Today, Henry Abbott of True Hoop writes a blog post on advanced basketball statistics and specifically rebound percentage, headed by a picture of Noah with the caption reading, "By old metrics, Joakim Noah has been the best. But why use old metrics?". You know this got my attention, as a Bulls obsessive with a Noah specific moniker, any perceived slight of Noah is going to get my attention. Here’s the argument from True Hoop in a nutshell:
For example, he addresses total rebound percentage, which he says is "an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor. It is an improvement over rebounds per game because it takes into account opportunities, which are influenced by the pace that a team plays and the number of missed shots that a team forces."
Once you know that number exists, it almost seems silly to obsess over rebounds per game, right? I mean, you don't even know how many minutes each person played, let alone how many rebound opportunities they had. If you're trying to assess who is best at getting the ball, you want to know how many chances they got to try, right?
I’m definitely a stat geek, and for whatever reason I spend a good portion of the day at Basketball Reference. So if anyone’s obsessing over statistics, its me and people like me, so I’m sympathetic to a love for the stat that is TRB%, but I take issue with denigrating the simpler ‘Rebounds Per Game’. Especially when its used like Henry’s about to use it.
That old school list (which is also, literally, old -- it's through November 10) tells us that the league's best rebounder, by far, is Joakim Noah at 15 per game. Some others in the list: Luis Scola (fourth), David Lee (fifth), Pau Gasol (seventh), Lamar Odom (eighth) and Kevin Garnett (tenth).
On Kubatko's excellent Basketball-Reference, I looked up the statistic he prefers, the league leaders in total rebound percentage. Things are pretty darned different. By total rebound percentage, Noah is fourth, and Reggie Evans is the guy well ahead of the pack, followed by Kevin Love and Marcus Camby.
Fair enough, I hear ya Abbott. Reggie Evans has been a great rebounder this season, he’s not going to get you ANY points during the game, but yeah, when it comes to the one thing he does well, he does it really well. So I’m convinced, TRB% is useful.
I linked to the online version, but I read this on newsprint, where Kubatko's article appears on page B15, less than an inch away from page B14's "NBA Leaders" listings. Papers have been carrying forever. Four sets of top ten lists, three out of the four expressed the old way. The dumb way: Per game.
Wait a second. Per game is the dumb way? You want to have a list in the NY Times, the most widely read paper in the world, that puts Reggie Evans at the top? I’m not sure if Henry knows this, but Reggie Evans sucks as far as NBA basketball players go. Why? He’s one dimensional. If he’s leading the league in rebound rate, why isn’t he on the floor more? Because one dimensional players don’t get as many minutes as well rounded basketball players, just ask Kyle Korver. Or maybe he’s got other skills besides rebounding, but can’t stay on the floor due to foul trouble, well, thats another knock on Reggie Evans. Or wait, maybe he gets winded after 5 boards and has to take a breather, and thats why he plays less minutes and can’t succeed in the dumb way: Per Game. In general, per game stats tell a larger story than the stripped down % stats.
What the NY Times is doing is summarizing the NBA season up until this point. It gives you the lists, Assists/game, Points/game, and Rebounds/game. These lists are statistically simple, and simple is important, but what these lists are really saying is: These are the players that are having an impact on the league this season and here is my proof to back that up. Reggie Evans is not having an impact on the league this season, and should not be included in any NBA summary.
Whats worse is that, the target audience of the sports section of the NY Times and other more local papers isn’t Henry Abbott or the patrons of Blogabull. Its people who want to know whats going on in the NBA this season but who’s main activity isn’t poring over every single nba talking point and critiquing the personnel decisions of all 30 nba teams, especially the increasingly irrelevant northern franchises. These people don’t get inside jokes like "KAAHHHHN!". And that's fine, they likely have better things to do, and if they say to themselves "I’d like to catch an NBA game, I should observe this Evans chap, he’s at the top of a list" they will be underwhelmed, bored, and they won’t check back into the nba again until someone who watches games clues them into which teams and players are good to watch (hint: Joakim Noah).
EVEN WORSE, is that Kids are a huge demographic of the NBA and probably get more of a kick out of it than any adult would feel comfortable with, but try explaining TRB% to a kid. Try to explain why their hero, who they just saw demolish Reggie Evans last night, isn’t ranked higher on a list they don’t understand.
TRB% is an estimate anyways, it is less accurate than Rebounds per game. It doesn’t measure what happens when Noah or Evans is actually on the floor, but makes assumptions about the minutes they played and takes into account things that happened when a specific player was on the floor as well as when a specific player was off. As a tool to use in evaluating players and their varying strengths and weaknesses ? Awesome. As a tool to explain reality? Eh. Its a statistic.
Kubatko, the main interviewee of the post, seems to get that, but Henry Abbott takes the trees for forest approach in reading into what is indeed a very measured quote.
Kubatko is very measured, but you can feel it, just a little, the urge to toss aside some of the sillier older metrics. "With the help of statistics like these," says Kubatko, "fans can get a better, more complete view of the players and the teams than they would with a cursory look at the traditional box score."