Monday, March 24, 2008

Math, March Madness and Michael Jordan

Given that we are in the midst of March Madness and that I am a huge basketball fan, I thought that I might address some of the things going on out there in the college basketball world.

One of the more interesting trends to me, is the continuing adoption of applying statistical methods to basketball, in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of baseball, which has a big headstart over its basketball stats devotees. For those interested, the Bible would be the book, Basketball On Paper, by Dean Oliver, in which the author attempts to combine the methods of Bill James with the coaching philosophy of Dean Smith.

It is a great and instructive book whose only lacking is that it focuses on the NBA instead of the vastly more interesting college game, presumably due to the greater availability of statistical data from the professional league.

One thing in the book that I found especially interesting is that Oliver attempts to answer the decades old question as to who was better between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. He doesn't really answer the question, which may be to his credit, as basketball is a team game after all. We have lately seen other writers who make a pretense of using statistical analysis to give definitive answers as to which of two excellent players is better, which actually ends up being more opinion than statistics based.

For examples of this, see a recent article on Basketball Prospectus, a little brother of Baseball Prospectus, trying to find its feet:, in which the writer makes some jarring leaps to conclusions based upon fairly even and imperfect statistical data, and does this without even deeming it necessary for a person to have seen the two players in question in game action. This is the misuse of statistics and it obscures rather than elucidates in helping the fan understand what makes players and teams successful.

Oliver, by contrast, uses the numbers to try to analyze each player's strengths, recognizing that the numbers are not enough to carry the day either way.

What Oliver concludes about Russell and Chamberlain, is that basically Russell played on teams that always had several Hall of Famers on them during his career, while Chamberlain did so only a couple of times.

When Chamberlain was accompanied by Hall of Fame caliber talent like Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Gail Goodrich and Jerry West, he broke through and won two championships, altering his game to focus more on defense and rebounding in the process.

By winning two NBA titles, Chamberlain stands among the few all time greats who have even won more than one, given the Celtics dominance up to about 1975. His two championship are more than this following Hall of Fame contingent, all of whom were his contemporaries, and who either won only one title or none at all: Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes, Rick Barry, and Wes Unseld. And yet, none of these great players has ever been deemed a "loser," in the way that Chamberlain has. Also peculiar is the way that Chamberlain was derided for his foul shooting, when he was essentially even with Russell statistically in free throw percentage.

It is also worth noting that Chamberlain bridged the careers of Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the two most successful centers in NBA history in terms of winning titles and Wilt's teams dethroned both of them, in 1967, with the 76'ers annihilating the Celtics in five games, and in 1972 with the Lakers defeating the 66-16 defending champs, the Bucks, in 6 games.

But unlike the 7' 4" Tom Burleson with NC State, who along with David Thompson dethroned the smaller Bill Walton and UCLA after years of Bruin dominance, did Wilt ever get his due for ending the Celtics string of 8 titles in a row? Not really.

Ultimately, for Oliver, Russell may have been better for a team like the Celtics, which had many great shooters and scorers, while Wilt was the player who could take a team to respectability overnight all by himself.

But to me, what was even more interesting is that Oliver then ends up more focused on evaluating Wilt, who retired in the early 1970's, as compared to Michael Jordan, the greatest player of more recent times.

Just looking at the raw numbers, one wonders how anyone could compare to Wilt, who scored 100 points in a single game while playing for coach Frank McGuire's Philadelphia Warriors, and who averaged over fifty points that season while carrying his team to an excellent second place finish to the Celtics, of course.

But what Oliver points out, is something completely counter-intuitive. Basketball was played much faster in the 1960's than it is today. There were far more shots taken per game back then, which resulted in higher scoring and higher rebounding averages. It's just those jerky film clips that make them seem so awkward and slow!

After adjusting the numbers garned by Chamberlain during his career and then adjusting for the difference in tempo in the way the game was played, Oliver discovers that Wilt was indeed overrated and nowhere close to the unmatchable titan that we all imagine when looking at his raw stats.

Wilt was human,and after adjusting his statistics downward to account for all the extra shots and rebounds, it turns out that Wilt in actuality was probably only a little bit better than Michael Jordan!

But if anyone out there saw both of them play and wants to make an argument the other way, Oliver gives us the tools to help make more concrete arguments with data about which player we ultimately prefer. But let's not get the horse before the carriage.

Basketball is a beautiful thing to be watched first and enjoyed and then just maybe, the data can help us understand and appreciate the sport even more. But you have to watch and see the players to really know and for those of us too young to have ever seen Chamberlain, we will just have to read the accounts of those who did and watch old game films. The numbers by themselves will never be enough.

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