Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan – A Statistical Comparison (Pace Adjusted)

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After reading the comments on my “Yikes, here comes Kobe after the best ever title” (Jordan should have a giant golden belt that he has to hand over when someone catches him) post, I began to try to reconcile the staggering disparity between our impression of Kobe’s greatness and what the statistical story tells us.

Using PER, which adjusts for pace, usage, and minutes played, Kobe is great, but he’s not in the argument for the greatest. I suspect there’s something a little off in the metric itself because it seems to undervalue Bird and Magic as well, though for different reasons. However, other metrics including Win Share, Win Score, Statistical Plus Minus and their various derivatives concur. Kobe, while elite, isn’t on par with Jordan, LeBron, or the very best of Shaq. Even Dirk, Wade, and Barkley usually outrank him. I can see MJ and Bron being better. Shaq too, and maybe even Charles at his peak (he was crazy efficient from 87-91), but we’ve all seen Kobe play in the same generation as Wade and Nowitzki. They may be close to his level, but doesn’t Bryant have to outrank them? I mean, almost by definition he’s better than those two.

To that end I undertook a painstaking statistical comparison between Bryant at his MVP best and Jordan at his most complete. I took Kobe’s numbers from 2006-2009 and Jordan’s from 1990-1993. I think it’s a good range match because the two guards were playing the same role in the same offense for the same coach. If I were to compare Jordan and LeBron, I’d use MJ’s stats from 87-90 because he was in more of a do-it-all position like James is. To even the playing field, I worked out a pace adjustment and bumped Kobe’s numbers up to a pace that matches Jordan’s Bulls in the early 90s. Kobe, who plays one more minute per game than Jordan over these 4 year spans, gains 3 additional possessions to his total, and actually plays two more total possessions than Michael after the correction.

You can find the stat breakdown here. As usual, all stats courtesy of the greatest website on Al Gore’s internet, http://www.basketball-reference.com/.

The highlights are as follows:

They score the same amount of points – 31.9 for Jordan and 31.8 for Kobe.

Jordan shoots slightly better overall. Ignore the field goal percentage. Kobe’s is much lower because he takes so many more 3 pointers per game. Look at the True Shooting percentage, a measure that factors in the additional points scored on three point shots and free throws. Jordan’s TS% is 59% and Kobe’s is 57%, both outstanding for high usage guards. Because of the slight difference in efficiency, Kobe uses one additional possession to get his points.

They dish out the same number of dimes – 5.9 for Jordan and 5.5 for Kobe.

The only significant difference in their pace adjusted stats is that Jordan loses possessions less often and gets them back more often. He has fewer turnovers, more steals, more rebounds, and more blocks even after we adjust for pace.

Jordan Rbs 6.5, Stl 2.6, Blk 0.8, Tov 2.6
Bryant Rbs 5.4, Stl 1.6, Blk 0.5, Tov 3.1

HOWEVER, those possessions come with a caveat. It was easier to pressure the ball in the 1990s than it is today because the handcheck was a legal defensive technique. So we could expect Kobe’s steals to increase under that rule structure. Although if we’re going to start making conjecture of that sort, we should probably also point out that Kobe might lose some of his scoring in the translation. Some of those free throws he took would not be called fouls under the old rules, and it might be more difficult to get off a pullup three pointer when the defender has a hand on his hip, simply because there’s little room for error when shooting from distance.

Quick note – though the Bulls pace of game from 1990-93 was faster than the Lakers from 2006-09, opponents missed more shots in the 2006-09 range — I suspect this is because today’s teams shoot so many more three pointers than they used to and therefore miss more often than they used to. So, while Kobe’s stats jumped up in every other category, they actually dipped slightly in adjusted defensive rebounds.

Another point that should be mentioned before we try to draw any conclusions is that I did not penalize Kobe’s efficiency at all for the increased pace or reduce his usage rate. While there is a proven correlation between the possessions a player uses and the efficiency with which he uses (it’s an inverse relationship), I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that a player as productive as Bryant would suffer a significant enough drop off to warrant an artificial deduction to his numbers just because he runs up and down the court three more times and gets off one more shot.

In the spreadsheet you’ll notice a few odd headings that I find very meaningful.

Tot Off (Total Offense) – This number is total points + total assists. Sometimes I’ll use a factor to lessen the value of each assist, but given that Kobe and Michael play the same role and have pretty much the same Ast stats, I didn’t bother here. Jordan’s Tot Off # is 37.8. Bryant’s is 37.2. Less than a point different.

Off / Use (Offense per Used Possession) – This number shows the positive results of each possession that the player uses. Jordan creates .06 more points per used possession. Since Kobe actually uses more possessions in this pace adjusted scenario that evens out anyway, but the notion here is that in any given play Jordan is remotely more likely to generate a point.

Net Pos (Net Possessions) – This numbers is the estimated possessions created by the player less the total possessions ended by the player. As we discussed above, Jordan stands out here.

Net Prod (Net Production) – This number is the Total Offense plus the Net Possessions, and it represents a total of all the good things that the player does while on the floor though it doesn’t factor defense outside of possessions gained. If we allow that Jordan and Bryant are at least relatively even in defense, missing a defensive adjustment isn’t such a big deal.

What I find particularly interesting in this comparison is that it seems like Jordan’s ability to hold onto the ball is the only real separating factor. Why does that intrigue me? It is the very thing that Phil Jackson always points to when asked to contrast his two superstar shooting guards.

From a 2008 interview with Magic Johnson, Phil says:

“He [Kobe] has small hands, but he’s got good hands. That’s the difference. … The difference between Michael and Kobe? The mitts that Michael had. Those mitts were something incredible. It really helped his game out.

The interview:

What do giant hands help with most? Nabbing steals, controlling the ball, and finishing at the rim. These are crucial element of the game to be sure, but they represent a fairly minor part of our overall impression of these players. While it’s true that for their overall careers, Jordan is statistically dominant to Bryant, we don’t really gauge players’ greatness by the entirety of their career. Our impression is of that magical stretch of time when the player is at his apex. In his best seasons, Kobe’s offense is just a hair’s breadth less statistically impressive than Michael’s, and of course the results speak for themselves. While I may have taken an over-brief snapshot of their two careers, I still believe it is quite telling to see that the production of these two great triangle-bound scoring guards is so incredibly similar over this particular span.

NOTE – I had to be pretty careful what range of seasons I chose for Kobe. Injuries throughout his career really put a crimp on his statistical consistency. He was pretty great from ’01-’03. Had injury and legal issues in ’04, injury issues in ’05, was tremendous from ’06-’09, and then had an efficiency drop off in ’10 that we attribute to wear and tear knee damage, a minute reduction in ’11 that jumped up his efficiency but hurt his total production and then another efficiency dip last year. At this point we can anticipate that his statistical glory days are behind him (unless Nash opens a Canadian can of John Stockton all over our asses). Moving forward, he’s likely going to be hurting his averages while amassing more career totals.

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19 Responses to “Kobe Bryant vs. Michael Jordan – A Statistical Comparison (Pace Adjusted)”

  1. pmadavi Says:

    The ELO Rankings at BBR.com have officially gone into the crazy zone. Kobe is 538.

    I’m looking more closely at his stats. He’s solidly #2 SG all time. Michael has a pretty heavy win share lead on Kobe still, and he’s got SIX Finals MVPs. Among other things you’ve already talked about.

    I was working on getting a top ten list together to see where Kobe is at. It’s too hard. These guys are so close. All I can solidly say is I got 1 and 2 on lock down. MJ, then Kareem. Then Shaq, Bird, Magic, Russell, Kobe, and Duncan are all mixed in there and I can’t decide the order.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      Yeah finding a top 10 order is impossible. Just selecting the players is a task. You’ve got Mike, Magic, Kobe, Oscar, and West as valid options at guard. You’ve got Bird, Elgin, Bron, Pettit, Dr. J, and Duncan at forward. You’ve got Russ, Wilt, KAJ, Shaq, Hakeem, and Moses at center. Admiral too if you’re a stat-head. Dirk might get some votes.

  2. Michael Jordan 50 Year Birthday Advanced Statistic Celebration « Double Dribble Says:

    […] https://doubledribble.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/kobe-bryant-vs-michael-jordan-a-statistical-comparison… […]

  3. Brian Says:

    I liked how you did this, it was a fair assessment and statistical comparison. Kobe is the closest we’ve seen to Jordan though, but at the same time, he doesn’t come that close. Those who remember seeing Jordan Play…..it was phenomenal. I love Kobe but he definitely ain’t no Jordan

    • jpalumbo Says:

      Thank you, Brian. That was definitely my goal. To find a way to make a fair apples to apples comparison btwn the two and get a sense of where the separation occurs.

  4. LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan – A Statistical Comparison (Pace Adjusted) | Double Dribble Says:

    […] know I need to get in on this!  Revisiting our pace adjusted comparison between Kobe’s best 4 years and Jordan’s 4 most comparable seasons, I’ve broken down the numbers on LeBron as a member of the Heat vs. Jordan at the same age.  The […]

  5. Charles in Charge Says:

    why is Kobe better than Wade or Dirk? To assume that is just ridiculous.

    When we look back on Kobe’s career we see a good shooting guard(at times arguably the best in the league he played in) who was FANTASTICALLY lucky to have hitched up with Shaq, Gasol, and the refs in the LA Portland and LA Sacramento series(and arguably at different times as well). He is nowhere near the force that Bird, Magic, Lebron, Jordan, (and for his competitors, Duncan, garnett, and so on down the line) were. Forget about PER. Check the offensive and defensive ratings. Kobe’s main claim to fame is that he shoots a lot. and why not compare Kobe’s best four seasons too MJ’s four best?

    • jpalumbo Says:

      You make fair points. Purely on efficiency, Wade and Dirk certainly have great, possibly irrefutable, arguments over Bryant. I do think there’s more to it than that. I’ll put together a post on this because it’s an interesting topic worth exploring.

      The reason I didn’t take Jordan’s most statistically dominant 4 year stretch (1988-1991), is that the comparison would have been less apt. The stretch of his career was more similar to Wade or LeBron in that he was responsible for basically everything & operating outside of a complex offensive system. From 1990-93 he served the same basic function in the same offensive system.

  6. Charles in Charge Says:

    I see where you are coming from on the system point, sort of. One could argue that you are cherry picking for pro Kobe points.

    Myself I don’t see team success as a barometer of player skill. Put Dirk(Or Wade) with peak Chandler(a stasis frozen version of the one we saw 2 or three years ago) for seven years in L.A(sans Kobe, of course) and I think you might see those guys mirror Kobe’s “success”. Gasol and Shaq were dominant team ball players. While I wouldn’t take either over peak Duncan or Garnett, Shaq was just about the best player in the league, in his Laker championship days, and Gasol was firmly ensconced in the top 8 or so(anylitics people might argue he was even better)

    Players generally aren’t this lucky. Lebron never got to play with Gasol, Lamar Odom, and an occasionally healthy Bynum in Cleveland. He played with Illgauskas, Varejo, and Moe Williams. Understand what I am saying?

    Duncan was one of the luckier ones. Robinson was still a dominant defensive presence for the first two Duncan titles, and Parker and especially Gninobli have not been slouches, over their careers.

    garnett was not so lucky, pre Boston and old age. He played with Wally Sczerbiak and 85 year old versions of Sam Casell and latrell Sprewell, the latter never having been all that useful of a player.

    See what I’m trying to say here?

    Oh and by the way, the luckiest player in the last 23 years was also arguable the best. MJ played with.

    Pippen(check his numbers)
    Grant(check his numbers)
    Rodman, who is maybe the best Power forward of all time, and most valuable (and underpaid) supporting player, of all time. Possession of the ball is very valuable. Who knew?
    http://skepticalsports.com/?page_id=1222

    and Kukoc(check his numbers)

    • jpalumbo Says:

      You’re completely correct, and I did cherry-pick to make a case for Bryant.

      You don’t need to tell me about the luck involved in titles or the benefits of playing with a Pippen, Robinson, or Shaq (in the case of O’Neal, he was actually better than Bryant while they were together). Nor do I think titles should be determinate in a player’s ranking. Check out my Charles Barkley 50th birthday article where I try to point out that his not beating the ’93 Bulls may be more impressive than beating the 2003 Nets, if you get me. Not to say Chuck’s better than Tim, but the ring shouldn’t be the only evidence that he’s not.

      Honestly this article was all about trying to find a way, any way, to reconcile Kobe’s reputation as a top 10 player with his not top 10 advanced stats. I’m a lifelong Celts fan, so it’s not like I’ve got a Mamba crush. The bit about Wade and Dirk was definitely hyperbole, but I needed a hook!

    • Walt Coogan Says:

      Bryant’s reputation as a top ten player is certainly based more on fallacies and hype than empiricism and real scrutiny of the game. When the best aspect of your game is scoring, yet you’ve never shot as high as .470 from the field in any of your seventeen regular seasons …

      Certainly, circumstance and environment must be considered when evaluating championships; the 2003 Nets constituted a joke compared to the 1993 Bulls. That said, Barkley in 1993 was also playing with much better teammates than Duncan in 2003. A twenty-seven-year old Kevin Johnson was a vastly superior point guard to a twenty-one-year old Tony Parker (hell, a thirty-one-year old Kevin Johnson was quite a bit better than a thirty-one-year old Tony Parker, even as outstanding as Parker is now), David Robinson was thirty-seven and well past his prime in 2003, and Manu Ginobili was a rookie reserve that year.

      The big difference was defense: Barkley constituted a major defensive liability, one of the worst defensive forwards in the NBA (don’t be fooled by Defensive Rating, a shaky and flawed metric that relies too heavily on defensive rebounds and fails to properly disentangle a player’s individual defense from his team’s defense), whereas Duncan was an elite defender. And in the Finals, Barkley played well, but he also shot below .400 from the field twice in six games, including in Game Six, when he shot 7-18 (.389), including 2-7 in the fourth quarter and 0-5 off post-ups or “isos.”

    • Walt Coogan Says:

      Dennis Rodman was the greatest power forward of all-time? What?

      Jordan obviously played with some fine teammates, but one could also argue that the Bulls usually faced opponents with a greater breadth and depth of talent in the NBA Finals.

      And Jordan never played with a great big man, at least a great offensive big man. I mean, how lucky was Barkley, with all the talent that he joined first in Phoenix, then in Houston? But discipline and a willingness to play defense make a huge difference.

    • Walt Coogan Says:

      Basketball is indeed a team sport and just counting up rings without regard for context constitutes a fallacy. That said, a player’s contribution to winning can be fairly (if not definitively) evaluated, so long as contingencies, particularities, and idiosyncrasies are accounted for.

      In the case of Garnett versus Duncan, Garnett certainly lacked great supporting talent in Minnesota, but he wasn’t bereft of supporting talent, either. Before he went down during the ’01-’02 season, Terrell Brandon was one of the game’s better point guards circa 1999-2001. And while Wally Szczerbiak certainly wasn’t a great player, he constituted a fine shooter (.485 from the field for his career, .406 on threes) and an All-Star in 2002.

      In ’03-’04, Sam Cassell was arguably the best point guard in the NBA, averaging 19.8 points and 7.3 assists, shooting .488 from the field, .398 on threes, and .873 from the free throw line, and Latrell Sprewell, while an overrated scorer due his inefficiency, remained a productive player, averaging 16.8 points. And sure enough, Minnesota posted a West-best 58 wins in that regular season and reached the Western Conference Finals before succumbing to the Lakers, in part due to a bad back that Cassell developed during that series.

      As for Duncan, he certainly played in an incredible system for an incredible coach and with All-Star teammates over the course of his long and illustrious career, but in 2003, his primary support tended to be either ‘green’ or ‘brown.’ Tony Parker turned twenty-one in late May and actually averaged 1.5 assists during one six-game playoff stretch, Manu Ginobili was a rookie, and David Robinson was thirty-seven, in his final season, and playing in the postseason through a knee injury—I’m not sure that his defense proved that “dominant” by that point. Nevertheless, Duncan carried his club to the championship. To be sure, the Spurs enjoyed some good fortune: the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had clearly suffered some slippage and constituted a fifth seed that year, Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki both suffered season-ending knee injuries during the playoffs (Nowitzki’s came versus San Antonio), and the Nets were a very weak team by the historical standards of the NBA Finals (they won just 49 regular season games despite playing in an inferior conference). But where Duncan differed from Garnett was that he not only possessed an excellent all-around game, but also an ‘alpha-male’ scoring ability. Garnett needed more help in that regard; he needed a Paul Pierce-type earlier in his career. So while Garnett wasn’t the ‘luckiest’ of players during his Minnesota days, had he possessed Duncan’s dominant low-post game, he may have led the Wolves to a little more success, at least in the playoffs.

      But you wouldn’t take a peak (or even prime) Shaq over a peak Duncan or Garnett? That’s quite a statement …

  7. Greg Johnson Says:

    This is why Boxscore statistics are more delusional than Advanced statistics. It doesn’t show true color of the impact that each player’s outing brought to the game, There is no doubt Kobe can score, and make plays but at what cost.

    Michael Jordan could replace a lot of players and win you more games, but it’s exactly the opposite for Kobe. You replace Kobe with Dwyane on a 3peat championship team, you probably get 3 or more as well. You replace Kobe again with Wade on awful Post-Shaq era, you probably win just as many game.

    How about this stats, simple W-L from Lakers’ 3 distinctive era Kobe played in.

    The Lakers in 3peat-era:
    Without Shaq: 13-12 (.520)
    Without Kobe: 28-6(.823)
    Without both: 0-1(.000)
    With both: 140-46(.753)

    The Lakers were a better team without Kobe. You may argue it’s a sample size but it’s still exactly what happened. And the reasons make perfect sense. The Lakers were at their best when they ran their offense through Shaq who was the most dominant big man). Often young immature Kobe tried to the “man” and tried to steal the show, it hurt the team. He was an asset only when he played under the system.

    Following their Finals loss against the Pistons(somebody eagerly tried to win the Finals MVP), Phil Jackson even wrote a book about how impossible to coach Kobe after leaving the team.

    Middle three years(post Shaq Lakers) 04-07
    04-05 With Kobe: 28-38(.424)
    04-05 Without Kobe: 6-10(.375)
    04-05 Without Odom: 2-14(.125)
    05-06(Phil Jackson Returns!) 43-35(.563), w/o Kobe: 0-2, w/o Odom: 0-2
    06-07 With Kobe: 39-38(.506)
    06-07 Without Kobe: 3-2(.600)
    06-07 With Odom: 30-26(.536)
    06-07 Without Odom: 12-14(.462)

    This was when Kobe clearly was the best player on the team. Even then, it is not too surprising why advanced statistics don’t favor him over likes of LeBron, or Wade who also played in this era. Now, let’s look at Pau-Bynum era, who were the best frontcourt tandem of the time.

    With Pau/Andrew/Lamar(07-11)
    07-08 Kobe played full season: With either Gasol, Odom, Bynum: 46-15(.754)
    07-08 Kobe played full season: Without at least two bigs: 11-10(.524)
    08-09 Kobe played full season: Bynum 50: Gasol 81: Odom 78: 65-17(.793)
    09-10 Kobe missed 9: Disregarding 4 at-the-season-end games(clinched): 4-1(.800)
    – Wins against: POR(by 17), SAS(by 12), UTA(by 15), GSW(by 10)
    – Loss against: BOS(by 1)
    09-10 With Kobe: 51-22(.699)
    10-11 Kobe played full season: 57-25(.695)

    Everything other than boxscore stats indicates that Kobe doesn’t belong to Michael’s class whatsoever. Yet I find it hard to believe why people have to come up with fake narratives for Kobe whenever there is a discussion of alltime greats, even when It take leaps of logic to even include in top 25.

    Kobe to me is a fabricated Jordan because everybody wanted one. Decade of 2000 was an experimental for teams and league to find that next MJ for better TV ratings. In result, a lot of teams suffered by building franchise on a wrong superstar. Having learned from the mistake, teams these days are smarter and have started to hire statisticians, the most successful one being John Hollinger.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      This is incredibly well thought-out and articulately comment. I’d say using the win-loss w/out Shaq vs. w/out Kobe from the three peat years isn’t apples to apples because that team was built around O’Neal. Shaq was CLEARLY the better of the two of course, but he was also the hub of the team, and they had no serviceable replacement for his role on the team. The team wasn’t built in such a way as to successfully play off a creative perimeter star at least not on short notice without time to prepare strategically. Otherwise great points all-around, and hey, it’s probably important to point out that Kobe wasn’t the most important player on those first three titles.

      Opinions on Kobe vary wildly among fans. It tends to be mostly younger fans or Lakers fans who would actually put Kobe in Michael’s company, BUT enough “experts” have extremely high opinions of Bryant for it to be worth looking into from alternate angles. I think the way Bryant can be when he’s hot, which is as explosive a scorer as I’ve seen in the 25+ years I’ve been watching, tends to leave a more powerful impression than the relative inefficiencies.

      I think I’ll do a serious Wade / Bryant comparison at some point. Wade is generally higher ranked by the metrics, and it’ll be interesting to focus on the stats that make up those metrics to find out why that is and what it means in their individual games.

    • Walt Coogan Says:

      Frankly, “box score stats,” taken together, really don’t suggest that Bryant is on Jordan’s level … I’m not sure where you’re seeing that.

  8. Walt Coogan Says:

    Yes, there is something “a little off” about PER … it’s sitting right under your nose, but you haven’t seen it yet. Hopefully the comments that I made in reply to your other blog entry can help you out; I’ll re-post most of them now. As for Kobe Bryant, it’s pretty simple: in seventeen NBA seasons, he has never shot as high as .470 from the field in a single regular season, whereas Jordan shot .505 for his career as a Chicago Bull. And despite his superb range, Bryant has constituted a below-average (yet high-volume) three-point shooter. You say to ignore field goal percentage, but it will tell you the basics in many cases, especially this one. Moreover, you need to then consider the nuances of the game: Bryant’s many missed threes are more likely to create long rebounds that allow the opposition to break out in transition, and less likely to create easy offensive rebound opportunities in the basket area. Jordan’s superior field goal percentage, conversely, allowed the Bulls to set up their defense more often, which is one important reason to consider field goal percentage (and free throw attempts and free throw percentage). Indeed, achieving defensive efficiency becomes much easier with higher field goal percentages.

    Let me also add that adjusting for minutes played can also be dangerous, because first, stamina is something to be valued, not negated, and second, just because a player is maintaining a certain rate or level of efficiency through a certain minutes threshold does not mean that he will necessarily maintain that rate or level of efficiency through a higher minutes threshold. If playing more minutes, a player might run out of steam late in the game, or else he’ll need to pace himself throughout the game and not be able to maintain the level of efficiency that he was showing with fewer minutes. For an analogy, relief pitchers in baseball will typically throw harder and record a higher strikeout rate than starting pitchers because they don’t need to pace themselves as much. But if they needed to pitch more innings, they would not be able to maintain that velocity and that strikeout rate, so an ‘adjustment’ would be unwarranted. The same principle applies to basketball, albeit in more muted form when comparing stars.

    Here’s the deal with metrics: in the process of attempting to negate or neutralize contingency and relativity, they often annihilate nuance. Thus, in attempting to address alleged distortions, they often create new or worse distortions. Thus metrics needs to be treated cautiously and with critical thinking, rather than being blindly indulged. The key is to know the game and its history well and then draw on a wide range of basic statistics, moving to metrics only occasionally. Remember, metrics represent pseudo-science, not real science.

    … Dude, if you’re ‘adjusting’ a star’s statistics based on team pace factors, then you’ve been brainwashed by fallacies, you’re not a critical thinker, and you don’t really understand the game. I know that John Hollinger and ESPN forced PER down your throat and encouraged you to view it as valid, but those theories fail to hold water. As I’ve written elsewhere …

    Please understand that PER constitutes a ridiculously fallacious metric that should not be cited for all manner of reasons. Among other flaws, PER commits the major mistake of interpreting a star’s statistics based on team pace factors. In other words, a star who posts major numbers at a slower pace is elevated, whereas a star who posts major numbers at a faster pace is diminished. But anyone who really knows the game understands that simple linearity is misplaced, that the relationship between team pace factors and a star’s numbers is more complex, ironic, and even inverted. For what a star gains from a faster pace in terms of a higher number of possessions to actually or theoretically be involved with, he loses in the ability to manipulate, control, or dominate those possessions to the same extent. At a faster pace, the ball is moved up and around the court more quickly, spontaneously, and democratically, and more players tend to become involved. At a slower pace, certain complementary players may see their numbers diminish, but the stars will be better able to manipulate, control, and dominate the possessions. Playing more slowly means playing against set defenses more often, which means more play-calling, which means putting the ball in the stars’ hands more frequently, because those guys are the primary options and the best options to break down a set defense. So what stars lose in the number of possessions by playing at a slower pace, they gain in their ability to milk possessions.

    Think of Chris Paul, in particular. Throughout his career, his teams have played at slow paces, largely due to his methodical, dribble-heavy style (which is another reason why a star’s statistics should not be adjusted based on pace factors, because stars themselves are often responsible for the paces at which they play). Yes, Paul is not on the court for as many possessions as a point guard playing at a faster pace, but by playing at a slow pace, Paul is able to manipulate his possessions to a greater degree. By playing slowly, Paul often milks the shot clock and then shoots or passes to a teammate who has little choice except to shoot, and thus Paul tallies tons of points and assists despite—or perhaps because of—the slow pace. As a result, Paul’s PER is higher than that of Magic Johnson, both for their respective careers and their respective single-season highs. But is Chris Paul, who after eight seasons and at the age of twenty-eight has never even played in the conference finals, really a better point guard than Magic Johnson? The answer is “Of course not,” but the problem is that by misapplying team pace factors to the performance of an individual star, PER falsely inflates Paul’s value and falsely deflates Magic’s value.

    Likewise, was Terrell Brandon (a fine point guard, but hardly a Hall of Fame-type player) a better point guard in 1996 than Magic Johnson in 1986? The answer should be, “Of course not,” but PER’s answer is “Yes,” further evidence of PER’s lack of reliability and the metric’s fundamental fallacy. Was Michael Adams a better point guard in ’90-’91, when he averaged 26.5 points, 10.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 2.2 steals yet shot .394 from the field for a 20-62 Denver team that ranked twenty-first in Offensive Rating (points scored per possession), than Kevin Johnson in ’88-’89, when he averaged 20.4 points, 12.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals while shooting .505 from the field for a 55-27 Phoenix team that ranked second in Offensive Rating? The answer should be, “Of course not,” but PER’s answer is “Yes, Adams in ’90-’91 was better than K.J. in ’88-’89,” further evidence of PER’s lack of reliability and the metric’s fundamental fallacy.

    Likewise, PER suggests that Amar’e Stoudemire was usually a better player for the Suns than Steve Nash; do you believe that notion? But the best way to think about PER is to think of its suggestion that Terrell Brandon in 1996 was a better point guard than Magic Johnson in 1986. If you’re going to cite PER at all, then you should also write a column arguing for why Brandon in 1996 was a better point guard than Magic in 1986. Otherwise, drop PER and think critically about advanced metrics.

    … By the way, Win Shares (per 48 minutes or not), Defensive Rating, and Usage Percentage are all flawed and unreliable, too. Win Shares, for instance, suggests that Amar’e Stoudemire was usually a more valuable player to the Suns than Steve Nash and that Shawn Marion proved more valuable than Nash in certain seasons (do you believe those notions?). As for Defensive Rating, it fails to effectively disentangle an individual player’s defensive performance from that of his team and places too much value on ‘defensive stats’ such as defensive rebounds, blocks, and steals (and Dean Oliver once acknowledged the formula’s shakiness). Meanwhile, Usage Percentage fails to comprehensively account for passing or assists. Offensive Rating is better, but not perfect, and the point is to realize that metrics represent contrived formulas of varying and often dubious value, created by fallible individuals. They must be treated with critical thinking and evaluated for effectiveness, rather than being regurgitated with impunity and a lack of scrutiny.

    Another mistake that people make is to assume that just because ‘zone defenses’ proved technically illegal during Jordan’s career with the Bulls, defenders were always stuck to their man, there wasn’t much in the way of help defense or defending in space (i.e. shrinking the court, tilted defenses), and de facto zones did not exist. Actually, that wasn’t the case at all. As NBC’s play-by-play broadcaster Dick Enberg stated during Game Five of the 1993 Western Conference Finals between Seattle and Phoenix, “In the NBA, everyone has zone defenses, illegal defenses, but you have to be able to disguise them.” Indeed, do you remember the Detroit Pistons’ “Jordan Rules”?

    Nowadays, teams may not need to disguise their zone defenses, but rarely do teams play out-and-out zones, anyway, and players such as LeBron James and Michael Jordan possess the explosiveness to slash through the seams of zones before they close, often rendering those tactics ineffective. Moreover, while teams no longer need to disguise their zones, they are less able to get away with playing zones in the paint, which is the real key. The modern, revamped defensive three seconds rule, instituted following the 2001 season, has been a boon to offensive stars by helping keep the lane much more open than used to be the case. Indeed, in Jordan’s era, there was far less court spacing and much more clogging and congestion, with as many as nine players sometimes operating in the paint at any given time. There was less three-point shooting, less optimal spacing, fewer and shallower ‘stretch fours and fives,’ and more of an ability for teams to play de facto zones that clogged or ringed the paint. Nowadays, offensive players enjoy bigger driving and passing lanes than ever before.

    What folks need to realize is that the NBA is fundamentally a business, to the point where it might as well be called the “National Business Association.” David Stern’s main goal, like that of any major league sports commissioner, has been to inflate television contracts, inflate the demand for corporate advertising, and to sell more and pricier luxury suites. The way to do so, of course, is to sell more tickets and attract more eyeballs to television screens, and the way to accomplish those goals is to inflate offense and render the game easier for offensive players. Offense declined so dramatically at the end of the 1990s that ever since, the NBA has taken a number of steps to make matters easier for perimeter offensive stars, including not just the successive sanctions against perimeter defensive contact and hard fouls in general, but also the revitalization and enhancement of the defensive three seconds rule.

    But back to my original point, you talk about equalizing the number of possessions, yet the problem is that you are conflating team possessions with individual possessions and not accounting for how the nature of possessions changes based upon the number, and how the nature can be as important or more important than the number. Just because a team uses more possessions doesn’t mean that a star will use more possessions, or that a star will use more possessions in a significant way. For instance, when Jordan was averaging 35-37 points per game in 1987 and 1988, he was doing so for the slowest-paced team in the NBA, the one with the fewest possessions. So how was he able to average so many points? Well, first, he obviously proved incredibly talented and determined, but more significantly, the slow pace allowed Jordan to milk the possessions. Playing at a slow, controlled, methodical pace, Chicago made sure to place the ball in Jordan’s hands and in scoring positions time after time, an important factor for a club that lacked talent around Jordan.

    Now, what if Jordan had been playing for a relatively fast-paced club like the “Showtime” Lakers at that time? Would he have averaged 40-50 points per game? No, probably not, because while Jordan’s team may have possessed more possessions, and while he may have been involved in more possessions in some form or another, he would not have been milking those possessions to the same extent as in Chicago. The ball would have been zipping around more spontaneously—sometimes indiscriminately—and what Jordan may have gained statistically from his team playing at a faster pace, he would have surely lost from the different nature of the possessions and his inability to manipulate the possessions in the same way.

    Or take Magic Johnson himself. In ’84-’85, he averaged 18.3 points, 12.6 assists, and 6.2 rebounds for a team that averaged 103.2 ‘possessions’ per game. In ’90-’91, Magic averaged 19.4 points, 12.5 assists, and 7.0 rebounds for a team that averaged just 94.1 ‘possessions’ per game, nine fewer than in ’84-’85! If anything, Magic proved even more productive with substantially fewer possessions to theoretically work with, hence his PER being significantly higher in ’90-’91, 25.1 compared to 23.2 in ’84-’85. So was an older, slower Magic that much better of a player in ’90-’91, when he shot .477 from the field, compared to .561 in ’84-’85? Or does PER and its pace-adjustment screw matters up by failing to realize than a star’s statistics should not be ‘adjusted’ for team pace factors, because if you change the number of possessions, you’re also changing the nature? For in ’90-’91, Magic possessed fewer possessions that he could theoretically or actually work with, but since the Lakers’ pace proved far more deliberate and methodical, he could manipulate and control the possessions more easily and routinely, thus posting virtually the same assists average, an even higher rebounds average, and an even higher points average despite a field goal percentage that was 84 points lower due largely to age (thirty-one as opposed to twenty-five) and greater reliance on his jump-shot.

    So you see, ‘adjusting’ Magic’s performance for pace isn’t a good idea, for if you’re ‘equalizing’ the number of possessions, then you need to ‘re-equalize’ (or ‘de-equalize,’ or something) for the nature of the possessions. Magic was not a significantly better player in ’90-’91 than in ’84-’85; rather, PER and its pace ‘adjustment’ (think ‘maladjustment’) come to that erroneous conclusion by misapplying team pace factors to a star’s performance, by not recognizing that possessions need to be measured by their nature as well as by their number, and that the nature changes in an inverted manner from the number, so that what a star loses in quantity, he gains in control and the opportunity to dominate a possession.

    In other words, pace ‘adjustments’ for a star’s statistics are bunk … unless you want to defend PER’s suggestion that Terrell Brandon in 1996 was a better point guard than Magic Johnson in 1986. Terrell Brandon wasn’t better than a prime Magic, nor is Chris Paul better than Magic. PER just thinks so because PER is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.

    Ah, well … since you’re willing to think about the game, hopefully you’ll think about what I’ve said, too.

  9. LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan – A Statistical Comparison (Pace Adjusted) | Double Dribble Says:

    […] know I need to get in on this!  Revisiting our pace adjusted comparison between Kobe’s best 4 years and Jordan’s 4 most comparable seasons, I’ve broken down the numbers on LeBron as a member of the Heat vs. Jordan at the same age.  The […]

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