Wilt blocked 25 shots in one game.

Wilt was a great all-around athlete who was a track and field star in college--and, for that reason, I disagree with your contention that he would have been at a "physical disadvantage" versus Shaq. Wilt's leaping ability and agility would have given Shaq problems. Shaq has a bigger frame than Wilt but Wilt was likely just as strong as Shaq.

I have met both Robertson and Wade. Robertson is a legit 6-5, the height he was listed at during his playing career; Wade is listed at 6-4 but he is closer to 6-2.

Fat Lever--who was all of 6-2, 175 during his playing days--averaged more than 8 rpg for four straight seasons in the 1980s, so who is to say that a 6-5, 225 Robertson could not rebound against today's players?

It is likely that the only highlights you've seen of Robertson are from when he was a Milwaukee Buck, past his prime and near the end of his career (though still a very good player). We'll see what Wade looks like in five to seven years if he doesn't develop a consistent jump shot. Anyway, Robertson's game was not built primarily on speed/jumping ability but rather the all-around completeness of his skill set.


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