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.

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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>