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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics - April 16, 2014

The NBA Playoffs start this weekend. With the marathon run to the NBA Championship set to begin, you can expect to be fed a healthy dose of basketball statistics. The team that does this first can expect to win. A team without a player who can do that has never advanced past the second round. Etcetera, etcetera….
The Daily Hat Trick has a couple of factoids you can toss out over a frosty beverage while checking out the playoff action with friends, family and coworkers. Get ready to wow the guys with your vault of useless trivia. It’s, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”!

As star-driven as the sport of basketball is, as much as a single player can elevate an entire team, it is mind-blowing that a team can have top five league leaders in four of the five major individual performance statistics (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks) and not only be in 10th place in its conference and out of the playoffs, but no even have a winning record. That is the position that the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in (again). It begs the question: are Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio wasting their talents in the Twin Cities?
Wolves big man and three time All-Star Kevin Love averages 26 points per game and 13 rebounds per game, fourth and third in the NBA, respectively. Point guard Ricky Rubio dishes out nine dimes per game and steals the ball 2.3 times on a typical evening, placing him fifth and second, respectively in those categories. With players who are so good, how can the Wolves be so consistently bad?
Part of the T-Wolves’ misfortune is being in the talent-superior Western Conference in a division loaded with All-Star talent. The Northwest division is home to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a perennial front runner for the Western Conference championship. Also in the division are the Portland Trailblazers with 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Their regular season schedule is simply weighted to play more of the league’s better teams.
The other problem is that the Timberwolves have a mediocre to below average supporting cast around their two stars. In spite of being in the NBA Draft Lottery year-after-year, the Wolves have not parleyed their higher picks into higher talent. The 2014 version of the Wolves is an undersized front court (Love notwithstanding) with players who can shoot but intimidate nobody defensively.
The 2015 season may be Love’s last dance in Minnesota, with the seventh year of his contract approaching. Love will be an unrestricted free agent after next season. The odds of Love staying in place shrink with each loss.
Lakers, Knicks... get ready to start your bidding! 1

We know the narrative on MJ: 14-time All-Star, six NBA titles, five-time MVP, first ballot Hall of Famer…I would wager he is the consensus greatest basketball player of all time; he has my vote. I can only imagine that those of you who are basketball fans but not stat geeks would assume that in the best measurable year of the career of arguably the greatest player ever would have earned him the award for the Most Valuable Player for that season.
However, anyone not digging inside the numbers might regard the 1989 NBA season as a footnote in the career of Michael Jordan. He didn’t win the MVP. His team, the Chicago Bulls, did not win anything of note – They didn’t even win the Eastern Conference; in fact, they were next-to-last in the Central Division. Mike’s success was not even enjoyed vicariously by his Head Coach, Doug Collins. Collins was fired after the season.
While the path of Jordan’s career would trend sharply upward very quickly with the Bulls’ promotion of Phil Jackson to Head Coach the next season and winning his first NBA Championship ring in the year after, Jordan’s box scores never peaked more than during the valley that was the Bulls’ 1989 season. Jordan averaged 33 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists per game from the shooting guard position that year.  He also played over 40 minutes per night and averaged a tick under 3 steals and a blocked shot per game while shooting 55% from the field and 85% from the line, at or close to career highs.
For casual fans who only care about wins, losses, and what they seen on the highlight reels, those…stats…are...ridiculous! Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder has a stat line is similar but, across the board, slightly lesser that the aforementioned MJ stat line from 1989 and he is all but certain to win the 2014 MVP award. 
It would make for great barber shop conversation about the modern NBA versus the "golden years" of the 80s and 90s. How much more physical the play was back then.... How much more intense the competition was among the star players.... By the way, the winner of the MVP in 1989? Some Johnny come lately named Earvin "Magic" Johnson (23 PPG, 13 APG, 8 RPG, 91% FT - led the NBA).
He had to...taste...defeat a few more times before reaching basketball's summit. 2
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