We've spent some time discussing advanced statistics around here over the past three years, some may think too much time, some not enough. Whether you buy into the value of these advanced metrics or not, understanding them certainly won't hurt you. With that in mind, I thought we'd spend today taking a closer look at the basic stats available to all of us every day, and I'll tell you how I try to add some perspective to the rows and columns of numbers printed in every newspaper worth its salt.
As a kid growing up before the Internet took hold, box scores fascinated me for all sports. Every morning I'd grab the sports section on the way to school, then spend most of first period seeing what was going on around the league. When I went away to college, box scores were really my only means of following my favorite teams from afar. Looking back now, I realize I was looking at the wrong columns, or at least I wasn't fully grasping what was really happening in the game from the simple numbers.
Baseball's box scores have always been woefully lacking in context. For decades they didn't even list walks. At bats, runs, hits and RBI's were as deep as you could get. Basketball always had a bit more context, at least in my time. FG, FGA, Minutes, FT, FTA, 3P, 3PA, REB, AST, STL, BLK, TOV, PF and of course, the mother of all stats, PTS.
Naturally, the eye was always drawn to that column all the way to the right. The almighty PTS. Someone scored 30? Wow, that guy had a great game, right? Well, not necessarily. I could point you to this game, in which Monta Ellis scored 36 points, as a prime example of how a ton of points isn't necessarily a good indicator. It took Ellis 39 shots to get his 36 points in that Warriors game.
But I'm wired a certain way, and I'm not ashamed to admit that the points column is still the first that grabs my eye. What's important is where they eye goes after that first bit of information is gathered. I picked the Sixers/Clippers game during the blizzard last winter, the first annual Depressed Fan road trip, as an example. Take a look at the box score below, and then I'll walk you through how I examine it. (Click on the image to see a larger version).
OK, so if I hadn't watched the game, the first thing I would look at is, on a team level, why did the Sixers lose. Not much investigation was needed, the Clippers shot 52.9% from the field (not shown). The Sixers did a very good job of taking care of the ball, decent on the glass, didn't shoot a horrible percentage and got to the line a fair amount. It came down to their defense and the Clippers' shooting. Not all games make sense like this, although most of the Sixers' losses last season followed the pattern.
After the game questions are answered, it's time to look at individual players. As I said above, I start with points. Iguodala is at the top of the list, he scored 20 in this game, the next thing I check is the number of shots he took (14), some quick math tells me he was probably very efficient in this one (1.43 points-per-shot), then I see how he boosted his PPS. 6/14 from the floor, only 1/3 from three, which didn't help a whole lot, but 7/8 from the line. A very efficient scoring game from AI9. Then I look at the rest of his numbers. Rebounds first (9) then compare offensive to defensive, with defensive being more valuable to me (2 offensive, 7 defensive. 7 is a big number for a SF), next is assists vs. turnovers (7:3), and finally blocks and steals (4 and 0).
To kind of round out my picture of Iguodala's game, I look at the other team's box to see how his man performed. Al Thornton scored 12 points on 13 shots (0.92 points-per-shot), he turned the ball over 4 times and fouled out in 39 minutes of action. This matchup was a landslide victory for Iguodala. I usually glance at the +/-, but it doesn't hold a ton of meaning for me, unless it's just an outrageous number, then I treat it as an oddity and try to figure out why. In this game, Iguodala was +7. If anyone remembers the game, Iguodala was about .001 seconds away from winning it at the buzzer with a jumper from the foul line.
Anyway, moving on. Thad is next up, 19 points on 17 shots (not great). His PPS numbers were buoyed exclusively by shooting a high percentage from the field. He didn't hit a single three, didn't make a single FT. But he did grab 8 boards, all defensive. A huge positive indicator for him. The problem is the 8 boards came in 45 minutes of action at the four, so his rebounding rate really wasn't that great. 2 assists, 0 turnovers, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 1 foul. A pretty vanilla game, truth be told.
Sammy only scored 3 points, only played 11 minutes. Finished with 5 fouls. Wasn't a factor at all, due to foul trouble.
Willie, Willie, Willie! 12 points, but he only needed 7 shots to get them. Even more shockingly, he only took 7 shots in 36 minutes of action. 3 boards, which sounds about right, maybe a tad high for him. 7 assists and only 1 turnover! All told, a very, very effective offensive game for Mr. Green. Color me impressed.
Jrue was shutout in this game. 23 minutes, 0 points, 0/6 from the floor, 3 assists, 0 turnovers, 3 steals. But really, little-to-no impact on the game. His man, Baron Davis, scored 20 on 19 shots, so maybe he put his stamp on the game on the opposite end.
Amazingly, the Sixers bench accounted for almost half of the team's shots, and didn't really make good use of them. 51 points on 46 shots (the starters scored 56 on 48). Speights was probably the basic stats player of the game, with 28 points and 9 boards, but that's tempered a bit when you look closer. He needed 20 shots to score the 28 points, which isn't bad at all, but of the 9 boards, only 2 were defensive. 35 minutes and only 2 defensive rebounds from a big is positively pitiful. Meanwhile, Kaman and Camby were dominating the glass for the Clippers.
Lou Williams had a terrible game by any measure, and Speights' effort looks herculean next to Brand's. Brand scored 14 points on 13 shots, only went to the line once (and missed) and just like Speights, only grabbed 2 defensive boards in a minute more of playing time (36 minutes).
The box score definitely tells a story, and it's a story that runs much deeper than "what did he do." When you start asking "how did he do it?" You can not only uncover the true story of that particular game, but you can get a feel for how valuable individuals are to the team concept. In this game, for example, Brand dug a big hole the rest of the team needed to dig out of. His poor rebounding meant someone else needed to pick up the slack. He didn't use his possessions efficiently. But maybe the bigger problem on the glass was the heavy minutes both Brand and Speights were forced to play because Sammy couldn't stay out of foul trouble. Iguodala and Willie did their best to swing things the Sixers' way (and came damned close to getting it done), but too many shots from guys who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn sunk the team.
So the next time you're waiting in line at a barber shop and you happen to pick up a newspaper, check the out-of-town NBA box scores. It's amazing what those rows and columns of numbers can tell you about a game, you just have to know how to look at them.
Here's my favorite box score from last season. Check out Jrue's work.