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Introduction to Advanced Stats 101

Fans love debating which is the best shooting team in the NBA. Do today’s modern statistics make it clearer or just complicate things more?

The majority of basketball fans prefer to watch and debate the game subjectively. That is to say, they go with what their eyes and gut instincts tell them. One might watch a Detroit-Phoenix game and come away thinking Phoenix is a superior offensive team. This is of course still debatable, since each has different sets and operates player abilities within different systems. But what if we restrict the debate to one core element of each team’s game: shooting ability? Given the existence of statistical tracking of Field Goal Percentage, one might think a verdict would be straightforward and clear. Yet it usually never is.

Though concrete measures and objective statistical analysis has been a part of the professional game since its inception, most of us will go more on feel and intuition than hard data to win an argument or state our viewpoint. This underscores two truths about the way basketball fans rate and debate players’ abilities and skills: fans are always partial and standard statistical measures are inadequate.

There is no solving the first part of that equation; fans will always be partisan, to the point of outright ignoring solid statistical proof that goes against their opinion. The second issue though has the potential to change, particularly in the realm of gauging shooting ability.

Thanks to statisticians the likes of John Hollinger and Roland Beech, the analysis of basketball through objective statistical evidence has come to the forefront. Owing much to economic and regression modeling, this progressive study has recently become mainstream. Whereas general statistics measure things such as Free Throw Percentage or Three-Pointers Made, modern APBRmetrics (standing for Association for Professional Basketball Research) analyze basketball stats in new ways.

Contemporary APBRmetrics came into existence after Sabermetrics took root with baseball general managers as well as fans after the release of the book Moneyball, which focuses on Oakland Athletics unique Billy Beane’s roster assembling strategy. The overall philosophy of this new-age statistical analysis is to finetune existing stats to reveal more telling insight (mostly through possession and efficiency statistics). Given the importance of personnel and trade decisions, it is clear why teams would appreciate expanding their depth of knowledge regarding players’ effectiveness in certain situations and in going beyond out-of-date metrics to evaluate player performance. Teams now hire full-time consultants to work in Operations and Information for advanced statistics. Fans meanwhile have come to embrace these new stats, as they go one step beyond the box-score and provide even deeper insight into what will make a team more successful.

There are literally dozens of developing and innovative basketball statistics available to fans everywhere. Whether it be a team’s Pythagorean Expectation Rate or Offensive Efficiency, there is a plethora of stats to consider. If we limit our focus though, and turn our attention specifically towards investigating shooting using these new stats, the picture becomes less muddled and arguments around who the best shooter in the game might be become less emotional and more logical.

There are two primary new-age shooting metrics worth noting. The first is Effective Field-Goal Percentage [eFG%= (FGM + .5*3FGM)/FGA]. This is sometimes also referred to as Adjusted Field Goal Percentage. This measures shooting efficiency by accounting for the number of points a player produces per field goal attempt. Its basic intention is to adjust the standard Field Goal Percentage measure to consider the importance and difficulty of three-point shooting. In laymen terms, it makes Jason Kapono’s threes more valuable than Dwight Howard’s dunks.

The second, and in my opinion more important, APBRmetric to consider True Shooting Percentage (TSP= PTS/[2*(FGA + [.44*FTA]). This statistic calculates a player’s shooting percentage as a single measure, accounting not just for field goals and three-pointers but free throws as well. This measure takes the principle behind Effective Field-Goal Percentage one step further by factoring in free throws. This is critical given how important free throws become late in games and the relative inability of most players to hit from the line consistently. It attempts to assess a player’s overall shooting valuation, since it considers all facets of their shooting ability.

So, which teams make the grade given these new measures? And how different does the list of top shooting teams look compared to when using standard Field Goal Percentage? Below are lists of the Top Eight Teams based on Field Goal Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage and True Shooting Percentage.

NBA: Traditional FG%

1 Phoenix 50%
2 Utah 49.7%
3 LA Lakers 47.6%
4 Boston 47.5%
5 Orlando 47.4%
6 Denver 47.0%
7 Toronto 46.8%
8 New Orleans 46.6%

NBA: Effective FG%

1 Phoenix 55%
2 Orlando 54%
3 Utah 53%
4 LA Lakers 52%
5 Boston 52%
6 New Orleans 51%
7 Golden State 51%
8 Toronto 51%

NBA: True Shooting%

1 Orlando 56.4
2 L.A. Lakers 56
3 Boston 54.1
4 Detroit 53.8
5 New Orleans 53.7
6 San Antonio 52.9
7 Toronto 52.8
8 Utah 52.8

One quickly notices some surprising contrasts between the lists. Phoenix is the best shooting team in the league according to both Effective and Traditional measures, yet they are only the ninth best shooting team according to the True Shooting Percentage Figure, which accounts for free throws, a mortal flaw for every Suns player other than Steve Nash. This underlines not only the Suns’ woes at the line, but also the level of detail such analysis allows for. Elsewhere, we see Utah in the top three in the first two categories, yet they also fall to eighth in True Percentage because of their poor foul shooting. Given these sharp falloffs, one could easily suggest that either Los Angeles or Orlando was the best shooting team, as they were near the very top of each measure.

Other interesting or telling observations: San Antonio does not appear on either the Effective or Traditional lists, yet is fifth on the True list; Golden State, the team that lead the league in scoring and was considered its best offensive team, appears only on the Effective list; Denver meanwhile appears on the Traditional list but once threes and free throws are considered, they drop considerably out of the top eight; it is perhaps of no surprise that these top shooting team either all made the playoffs or were in a dogfight for them.

These modern statistics succeed in giving us a more complete, accurate picture when it comes to evaluating designations or claims that should be objective yet often aren’t. Debates that are built around statistical proof will still become clouded, for that is the nature of any good sports argument. But at least we now have a better grasp of what the best shooting team in the league might look like, and how subjective that title might still remain.

After all, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Next week: Using APBRmetrics for specific players.

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