A breakthrough basketball book

John Hollinger's analysis does for hoops what Bill James did for baseball.

Topics: Basketball,

I never have enough time, it seems, for basketball research. Baseball not only swallows up most of my year but much of the off-season as well, and the football season runs from the end of August to the end of January. By the time I can concentrate completely on basketball, we’re in the middle of the NBA season, which is why I’m always happy to tell our readers about some really good basketball research in areas where I’ve previously only been able to scratch the surface. This week I’d like to introduce Salon readers to John Hollinger, author of the new book “Pro Basketball Prospectus.” (Tell your local bookstores that the publisher is Brassey’s; the cost is $21.95.)

In the last two years I’ve presented my list of the biggest myths of baseball and football, but I’ve never had time to finish a similar study on basketball. Using John’s research, however, I’ve managed to single out five.

1) Great players necessarily make their teammates better. This is a cliché embedded in the game’s psyche, but one for which there is very little statistical support. For instance, Jason Kidd’s presence didn’t enhance Keith Van Horn’s numbers last year, and Kidd’s absence hasn’t affected Van Horn’s production in Philadelphia. Neither was there a drop-off from Shawn Marion two years ago when he lost Kidd.

2) Steals and blocks are the only indicators of defensive ability. Blocked shots and steals paint an incomplete picture on the total defensive canvas. Slightly more than 10 percent of missed shots are missed because somebody blocked them. Roughly 56 percent of turnovers occur because someone stole the ball. But the majority of offensive possessions that fail to end in a score aren’t accounted for in blocked shots or steals. Here’s one quick example from a team perspective: Last year Golden State’s Jason Richardson had 106 steals and 31 blocks while San Antonio’s Bruce Bowen had 62 steals and 25 blocks. Yet San Antonio was the toughest team for opposing shooting guards to perform offensively against, while Golden State was the second easiest.

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3) Big men take time to develop. Actually, smaller players do. Almost all centers 7 feet tall or bigger give a very strong indication of their ability in their first season, just as Yao Ming has done this year. There are just so few players that tall that the cream among them rises very quickly.

4)The Assist-Turnover Ratio is a good measure for point guards. False. It may just as easily measure a player’s unwillingness to drive the lane. Infamous non-penetrators like Alvin Williams and Howard Eisley routinely post outstanding Assist-Turnover Ratios partly because of their inability to get in the lane. For example, ranked second in the league right now is Minnesota’s Anthony Peeler, who not only isn’t a point guard but also gets asked for I.D. anytime he ventures inside the 3-point line.

5) Defense wins championships. Remember the first thing our old coaches told us in basketball practice? “Defense wins championships.” Remember? Why did they do this? I have a theory it’s because most coaches can coach defense better than they can coach offense. Or, stated another way, defense promotes team unity in a way that offense doesn’t, since offense generally stresses the talents of one or two special players.

Anyway, I’ve never seen the slightest statistical evidence for believing that defense is more important in winning a basketball than offense. Neither has Hollinger, but in his book he goes into the argument in great detail. In fact, it’s the most detailed analysis of the question I’ve ever seen. Wait — let me back up on that. Of course defense wins championships; no one is seriously arguing that it doesn’t. What Hollinger claims, and I agree with him, is that defense is no likelier to win you a championship than offense. Or, translated into baseball terms, as the veteran lefthander Bob Veale once put it, “Good pitching stops good hitting every time, and vice versa.”

Back in 1993, I did a statistical study of the question with George Ignatin, the economist and sports statistician. We examined the previous 10 NBA winners and charted where they ranked in various offensive and defensive categories. We came to the conclusion that it’s, well, a jump ball between offense and defense when it comes to producing champions. Hollinger has made a comprehensive study of the last 14 NBA champions and breaks the results down into even more detail. Don’t show it to your old high school coach or he’s liable to go ballistic.

I honestly think that Hollinger’s research and analysis of professional basketball is as incisive and innovative as Bill James’ breakthrough baseball abstracts in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Run, don’t travel, to your nearest bookstore.

OVERTIME:

Does anyone remember a short time ago, when the L.A. Lakers had a worse record than the L.A. Clippers, and everyone was writing stories about “What’s wrong with the Lakers?” Isn’t it amazing in retrospect how few people connected the Lakers’ problems with the absence of Shaquille O’Neal? Yes, the Lakers weren’t doing plenty of other things that a basketball team should do, like pass and rebound and make free throws — not that Shaq changes the free throw equation all that much. But shouldn’t it have been obvious to everyone that all we were really seeing was simply what the defending world champions looked like when perhaps (I’m just saying “perhaps” here, I don’t want to rile anybody), the greatest player in NBA history was out of the lineup?

Is there anyone who doubts that the Lakers would be at or near the top of their division if Shaq hadn’t been injured? Is there anyone who doubts that the Lakers are still going to look like the best team in the NBA when the playoffs start?

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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