Monday, February 14, 2011

Statistics Inflation

I read a headline this morning: "Rondo triple-double leads Celtics past Heat." Rajon Rondo had a nice game. He had 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. You know what I say? Big deal!

Look back to the 1961-62 NBA season. I realize that was a long time ago, and that the game has changed significantly. Here were Oscar Robertson's key statistics for the season: he averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game for the entire season. With those averages right now, he would be leading the league in scoring (Kevin Durant leads at 29.1 per game), fifth in rebounding (Kevin Love leads at 15.5), and second in assists (Rondo leads with 12.3).

But, we have become so enamored with statistics that don't really matter that all of these cute little thresholds have been devised. Triple double! When the Big O averaged a triple double, the term hadn't been invented. Because of that, players didn't strive for ten of each, they just played to win.

Who leads the NBA in free throw percentage in home games played on Tuesdays against teams from the Western Conference? Thankfully, I have no idea, but I'm sure that some bored person could find the answer, and if he or she did, then some player would use that come contract negotiation time.

Everyone is enamored with these statistics. And, it's the thresholds that get all the publicity. Here's a really good example that I got from the book, Scorecaster. No player in recorded major league baseball history entering his last at bat of the season with a .299 batting average has ever drawn a walk. The number of players who have finished a season with 30 home runs exceeds the number who have finished with 29 by a statistically significant margin. Likewise, the number who have finished with between 100 and 105 RBIs exceeds the number who have finished with between 95 and 99 by a significant margin.

And, while I haven't seen it in that book anywhere, I would bet you that not too many NBA players finish a game with Triple 9s (points, rebounds, and assists), or even with double digits in two of those categories and nine in the third. Have you ever seen a player in a tight game take a really stupid shot to try to score their 50th point when a pass to a wide-open teammate for a layup was the right play? I have. Have you seen an NFL coach keep his star QB in the game to throw a few more passes in a blowout so that he can get to 400 yards passing? I have. And, in that circumstance, I've even seen the star QB get injured and miss a game or two with that injury, all in search of a useless holy grail. 385 yard passing games are not a great negotiation tool come contract time, but 400 yard games are.

Players should be measured by what they do for their team, not what they do for themselves. But, a great defensive small forward doesn't put fans in the seats. A 30 point per game scorer does.

I just hope that someday when future sports historians are writing down the greats of the games that they remember the players who made their teams winners not the players who made their contracts bigger.

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