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Friday, October 18, 2019

Fun With NBA Finals Field Goal Percentages

Do you remember the NBA Finals when one of the team's guards just kept shooting and shooting despite his low field goal percentage, instead of passing to the team's dominant big man who had a high field goal percentage?

Here are some field goal shooting numbers from that NBA Finals:

"Gunner" guard: 72-160 (.450)
Dominant big man: 70-112 (.625)

You might think that after losing that championship series the "Gunner" guard would have learned something, but the next time that team made it to the NBA Finals the field goal percentages and field goal attempts of the "Gunner" guard and the Dominant big man were separated by an even larger margin:

"Gunner" guard: 38-117 (.325)
Dominant big man: 39-65 (.600)

Surely the guard must have learned from that experience, right? Nope, the next time that team made it to the NBA Finals here is how those two players shot:

"Gunner" guard: 42-95 (.442)
Dominant big man: 22-42 (.524)

Quick, call Mike Wilbon or Jon Barry or Bill Simmons to revisit their numerous anti-Kobe Bryant screeds; that "Gunner" guard is Kobe Bryant, right?


The "Gunner" is Jerry West, who fired a lot of blanks while playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain in the NBA Finals in 1970, 1972 and 1973 as the L.A. Lakers lost two out of three of those series to the New York Knicks. Chamberlain was the MVP of the 1972 series that the Lakers won; the Lakers lost in seven games in 1970 and in five games in 1973. It should be noted that West, in his first season playing with Chamberlain, won the first Finals MVP award in NBA history in 1969, shooting .490 from the field as the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games. West is still the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP.

Kobe Bryant went 5-2 in the NBA Finals, winning two Finals MVPs. Jerry West went 1-8 in the NBA Finals, winning one Finals MVP. Yet, West is immortalized as "Mr. Clutch," while Bryant is the pinata for "stat gurus" and self-proclaimed basketball experts who blame Bryant for the titles he did not win but are reluctant to give him much credit for the titles he won. To be fair, West's clutch reputation was formed early in his career, when he had many scintillating playoff series, during which time he posted these Finals scoring/field goal shooting numbers as his Lakers lost five times to the Celtics:

1962: 31.1 ppg .456 Boston d. L.A., 4-3
1963: 29.5 ppg .490 Boston d. L.A., 4-2
1965: 33.8 ppg .424 Boston d. L.A., 4-1
1966: 33.9 ppg .515 Boston d. L.A., 4-3
1968: 31.3 ppg .486 Boston d. L.A., 4-2

West's earlier numbers duly noted, it should also be noted that his low Finals field goal percentages relative to his teammate Chamberlain were not in any way construed to harm West's "Mr. Clutch" reputation or legacy. The media understood that West performed well overall given the roster construction of the Lakers and their opponents, the style of play, the matchups and other factors--and the media understood that West was playing through significant injuries in the 1972 Finals, the one Finals in which he shot poorly by any standard.

The disparate "conventional wisdom" narratives about Bryant and West demonstrate why statistics should not be taken out of proper context and why it is misleading to try to summarize a player's legacy in a soundbite. Ironically, and in direct contrast to the popular narrative about the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant duo, one contemporary narrative regarding the Chamberlain-West dynamic blamed Chamberlain, not West! For example, after the Lakers lost to the Knicks and a hobbled Willis Reed in game seven of the 1970 Finals, Bill Russell criticized Chamberlain for not exploiting Reed's lack of mobility; Russell--who was surrounded by Hall of Fame scorers throughout his great career and thus never carried a significant scoring burden--stated that he would have been insulted if a player as limited as the injured Reed had the temerity to play against him. Chamberlain was deeply hurt by Russell's remarks, which led a to rift between the two men that was not resolved for quite some time.

I am not aware of quotes, comments, articles or TV clips that suggested that West shot too much and/or that West should have fed the ball to Chamberlain more frequently. West was praised for carrying such a heavy offensive load, and his numerous losing trips to the Finals were portrayed with much pathos and sympathy. Chamberlain, who went 2-4 in the NBA Finals, was often portrayed as a loser--even though he won twice as many titles as West, and even though he won his first title without West after beating Russell's Celtics, a team that West never defeated in a playoff series. So, while the media gave a fair--or even lenient--appraisal of West, Chamberlain was portrayed much more harshly. Chamberlain lamented, "Nobody loves Goliath" and one might also wonder if there was at least some racial/racist component at work.

The nuanced reality is that West was not a gunner--at least in terms of the negative connotations associated with that word--and neither was Bryant. The incorrect assumption that often leads to flawed conclusions is that if Player A has a much higher field goal percentage than his teammate Player B then Player A should shoot less often and Player B should shoot more often. Superficially, that may sound reasonable and mathematically sound, but the problem is that it is not necessarily true that Player B can or will maintain his current field goal percentage if his shot attempts increase. A rhythm jump shot by Jerry West or Kobe Bryant with the team having proper floor balance to either go for the offensive rebound or retreat into a good defensive position may very well be a better option than trying to force the ball into a crowded paint area; forcing the action can lead to turnovers or contested shots that fuel the opposing team's transition game. Jeff Van Gundy often says that one should not judge the correctness of a play or a shot attempt based on the outcome; a good shot is a good shot even if it does not go in, while a bad shot is a bad shot even if the ball swishes through the hoop.

The previous paragraph is more baffling to many "stat gurus" than the bizarre implications of quantum mechanics are to physicists. "Stat gurus" are convinced that Kobe Bryant's best option was to pass to any teammate of his who had a higher field goal percentage, from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown). It is interesting that even as "stat gurus" are now deriding the post up shot as one of the lowest percentage shots they still cannot resist hammering Bryant for his supposed basketball sins (a recent story suggested that the key for Jayson Tatum's success this season will be to unlearn everything that Bryant taught him last year, which sounds like a satirical piece from the Onion but was meant to be taken seriously, though Tatum has publicly rejected the article's anti-Bryant premise).

Why shouldn't West have passed to Chamberlain every time? Why shouldn't Bryant have passed to O'Neal every time? (If you don't understand why Bryant should not have passed to Kwame Brown every time, it is surprising you made it this far into the article without your brain exploding). There are a host of reasons that could apply: if the big man is too fatigued to obtain prime post position (or if a sagging defense is preventing him from doing so early enough in the shot clock) then the offense--mindful of the ticking 24 second shot clock--cannot wait forever; if the big man received the ball in the paint, was trapped and then passed the ball to the open man then that open man may be looking at the highest percentage shot his team will get on that possession; injuries, foul trouble and matchups may also be factors that work against just pounding the ball inside every time down the court. An open shot early in the shot clock may be a better option than a contested shot later in the shot clock.

Does this mean that every shot that West and Bryant took was optimal? Of course not. Basketball is a free-flowing game of continuous action played under duress; only in a computer simulated game is it possible for every player to make optimal choices all of the time.

"Stat gurus" are correct that it makes sense to track five on five actions and determine which plays are the most successful over a large sample size. That kind of analysis, done properly, can influence lineup changes and matchups; that is "advanced basketball analysis" at its finest (one example of which is the Dallas Mavericks' insertion of J.J. Barea into their 2011 championship rotation; his individual statistics were not gaudy, but the five on five data indicated that the team performed better overall when he was on the court).

When you read or hear stories about teams utilizing "advanced basketball statistics," keep in mind that the smart teams are not using these numbers to "prove" that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan or other nonsensical, headline grabbing declarations that "stat gurus" and their media buddies like to propagate; smart teams utilize analytics as one tool to figure out how to optimize their team's performance in various five on five situations. The "stat guru" who proclaims that James is better than Jordan or Pau Gasol is better than Kobe Bryant is just trying to commercialize his "unique analytics" to line his own pockets; meanwhile, the "stat guru" who you have never heard of is working behind the scenes for an NBA team looking for exploitable competitive advantages.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM



At Friday, October 18, 2019 4:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

spot on David as always!

Isn't it a blasphemy placing Bryant out of top ten and under Steph Curry ?

At Monday, October 21, 2019 9:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I am not sure which list you are talking about, but I would rank Bryant ahead of Curry in just about every skill set category other than three point shooting and free throw shooting.


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