Basketball’s absurd numbers game

Numbers have always been used to evaluate the performances and the value of nearly all professional athletes. But in the not-so-wonderful-world of the National Basketball Association, these quantitative judgments have gotten out of hand. I mean, even the most commonly-used and seemingly incontrovertible statistics can be misleading.

Minutes Played — A player who’s on the court for a single tick of the clock and one who’s on the court for 59 seconds are both credited with a playing time of one minute. This 58 second difference could conceivably include at least three possessions, and could therefore be the difference between a totally insignificant appearance and a crucial one.

Shooting Percentage — Dunk shots, layups, good shots, bad shots, all count the same. Even 3-point percentages can be suspect. How many 50-foot prayers or off-balance flings to beat a buzzer? How many open shots given by a defense in garbage time of a blowout?


Rebounds — Since poor teams miss more shots than good teams, their big men have more opportunities to snatch offensive rebounds. Conversely, the bigs on teams loaded with sharp-shooters are rarely among the league leaders in this category.

Also, not all defensive rebounds are equal. Rebounding the opponent’s missed free throws is easily done, since the defending team has both inside positions along the foul lane. Plus, rebounds grabbed in heavy traffic count as much as uncontested rebounds captured when the offensive team retreats as soon as a shot is launched to prevent being victimized by fast breaks and/or the kind of floor spacing that leads to open treys.

Assists — The operative definition is a pass that directly leads to a basket, with the scorer allowed a dribble and two steps after receiving said pass. But there are several glitches here. One being that the scorer might execute several fakes, up-and-under moves, and/or various twisting, spinning, and/or fading maneuvers to get his shot off. So the pass in these circumstances in no way leads directly to a basket. But, in literally every such event, the passer is awarded an assist.

The other problem is that no assist is recorded when the recipient of a direct pass is fouled in the act of shooting, even should he make both free throws and thereby tally the same number of points as he would have had he not been fouled.

Turnovers — How many occur when the ball is passed to the very spot where a teammate is supposed to have been but has vacated?

Steals — These are dramatic plays, however, how many steals are recorded when an offensive player simply makes a bad pass straight to a defender? Plus, there are many players who take serious risks trying to come up with steals that, if unsuccessful, leave their teammates in precarious defensive situations. How about a pass that’s intercepted because the intended receiver zigged when he was supposed to zag?

Blocked Shots — Too many block-hungry bigs are easily faked off their feet and/or abandon their assigned rotations for the chance to smack an erstwhile shot into the stands.

In truth, true-blue defenders are those who concentrate on ball denial, endless hustle, precise and timely rotations, and dealing with pick/rolls in an appropriate manner.

Now, the new-fangled metrics are even shakier, some to the point of absurdity.

Player  Efficiency Rating (PER) — This is the total of a player’s positive stats minus his negative stats and given on a per-minute basis — and, for reasons cited above, is total nonsense.

Points Per Possession (PPP) — Points scored by a player in isolations minus points scored when he’s playing pick/roll defense. More nonsense.

True Shooting Percentage (TSP) — Total Points divided by 2(FGA + (0.44 x FTA) x 100. Absurd!

Free Throw Rate (FTR) — Free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts.


Usage Percentage (USG %) — This is supposed to evaluate the percentage and efficiency of those plays that involve any given player. The complicated equation involves a player’s minutes on the court, his field goal and free throw attempts, his turnovers, the team’s FGAs, FTAs, and TOs when he’s in the game, all subjected to various multiplications of either 100 or 0.44. Lunacy!

All of these idiotic categories have one purpose only: To convince people who can’t tell an X from an O that they really do understand the game.

They claim it’s old-fashioned to gauge a player’s worth by watching him play. What they fail to note is that, to begin with, the watcher must understand what he’s watching.

This includes observing what a player does when he doesn’t have the ball, knowing what his function is in specific offensive and defensive sets, and understanding what his specific role is in relation to the four guys he’s playing with. Also, how he reacts in clutch situations and in blowout game as well as how hard he practices.

The basic truth is that in no circumstances can numbers ever measure anybody’s heart or spirit.

Author, professional basketball coach, columnist Charley Rosen, of Stone Ridge, has had nearly two dozen books published, both fiction and non-fiction.

There is one comment

  1. Peter Manning

    Of course the most commonly used statistics can be misleading and not tell the whole story. Take for instance, Charley Rosen’s article regarding NBA Hall of Fame inductees, in which he states ““there are several individuals who have already been enshrined who are not worthy of the honor.” Among them, he says, is Hubie Brown. The rationale?

    “His lifetime record in the NBA of 424-495 is certainly not an appropriate recommendation. For sure, he could break the game down into its component parts as well as anybody, but Brown always found a way to eventually alienate his players. He’s in the Hall of Fame because of his longevity, because his TV duties keep him in the public eye and because he conducted truly great basketball clinics.”

    Hubie Brown is in the Hall of Fame because he has a proven record and reputation for turning struggling teams around (and two Coach of Year awards associated with this). He’s the guy who is second to none in knowing what he’s watching — the endless hustle, reacting in clutch situations, how hard one practices. If you don’t “strive for excellence on a daily basis” on Hubie’s team, then yes, alienation is likely to occur. It’s the true-blue expressions of heart and spirit not found in statistics that will take you to the hoop in Springfield.

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