Friday, January 20, 2012

If the Denver Nuggets are the Beatles of Basketball, Does that Mean Andre Miller is John Lennon?

Last weekend I wrote about aesthetics in sports, and why a seemingly ugly and infraction-filled game was quite beautiful to watch. Here at The Diss, however, I’m the resident stat guy, and probably the last one you would expect to write about something as unquantifiable as aesthetics. After all, this is basketball we are talking about, not art history or literature.

And so my involvement in the argument over what constitutes beautiful basketball was over. Nobody has developed a system to “rate” the Mona Lisa higher than The Persistence of Memory, or that War and Peace’s 1,000+ pages means that it is three times better than A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

But basketball is different because it has hundreds of measureable characteristics. Assuming one could develop a consensus definition of beautiful basketball, they could simply measure and define. And so for the last week I have undertaken the Sisyphean task of developing said definition. While I know that there will always be dissidents, after talking with many knowledgeable basketball fans and reading knowledgeable basketball writers, I believe I have developed that definition.

Beautiful basketball involves the entire team, passing to each other in search of the perfect shot (Assist per Field Goal Made). Once that shot is identified, it should be made (Offensive Efficiency). Not all shots are created equal, however, and the most joy is felt if the shot results in a lot of points (3 Point Rate x 3 Point FG %) or a dunk (Dunks per Game). Five players weaving down the court in search of a mismatch off of a defensive rebound is exciting (Pace, Fastbreak PPG), but not if the pace is so fast as to lose the ball (TO per Possession). The most exciting defensive players are blocks (Block %) and steals (Steal per Defensive Play), while nobody likes to watch a game grind to a halt because of the referee’s whistle (Fouls per Defensive Play). And thus, we have our definition. Throw these statistics together, and we have a model for Aesthetically Pleasing Basketball (APB).

Before I get to the APB rankings, a few caveats. APB does not take into account winning percentage, though winning teams tend to be better at the things that lead to a high APB. A team that fouls a lot isn’t very attractive to watch, nor are they going to win a lot of games by giving their opponents free points. Future iterations of APB will attempt to reduce the influence that winning has on the rankings.

APB is also a work in progress. There are some statistical notes at the bottom of this piece, but if you have ideas on how to better quantify APB, please leave a comment.

There are a lot of things that I think are very interesting about these rankings—what the hell is in the water in the Northwest Division, with its teams finishing 1, 5, 6, 11, 24—but I will leave most of those for a future post, as I would rather hear what everybody else thinks about this. Do these rankings jive with the basketball that you have watched this year? How much money would I have to pay you to get you to watch the Raptors? Was last night’s Mavericks vs. Jazz game as good as these rankings would predict? Is the whole idea of quantifying aesthetics ridiculous?

Statistical Notes

All numbers are as of midnight January 19, and all caveats about small sample sizes apply. All numbers are from the excellent Team Rankings website, except for Pace (John Hollinger & ESPN) and Dunks (CBS Sports).

To calculate each teams score in a given category, I assigned a score to the top team (typically 10, though more heavily weighted factors were given 15, and less heavily weighted factors were given 5) and a score of 0 to the bottom team. The other 28 teams were given a score according to this formula: (Team Value – Lowest Team Value) / (Highest Team Value – Lowest Team Value) * Multiplier. For example, Atlanta scores 15.1 Fastbeak Points Per Game, while Denver scores the most in the league at 21.5 and Toronto the least in the league at 7.6. Thus Atlanta’s score is (15.1 – 7.6) / (21.5 – 7.6) * 10 = 5.4. I then added up each team’s score for each of the ten categories and called that their Aesthetically Pleasing Basketball Rate.

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