clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Searching for the best basketball stat

Is there a fool proof way to judge NBA players? Probably not. It doesn't mean the foolish among us won't try though.

"I demand better stats. Do you hear me? They must be BETTER!"
"I demand better stats. Do you hear me? They must be BETTER!"
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In my last column, I poked holes in ESPN's new stat for evaluating players, RPM (Real Plus-Minus).

So what is the best stat then?

I'm not sure one exists.

I've discussed PER's faults before, it's not a stat that takes defense into account, but I its leaderboard certainly passes the eye test. Outside of Dallas' Brandan Wright (a backup power forward with limited range) just about everyone looks to be in the slot where you'd think they'd be. Are we inherently geared to favor offensive players and subconsciously ignore defense? I'm not sure, but I do feel that stats like net rating and RPM lean too far the other way in giving defense as much value as offense, and I don't think that's appropriate.

The mistake people when weighing offensive and defensive ratings equally is that the former is far more individual than the latter. A player can greatly influence how successful and efficient his lineup's offense is by shooting well, by setting up his teammates with easy passes or even by procuring offensive boards. Defensively a guy can be a lockdown defender but if he's got four nose-pickers behind him, it's not gonna matter. Defense is a team stat first and foremost.

It reminds me of when OPS first came out in baseball, where people weighed on-base-percentage and slugging percentage equally. Any serious SABR person will tell you now that the former is a lot more valuable and the only debate is to what degree.

We can't ignore defense totally however, so PER's out. No, don't try to talk me out of it, it's out.

It's fashionable to look at net rating, i.e. the difference between a player's offensive and defensive ratings and use that as an arbiter, and it sure makes Manu Ginobili look good, but I have even more problems with it than RPM, to be honest. I think it's just a way to reward role players on winning teams and punish everyone else. I mean, look at the names on the leaderboard.

Nick Collison third. Jae Crowder fifth. Tiago Splitter sixth. Derek Fisher seventh. Patty Mills eighth. LeBron James is 25th.

Or, to put it another way, Jeremy Lamb, who is likely not even going to be in Scotty Brooks' playoff rotation, has a higher net rating than teammate Kevin Durant, the runaway MVP.

If Lamb is doing better than Durant in your stat, it's probably not the best stat. Net rating is out.

A couple of people have directed me toward's "Simple Rating," which uses a variant of John Hollinger's PER and combines it with on/off numbers to come up with an overall score. The twist it has though is it takes a players' PER (or whatever version they use) and then subtracts the PER of the man he's guarding in a game to come up with the "net production" part before getting to the plus/minus component. Right there is where they lose me because I don't see the relevance of that at all. Coaches routinely hide guys like Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry on the opponent's least-dangerous scorers to protect them defensively, to keep them out of potential foul trouble or even just to give them a breather on defense. What's the point of evaluating Durant's defensive PER if he's making his bones guarding the Luc Mbah a Moute's of the world?

Sorry, I'm out on simple rating. Maybe I just don't understand it well enough.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Ginobili's score of 10.0 blows away the second-best guy on the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard's 4.1, but he hasn't played enough minutes to qualify for the league leaders under their ratings.)

Wins Produced is interesting, even though I'm not totally clear on how it works. The Wages of Wins folks came up with it and you can find it on these days, and I suppose it's a bit similar to Win Shares in that there are total and per-48-minutes versions of it, and like PER and a lot of the others it really overvalues backup bigs who can't score from outside of two feet.

The thing that makes me dubious of it, as I mentioned in my R.I.P. to PER column in the off-season, is that it hates Tony Parker. I mean, it really hates Tony Parker, like more than I hate mayonnaise. It has him 26th among point guards, behind such folks as Brandon Jennings and Jameer Nelson in total wins added and 32nd among point guards in WP/48. Can you even name 32 point guards off the top of your head? According to Wins Produced, even Cory Joseph is a better option for the Spurs at point than Parker. The only Spur Parker beats out in WP/48 is Aron Baynes.

Even last year, when Parker almost singlehandedly carried the Spurs for two months during the season, the Boxscoregeeks crowd had Parker as the fifth-most productive Spur. The links are no longer available for it but take my word for it, even when the Spurs were winning titles in 2004-05 and 2006-07, the Wins Produced stat had Brent Barry more responsible for those trophies than Parker. So take that for what it's worth. For me, Wins Produced is out, but we're getting closer.

I think the stat that comes closest to nirvana for our purposes comes from's Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes. They incorporate everything I'm looking for, taking both offense and defense into account, the leaderboard passes the eye test, not too heavily weighted on bigs or smalls or bench types or role players, and for those among you far more intelligent than I, the formula is even explained instead of being cloaked in proprietary secrecy like ESPN's.

How do we decide what's best though, between total win shares and win shares per 48 minutes? What's more important, efficiency or total production?  Well, I don't think either is more important than the other. Efficiency is important, of course, but at some point you have to reward and recognize the fellas who play the lion's share of the minutes and carry the freight as well.

My inelegant, quick-and-dirty solution, rather simplistic yet practical, is to take each player's ranking in both categories, divide by two and present that as the final number of where they rank among their peers. Obviously, the lower the number, the better the ranking. For example, Ginobili ranks 17th in WS/48 and 66th in WS. 17 + 66 = 83. Divide 83 by two and it's 41.5. We just have to figure out where 41.5 points ranks among other players and that gives us Ginobili's proper placement.

I've taken the liberty of doing the legwork for all the fellows are in top 80 for Win Shares, but it's not totally accurate because there are about 14 dudes, mostly on the lower-end of that top-80, who are in the top 80 of WS/48 but not in total Win Shares...

Name                                                    WS                         WS48                     Total/2                  Rank

Kevin Durant (OKC)                         1                              1                              1                              1

LeBron James (Mia)                        2                              3                              2.5                          2

Kevin Love (Min)                              3                              4                              3.5                          3

Chris Paul (LAC)                             7                              2                              4.5                          4

Stephen Curry (GS)                         4                              6                              5                              5

James Harden (Hou)                       5                              7                              6                              6

Blake Griffin (LAC)                           6                              10                           8                              7

Kyle Lowry (Tor)                               8                              12                           10                           8

Anthony Davis (NO)                        12                           9                              10.5                        9

DeAndre Jordan (LAC)                   9                              16                           12.5                        10t

Joakim Noah (Chi)                           11                           14                           12.5                        10t

Dirk Nowitzki (Dal)                           14                           11                           12.5                        10t

Goran Dragic (Phx)                          13                           13                           13                           13

Paul George (Ind)                            10                           18                           14                           14

Andre Drummond (Det)                 16                           19                           17.5                        15

Carmelo Anthony (NY)                  15                           25                           20                           16t

Robin Lopez (Por)                            18                           22                           20                           16t

Serge Ibaka (OKC)                           19                           24                           21.5                        18

Kawhi Leonard (SA)                        35                           15                           25                           19

Damian Lillard (Por)                         17                           34                           25.5                        20

DeMarcus Cousins (Sac)               26                           27                           26.5                        21

Dwight Howard (Hou)                    23                           32                           27.5                        22

Chris Bosh (Mia)                               21                           35                           28                           23

David Lee (GS)                                  31                           31                           31                           24

George Hill (Ind)                               27                           36                           31.5                        25t

David West (Ind)                              25                           38                           31.5                        25t

Chris Andersen (Mia)                     56                           8                              32                           27

Isaiah Thomas (Sac)                        24                           40                           32                           28

Andrew Bogut (GS)                         45                           21                           33                           29t

Terrance Jones (Hou)                     40                           26                           33                           29t

Mike Conley (Mem)                       30                           37                           33.5                        31t

Tim Duncan (SA)                               37                           30                           33.5                        31t

DeMar DeRozan (Tor)                    20                           53                           36.5                        33

Marcin Gortat (Was)                       28                           46                           37                           34

Wesley Matthews (Por)                   22                           54                           38                           35

LaMarcus Aldridge (Por)                 33                           44                           38.5                        36

Nikola Pekovic (Min)                      58                           23                           40.5                        37

D.J. Augustin (Chi)                           50                           33                           41.5                        38t

Kenneth Farried (Den)                  42                           41                           41.5                        38t

Manu Ginobili (SA)                          66                           17                           41.5                        38t

Al Jefferson (Cha)                            38                           49                           43.5                        41

Patty Mills (SA)                                 72                           20                           46                           42

Trevor Ariza (Was)                           34                           59                           46.5                        43

Chandler Parsons (Hou)                36                           66                           51                           44

Markieff Morris (Phx)                    53                           50                           51.5                        45

Nicolas Batum (Por)                        29                           75                           52                           46

Jimmy Butler (Chi)                           41                           64                           52.5                        47

Marco Belinelli (SA)                         62                           45                           53.5                        48

Kyrie Irving (Cle)                               43                           65                           54                           49t

Ty Lawson (Den)                              47                           61                           54                           49t

Lance Stephenson (Ind)                 39                           69                           54                           50t

Amir Johnson (Tor)                         52                           57                           54.5                        52t

Jonas Valanciunas (Tor)                 51                           58                           54.5                        52t

Josh McRoberts (Cha)                    48                           62                           55                           54t

Dwyane Wade (Mia)                      71                           39                           55                           54t

John Wall (Was)                                32                           80                           56                           56

Anderson Varejao (Cle)                    73                           43                           58                           57

Jose Calderon (Dal)                         46                           72                           59                           58t

Tony Parker (SA)                              67                           51                           59                           58t

Darren Collison (LAC)                     65                           55                           60                           60

Paul Millsap (Atl)                              49                           74                           61.5                        61

Andre Iguodala (GS)                       69                           60                           64.5                        62

Gerald Green (Phx)                        59                           73                           66                           63

P.J. Tucker (Phx)                              55                           81                           68                           64

Taj Gibson (Chi)                              63                           78                           70.5                        65

Kyle Korver (Atl)                               60                           84                           72                           66

Deron Williams (Bro)                      76                           71                           73.5                        67

Mike Dunleavy (Chi)                       57                           91                           74                           68t

Ricky Rubio (Min)                             54                           94                           74                           68t

Klay Thompson (GS)                       44                           107                         75.5                        70

DeMarre Carroll (Atl)                      70                           90                           80                           71t

Kevin Martin (Min)                          74                           86                           80                           71t

Jamal Crawford (LAC)                     78                           83                           80.5                        73

Roy Hibbert (Ind)                             68                           97                           82.5                        74

Paul Pierce (Bro)                              80                           89                           84.5                        75

Greg Munroe (Det)                         61                           113                         87                           76

Zach Randolph (Mem)                   64                           114                         89                           77

Tristan Thompson (Cle)                 75                           122                         97.5                        78

Arron Afflalo (Orl)                            77                           123                         100                         79

Joe Johnson (Bro)                            79                           128                         102.5                     80