In This Article…
Statistical comparison is a necessary evil in the sports world. On the one hand, we know that a player’s statistical accomplishments do not occur in a vacuum. Since factors such as position, body and build, teammates, opponents, and much more can significantly affect a player’s statistical output, comparing two players statistically is like comparing apples and oranges.
On the other hand, any attempt to compare two players without some form of quantitative measurement never leaves the realm of subjectivity. Thus, rational and logical (not to mention measurable and substantial) comparisons between two players cannot be performed without a certain amount of statistical comparison — making statistical comparison not only inevitable, but necessary.
Unfortunately, when making statistical comparisons, many people fail to account for the context in which a player’s statistics are recorded. They attempt to do the impossible — indeed, the irrational — by making straight statistical comparisons without accounting for each player’s multi-faceted context.
This is the issue that I want to explore: What is an appropriate way to compare two players statistically? While this topic obviously applies across the board, not only to all of basketball but to most other sports as well, I will approach this subject from the perspective of how it affects Kobe Bryant, since he is the primary topic of this website.
Field Goal Percentage
Field Goal Percentage (FG%) is often used as a measure of offensive scoring efficiency. This statistic is often taken into consideration along with points scored (or PPG – points per game). After all, scoring 20 points in a game can be seen as significant achievement, but if a player does so by making only eight out of 25 shots, shooting only 32%, then that achievement loses a lot of value.
Thus, particularly when dealing with two players whose scoring average (PPG) is relatively close, it can be important to compare the players based on efficiency.
This is where the problem arises: When attempting to compare two players’ in terms of efficiency, most people compare their field goal percentages. This is an understandable approach, since one would assume that scoring efficiency translates roughly into how many shots a player makes, as compared to how many shots he takes.
Unfortunately, comparing two players’ overall shooting percentage is an overly simplistic and often inaccurate way of viewing efficiency. Three very significant factors are not considered in the FG% statistic, and yet can have a huge impact on offensive efficiency: the position of the player, the number of three-point shots he takes (and makes), and the number of free throws he takes (and makes).
Position: A player’s position is very important when considering field goal percentage. Consider, for example, that centers in the NBA generally average over 50% shooting, and often closer to 60%. On the other hand, guards generally average in the mid- to low-40s. The reason for this is simple: centers play closest to the basket, and therefore tend to take very high percentage (easy) shots, while guards play farthest from the basket, and therefore tend to take lower percentage (more difficult) shots.
Therefore, it would be unreasonable to compare a guard shooting 47% (which is above average for guards) to a center shooting 52% (which is below average for centers), and conclude that the center is a better shooter and more efficient. In reality, the center is rather inefficient for his position, while the guard is quite efficient for his.
A player’s position also relates directly to the types of shots a player takes. Centers virtually never take three-point shots. Forwards are more likely than centers to do so, but much less likely than guards, who take the most three-point shots of all positions.
Therefore, while many people fans of LeBron James like to use his higher shooting percentage than Kobe’s as evidence that he is a better shooter or a more efficient scorer, they fail to account for the fact that James’ position allows him a greater number of easy shots, while Kobe position requires him to take a greater number of more difficult shots.
Three-Point Shooting: This leads us to the next point: FG% does not account for three-point shots. Consider that three-point field goals are worth 1-1/2 as much as two-point field goals. Because of this, a player can shoot a lower percentage on three-point shots and still be as effective as he is when shooting a higher percentage on two-point shots.
Here’s an example: Player #1 takes 10 two-point shots and makes six of them, shooting 60% and scoring 10 points. Player #2 takes 10 three-point shots and makes four of them, shooting only 40% but still scoring 10 points. Thus, Player #2′s FG% is lower than Player #1′s, but the two are equally efficient — they scored the same amount of points in the same amount of shot attempts.
Because of these things, a player’s three-point field goal percentage, as well as the number three-point shots they attempt, must be taken into consideration when comparing shooting efficiency.
Free Throw Shooting: Finally, FG% does not account for free throw shooting. Consider that most free throw attempts result from a foul on a shot attempt that is not converted, and as such, it is not counted in the box score as a Field Goal Attempt. (A shot on which the shooter is fouled does not count as field goal attempt unless the shot is made.) Thus, roughly every two Free Throws Attempted (FTA) represent one shot attempt that is not recorded in the box score. Since the shooter used an offensive possession with his two free throw attempts, it should count as an offensive possession (i.e., a shot attempt) for the player.
Let’s have an example: Player #3 takes 15 shots; he makes five, misses five, and is fouled (and does not make the shot) on the remaining five. The five shots on which he was fouled result in 10 free throws, and he makes all 10.
In this case, only the five made shots and the five missed shots are recorded in the box score as Field Goal Attempts, so the box score shows that he made 5 of 10, or 50%, of his shots. However, every two free throws also represent a shot he attempted — and since he made all of his free throws, a shot he made. Therefore, it is as though he had made 10 out of 15 shots, which would translate to 66.7% shooting.
Thus, to truly evaluate a player’s shooting efficiency, we must find a way to incorporate both the increased value of three-point shots and the missing free throws (attempted and made) into the comparison.
To do this, ESPN’s John Hollinger uses a statistic he calls True Shooting Percentage (TS%). True Shooting Percentage does three things:
I said before that roughly every two free throws represent one shot attempt. If that were true, then we would simply divide a player’s Free Throws Attempted by two (or multiply by 0.5) to determine the number of shot attempts each free throw represents. However, this does not account for the occasional “and-1″ basket, in which the free throw does not actually represent a separate possession (that possession, instead, is represented by the made field goal).
Extensive NBA studies of literally decades worth of statistical data have determined that each free throw represents not one half (0.5) of a possession, but slightly over four tenths (0.44) of a possession. Thus, to find how many possessions a player used in free throws — which is to say, the number of shots that a player’s FTA represent — we multiply his FTA by 0.44, rather than by 0.5.
The equation Hollinger uses to derive his True Shooting Percentage is as follows:
(Points/2) / [FGA + (0.44 * FTA)]
I don’t think this is the place to go into a detailed mathematical explanation of Hollinger’s equation and how it accomplishes the three things outlined above. If you’re interested in the mathematical details, click here for a more detailed explanation (coming soon!). For now, suffice it to say that this equation does indeed accomplish these three things, and therefore it successfully accounts for both the increased value of three-point shots and the missing value of free throws.
In summary, it is not sufficient to simply compare the shooting percentages of two different players. Differences in three-point shooting percentage, free throw shooting percentage, and the frequency with which each player takes various different types of shots can all affect their shooting percentage, and whether that shooting percentage should be considered “efficient.”
To accurately compare the offensive shooting efficiency of two players, one should look at True Shooting Percentage (TS%) rather than Field Goal Percentage (FG%), as it accounts for three-pointers and free throws.
To bring this full circle to our early example, Kobe Bryant’s position requires him to shoot more three-point shots than LeBron James. At the same time, he is a much better three-point shooter than James. He is also a better free throw shooter than LeBron. Therefore, when comparing the two using a more accurate measure that accounts for three-pointers and free throws, we discover that Kobe’s TS% this year is .571, whereas LeBron’s is .565. Thus, Bryant is actually a more efficient scorer than James; James FG% is simply augmented by the fact that he takes more close, easy shots than Kobe.
Rebounding is quite a bit simpler to dissect than field goal percentage, as it does not include such complex factors as the point value and degree of difficulty various types of shots, or statistics such as free throws that are completely omitted from the equation. The issue is quite simple: Position and size both have a huge effect on rebounding.
First, when evaluating a player’s rebounding ability, it is important to consider size. LeBron James is 6’8″ and 250 lbs. In contrast, Kobe Bryant is 6’5″ (the NBA lists him as 6’6″, but he admits to being only 6’5″ and his wife says she measured him and he was 6’4-1/2″) and 205 lbs.
Given that LeBron is three to four inches taller and 45 pounds heavier than Kobe, the fact that James averages only two rebounds more than Bryant is, in reality, not all that impressive. It is only normal, and exactly what one would expect given the difference in height and weight.
Much like with shooting percentage, position is a huge factor in rebounding. Guards, by definition, play further away from the basket, and therefore do not have as many opportunities to rebound as players who play closer in. Forwards play closer to the basket, and center closest. Therefore, it’s not surprising that, on average, centers average more rebounds than forwards, who in turn average more rebounds than guards.
This concept applies to both offensive and defensive rebounds. On defense, guards are generally defending the other team’s guards, and are therefore located on the perimeter. On offense, guards take a higher percentage of shots from outside, and a lower percentage of shots “in the paint.” Therefore, they get fewer opportunities for offensive rebounds.
Again, these concepts can be applied to our example. James is a forward, while Bryant is a guard. As such, James is guarding forwards and therefore plays closer to the basket on defense than Bryant does. Furthermore, as a forward, a much higher percentage of LeBron’s shots are close to the basket, while Kobe shoots more from outside. Therefore, it is again less than impressive that LeBron, despite all the advantages that come from height, weight, and positioning on both offense and defense, only averages two rebounds more than Kobe.
To see this in context, simply evaluate each player based on how he stacks up against other players at his own position. As you can see here, Kobe Bryant is ranked 3rd in rebounding among guards — only Jason Kidd, who is a rebounding and triple-double freak of nature, and Mike Miller, who is also three to four inches taller than Bryant, have better rebounding averages. Meanwhile, LeBron ranks a lowly 18th among forwards in rebounding.
Clearly, Kobe Bryant is a better rebounder at his position than LeBron James is at his.
Like everything else, a player’s assist numbers are significantly affected by factors outside of the players pure ability or skill. In this case, these external factors include the player’s teammates, the role he plays in his offense, and the offensive system itself.
First, it is important to note that a player’s teammates can have a large impact on his assist numbers. After all, assists are not recorded on passes that lead to shots that should be made, but are not. The player must make the shot after receiving the pass in order for the passer to receive the assist.
In addition, if none of a player’s teammates are capable of creating their own shot, then all of their shot attempts must come off of passes. This can also result in higher assist numbers, not only for a specific player, but for the entire team, while a team that has multiple players that can create their own shot will record fewer assists.
Therefore, if a player has poor teammates, his assist numbers may suffer. If, on the other hand, his teammates shoot a high percentage, his assist numbers may benefit (though, at the same time, they may also suffer if any of his teammates are capable of creating their own shots on a consistent basis).
The second factor at play here is the player’s role in his offense. Point guards often have the role of bringing the ball down the floor, running plays, and delivering passes to open teammates, who take, and hopefully make, the shot. However, on some teams which lack a quality point guard, the star player may be responsible for running the offense, and creating shots either for himself or his teammates.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are two prime examples of such a player. For each of them — particularly now that Wade no longer has Shaq to command double teams and pass to open teammates — virtually every play runs through the star player. In effect, the entire offense runs through Wade and James on each of their teams. Therefore, it is natural that they would record more assists than they might if they were playing on a team with a strong point guard like Jason Kidd or Steve Nash, or in an offensive system that took some pressure off of them to create.
This brings me to the third factor that affects assist numbers: the offensive system in which one plays. Kobe Bryant’s role in the offense is quite different from James’ and Wade’s, and that is mainly because of the Lakers’ offensive system. He plays in Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense (created by Tex Winter) — and offensive system that is specifically designed both to emphasize ball movement and to prevent the ball from being dominated by one player. Therefore, the Lakers offense definitely does not run through Kobe Bryant in the way that it does for Wade and James. Therefore, Kobe has fewer opportunities for assists.
Furthermore, the Triangle Offense is built on the concept of swinging the ball rapidly from side to side, inside and out, until the team finds a high percentage shot. Therefore, the offense emphasizes the extra pass, and even an extra pass after that. So, while most of James’ and Wade’s passes result in a shot, many of Kobe’s passes result in another pass, and perhaps yet another, before a shot is taken.
In fact, Lakers fans frequently see Kobe draw a double- or triple-team, then make the pass out of the double- or triple-team to a teammate. For LeBron or Wade, this teammate would likely take the shot. If they make enough of those passes, some of those shots are going to fall, so they will inevitably get their assist numbers. But for Kobe, this pass often resuls in one or two additional passes before a quality shot is taken, and often made. While the player who took the shot was open because of Kobe, and the entire sequence started with Kobe, he does not get an assist on the possession.
Therefore, when evaluating assist numbers, it is important to consider all three of these factors. Better teammates that shoot higher percentages will result in more assists. But at the same time, a player is bound to record higher assist numbers when he is the primary ball handler and the offense usually flows through him, while a player who plays in a system designed to prevent one player from dominating the ball and instead encourage ball movement will record fewer assists.
The final statistical category that I want to touch on is blocking This will be brief, because most of what is relevant to this category has already been discussed above.
Much of blocking depends on two factors: size and position. First, the taller a player is, and the larger his wingspan, the easier it is for him to block shots. Meanwhile, shots closer into the basket tend to be easier to block, meaning that a player who plays closer to the basket will have more opportunities to block shots.
These are important factors to keep in mind when considering blocking ability. A shooting guard may be an excellent shot blocker, especially for his size, but he may rarely have the opportunity to block a shot.
Perhaps the most important issue to address here, however, is expectation. By and large, shooting guards simply aren’t expected to be shot blockers. In fact, if a guard is focusing on trying to block shots, it’s likely that he is slacking in other aspects of his man-to-man and team defense, just in the hope of recording an occasional block. It’s simply not worth it.
It is for that reason that the best shot blockers will always be forwards and centers: shooting guards simply aren’t asked to block shots. In fact, often times it’s best that they not try.
Worth noting: Kobe Bryant ranks 2nd among guards in blocks.
Proper Statistical Comparisons
By now, it should be clear that many different factors play into statistical measurements, which must be taken into consideration when comparing two players. It is never a good idea to compare two players’ statistics “straight up” — numerous factors such as size and weight, position, and role, as well as many others, can affect stats, and must be taken into consideration. When a person attempts to compare two players statistically without accounting for the various factors that could affect their statistical performance, it is often the case that he has ulterior motives, and is intentionally using statistics out of context because they support his assertion.