Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ramblings Of A Stat Geek

No, I'm not referring to myself. Some stat geek over at ESPN took a numbers-based approach to outlining a supposed decline in Chris Paul's game, citing drops in both his assist totals and his usage rate. He looked at statistics over the last four seasons, and, upon seeing lower numbers in the seasons between '09-'11 than from '07-'09, he immediately concluded that CP3 is in decline. Honestly, I don't know why ESPN subjects us to this driv...actually, I do. They know subjects like this get the internets talking, and generating web clicks; and look at me, all the way out in Mars, discussing it just the same. I feel baited. But, I'll keep clamping down on the hook in my mouth...

This stat-based analysis is so bereft of logic that to resist slicing it to shreds is unbearable. If you're doing a study, you have to make sure that outside factors aren't influencing your conclusions in ways your study doesn't address. There are a myriad of reasons why a point guard's assists and usage may drop. Hell, the drop in usage rate alone would affect the decline in assists! (Hmm, let's see, a guy handles the ball less, and his assists drop. Wow! Gee, I wonder if a decline in minutes played may also miraculously affect his assists.)

There are two incredibly-obvious factors that could explain a drop in assists or in usage rate: personnel and coaching. In the case of the Hornets, both changed over the years in question. Who sound like better recipients of alley-oop passes: Tyson Chandler and Chris Andersen, or Emeka Okafur? Andersen left after the 2007 season; Chandler was swapped for Okafur prior to the 2009 season...the first season of the assist-numbers decline. Gee, what a wild random coincidence. We should just end the discussion right here. Okafur is no slouch -- far from it -- but he is not nearly the athletic flyer around the rim that Chandler and Birdman Andersen are. Those roster moves are good for one-two assists less per game all by their lonesome. But there's more. In the "up" two years, the Hornets top 3-pt shooters were a sharp-shooting Peja Stojakovich, Morris Peterson, Rasual Butler, and James Posey. Last year, that list had devolved to Marco Bellinelli and...Trevor Ariza. Ouch. Trevor thus far has proven he can't hit the side of a barn more than once a game, no matter how many tries he gets. If you're a slashing PG looking for someone to kick out to, and he's your top option, call a masonry and kiss your assists good-bye. David West remains the one constant for the Hornets as a scorer over the entire 4 years, but guess what? Dumping the ball into the post and watching a guy make a myriad of moves gets you 2 points on the board and zero in your assist column. So, with two sets of roster changes, you have drastically reduced the most effective ways a guy like Paul gets assists, and increased his dependence on prospects that do not. Are we still wondering why his assists have taken a hit?

As for usage rate, the Hornets also underwent a coaching change, before the 2010 season, bringing in Monty Williams. Now, this is admittedly just conjecture, but is it not more than possible that Coach Monty runs an offense that spreads the ball around a bit more? And also, with the roster changes, are you not more reliant on Paul to be a recipient of passes while spotting up for three than ever before? Which, again, means you're putting the ball in other players' hands, lowering Paul's usage? Didn't Darren Collison -- a point guard -- play huge minutes the entire 2009 season, so much so to cause a mild NFL-like quarterbacking controversy for a period of time?

Now, there is also the fact that Chris Paul spent half of that 2009-2010 season on the bench injured, and the other half playing on one leg while recovering from injury; naturally, that could also explain a drop in his numbers. I mention this here instead of earlier, not to bury it beneath factors that are external to the player and thus help prove my point, but merely because I am responding to an article whose focus was solely the play of Paul himself. While his knee injury definitely needs to be noted as a possible cause for the decline in numbers, the point of this blog entry is that you can't just roll out a barrel of stats, like assists and usage rate, that are infinitely affected by the personnel and staff around a player, and blindly conclude that any and all changes reflect solely on the player in question.

As far as numbers go, I can't even give one vis-a-vis a grade to ESPN's stat geek; his column gets a solid "I-incomplete".

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