LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan – A Statistical Comparison (Pace Adjusted)


In response to a quote from Pat Riley wherein he stated that LeBron James may be the best player ever, there’s been a healthy dialogue about whether or not James has a defensible argument as the G.O.A.T.

You 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 age range is 26-28.  The seasons are 2011-2013 for LeBron James and 1990-1992 for Michael Jordan.  The comparison is eerily apropos.

Both players were dealing with new team structures in the wake of playoff failure – Jordan with a ECF loss to the Pistons and the installation of Phil Jackson in the head coach position and the triangle offense changing his responsibilities – LeBron with a disappointing 2nd round loss to the Celtics and a change of teams to Miami.  Both players lost to the eventual champs in their first season under these new circumstances, Jordan to the Pistons in 7 games and LeBron to the Mavericks in 6 games.  Both players won their first championship the next season.  Both players’ teams won 65+ games the third season.  They both had great stats but missed out on MVPs in the first season and then won back to back season MVPs and in Jordan’s case back to back Finals MVPs (LeBron may very well accomplish the same).  Both players had to adjust to sharing the spotlight with superstar teammates.  Both players were statistically and by reputation and accomplishment head and shoulders above the competition of their day.  So… it’s a good range to compare.

I adjusted Michael’s stats to the 2011-13 Heat pace, so that the possessions available to both players would be level and would be in keeping with today’s game.  Obviously there are other factors at play in today’s game that make it different from what it was in the early 1990s, so arguments could be made that adjusting for pace is only one piece of the comparison.  That said, I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me how Jordan would function on a team loaded with three point shooters or how LeBron would play with no zone defense.  I don’t know if having a hand-check available would significantly help LeBron’s on-ball defense or hurt his driving game.  Nor do I know what a semi-zone would do to Jordan’s ability to ball-hawk on defense and high-post on offense.  Let’s stick with what we know and examine the numbers.

Pace Adjusted Per Game Stats

Jordan: 30.3 Pts, 5.7 Ast, 6.1 Rbd, 2.5 Stl, 0.9 Blk, 2.6 Tov TS% 59.7

James: 26.9 Pts, 6.9 Ast, 7.8 Rbd, 1.7 Stl, 0.8 Blk, 3.3 Tov TS% 61.3

It’s tough to evaluate which of those lines is better, isn’t it?  The pace adjustment did very little to lessen MJ’s dominance.  Where the Jordan vs. Kobe comparison was very close in terms of actual pace adjusted numbers, almost the same PPG, similar assists, similar TS%, Bron and MJ are strikingly different; yet they have almost exactly the same metrics, meaning they serve different team functions but have similar value.

Digging into the stats a little deeper, we see that LeBron is slightly more efficient in his scoring attempts.

Points per scoring possession:

Jordan: 1.19

James: 1.23

However, Jordan scores more points because he uses more of his team’s available possessions to try to score, and because he turns the ball over significantly less.  MJ and Bron have very similar assist to turnover ratios.  When we factor in attempts to create scores (FGA – 3PA + AST)  to get a “plays made” estimate.  Creating a plays made to turnover ratio, we show that Jordan is more efficient as an all-around points creator for his team.

Plays Made / Turnover:

Jordan: 11.4 to 1

James: 7.8 to 1

Looking at some of the factors we examined in the Jordan vs. Bryant comparison –

Total Offense (points + assists):

Jordan: 36

James: 33.8

Possessions Gained (steals + factored rebounds and blocks):

Jordan: +5.3

James: +4.9

Possessions Ended (turnovers + made shots + factored missed FGA & FTA):

Jordan: -24.7

James: -22.7

So overall Jordan ends more possessions for his team because he takes more shots, but he also gets it back a little bit more, and he creates slightly more offense.  It’s very close.  Jordan’s overall value by this standard is 0.6 points higher than James’s.  Which wouldn’t mean much since it’s my personal creation, but it’s actually mirrored by the smart people metrics.

Advanced Per Game Stats & Metrics:

Jordan: 30.2 PER, 0.293 WS/48, ORtg 123 DRtg 103, USG% 32.8

James: 29.8 PER, 0.287 WS/48, ORtg 120 DRtg 100, USG% 31.2

That is very tight!  As we saw in the pace adjusted per game figures, Jordan’s offense is higher rated, LeBron’s possession maintenance (in this case shown as DRtg) is higher rated.  Interestingly the league average Rtg for 1990-92 was 3 points higher than it was for 2011-13, meaning that if you were to make a league adjustment to Jordan’s O and D ratings by shifting him to this time frame, his numbers would exactly match LeBron’s.  The ORtg minus DRtg is 20 for each player.  The only difference is in Usage, where Jordan has a 1.6 advantage.  So using the simple estimated 100 possession Dean Oliver ORtg – DRtg + Usage calculation, Jordan creates a net +1.6 more points per hundred possessions than LeBron or about net +0.58 more points per game.  Half a point.

Overall the dynamic between the two is exactly what you’d expect.  James has the more varied all around game and is more turnover prone.  Jordan scores more and is slightly less efficient as a shooter.  The metrics are ridiculously close with MJ maintaining a small edge.

You could argue the intangibles all day, clutchness (if it exists), leadership, durability, etc.  In Jordan’s favor is the fact that he won the title in year three of this comparison, and LeBron hasn’t yet, and Mike went onto win in year 4 as well.  Also Michael’s teams never lost a series where they were favored (had home court advantage), and he never lost in an NBA Finals, even though twice the Bulls did not have home court.

But those sorts of arguments are circumstantial and easily shrugged off.  The truth is that we’ve been looking for the heir to Jordan’s throne for 20 years, and even if he still has some things to prove, and even if the specifics will always be debated, and even if Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was really better than both of them, LeBron’s the first player since Michael retired who has a solid statistical argument to take the seat.  That makes this a NBA fan discussion worth having.


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11 Responses to “LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan – A Statistical Comparison (Pace Adjusted)”

  1. Walt Coogan Says:

    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.

    Also, the suggestion that James is a more efficient scorer than Jordan (aside from this past season) seems incorrect to me. If you really wanted to measure Jordan by his gist, you would remove his ‘old man’ years with Washington and just account for his Chicago career. Jordan’s True Shooting percentage (an actually good metric) as a Bull was .580, compared to James’ current career mark of .575, and since Jordan typically constituted a low-volume three-point shooter, he didn’t enjoy the added, beyond-the-arc benefit that James has received despite being a mediocre three-point gunner for most of his career (again, not this year). But overall, Jordan was the better field goal shooter and free throw shooter (in about the same FTA rate as a Bull), and slightly more efficient as a scorer if you remove the Wizard years when he was playing from ages thirty-eight to forty around a knee surgery and after three years off.

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

    • jpalumbo Says:

      Boy thats a lot. And for the most part, youre preaching to the choir. Please see posts such as https://doubledribble.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/pace-vs-possessions-used-one-mans-stat-debate/and this https://doubledribble.wordpress.com/2010/02/12/larry-bird-and-the-dangers-of-metrics/ and even this https://doubledribble.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/larry-bird-dirk-nowitzki-metrics-and-you/wherein I go into my own disagreements with the use of possessions as equivalents for baseball metrics at-bats. I also point out both how impossible it is to gauge shooting efficiency between generations because of the different use of the three pointer and different official stances on what is a foul and the inability to account for how a players game changes at increased or decreased pace.

      Examining just one portion of these issues: If each perimeter scorer from before the 05 handcheck enforcement took effect got the benefit of the handcheck rule and got to line more easily, that would make a big difference. If you transform one missed field goal a game into a free throws that increases points scored and decreases shots attempted. FG% TS% goes up. eFG% goes up. ORtg goes up. PER goes up. WS goes up. What if instead of that extra foul called going to free throws instead it goes to possession retention (i.e. instead of turning the ball over on aggressive hands-on defense, a foul is called). Thats one less turnover. Ast/TO rate goes up. PER goes up. ORtg goes WAY up. WS goes up.

      All of that said, pace-adjusting the per-game stats seems like the most fair way to proceed with a comparison between two very high usage players like Jordan and LeBron. Both are highly conditioned and aggressive (usually) in their play style. Neither is likely to be compromised by playing a few more or a few less possessions per game. If I dont acknowledge that Jordan was getting far more opportunities in the late 80s and early 90s thats just as bad as ignoring the changes to playstyle that profit LeBron as well.

      And you certainly dont have to lecture me about playstyle impacting the game or the fact that these rules changes have taken place specifically to make the game look more like, well more like Michael Jordan is still playing. Ive been watching basketball since about 1988, and Ive got a bead on why things are the way they are. I wrote a whole post about that a long time ago when people were whining about how zone defense made it hard for Kobe to score: https://doubledribble.wordpress.com/2009/09/27/impact-of-zone-defense/

      Another thing to consider is: how are defenses game-planning? Last series the Pacers covered LeBron one-on-one. He had great numbers, but most of the series his teammates were limited. The Spurs are giving help, and its opening things up for Miamis three point shooters. The three point shooters in kind keep the middle open for LeBron to operate and keep his TS% ridiculously high. He is able to turn down interior looks and kick it out to three point shooters all game because they are so good. I cant think of any player whose been gifted with the space to work that he is. I touch on the impact of the stretch 4 on the modern game in this post: https://doubledribble.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/modern-nba-offense-or-does-chris-bosh-make-lebron-better/

      In contract in the 1996 Finals Dennis Rodman dominated the boards to an insane degree while Jordan and Pippen shot terribly. People called for Worm to get the MVP. What people didnt acknowledge was that Rodman was open to rebound all game because the whole defense was warping to contain Jordan. Getting shots up was a victory in that series because the backboards were not contested.

      There are a million-and-one problems that arise when trying to compare players cross generationally. Strategy changes, training regimens, scouting procedures, travel accommodations, nutrition, officiating tendencies and actual rules alterations or reinterpretations, mimicry, evolutions, adaptations, simplifications and complications and all the variety of systematic and accidental mutation that take place in team sports over long and short spans of time.

      Watching games from the 60s and 70s you get an appreciation for the sheer range of techniques available to todays players, but you also get a real sense of the genius of the early stars who pioneered those techniques. Watching Oscar Robertson read a pick and roll and be 4 steps ahead of everyone else is amazing. Today, high school coaches teach this stuff, but back then it was revolutionary. That sort of thing needs to be factored into our understanding of these players. Magic and Bird had that same sort of out-of-time vision of the game.

      Thats another thing that gets to me. We say the game Evolves, but what we mean is that it mutates. Evolve has a connotation of pure upward progression, leaving behind the genetic dead-ends that cant compete and pressing towards the future and away from extinction. But how many changes to the game are for the better? Some. Not all. Teams are coming back to a more fluid style of play, taking advantage of the delayed transition and exploiting talent outside of their top 2 players. The Spurs offense is not innovation. It is rediscovery. People dont like to acknowledge that. They want whatever is in front of them to be the pinnacle.

      • Walt Coogan Says:

        Even before you replied, I was going to apologize for my overly antagonistic opening. You’re a thoughtful, respectful blogger, your blogs are worthwhile, I hadn’t realized that I’d interacted with you pleasantly before, and you did not deserve to be disrespected in that manner. So I’m sorry about that, and in retrospect, I do appreciate what you are trying to do, how you are shaking matters out along certain lines. I just become frustrated by the ubiquitous tendency to reduce everything to certain flawed metrics, especially PER, and I simply reacted to what seemed like yet another person heading down those lines. But to the extent that those metrics do exist and are constantly cited nowadays, there is some value to what you are doing.

        I still believe that pace adjustments for star players are fundamentally flawed, though. I will look through the links that you provided, I appreciate the time that you took to respond, and as I said, I apologize for the disrespect. Chalk it up to general frustration with these types of issues and pet peeves, nothing personal.

      • jpalumbo Says:

        I appreciate the apology, Walt, but I never take comments personally (unless someone is outright attacking me). Passion about the subject matter is the only reason people read, and whether they agree with me or not, I’m always interested in the insights and opinions of readers.

        Jason Palumbo

        Sent from my iPhone

    • bry Says:

      Yea pace adjusted is moronic.

      It’s actually the stupidest premise I’ve ever seen in my life. Don’t even get me freakin started with PER or Win Shares, which are just as bad if not worse.

      Yea let’s just punish one team (or hell an era) for playing “fast” or unselfish team ball…even though that era in question still played post merger and with the 3 point line (so basically modern basketball), while propping up another that played slow.

      I guess it never occurs to stat nerds that the only objective is to WIN, and how you do it, or what stats you put up while doing it are just scenery.

      So moving the ball quickly and cleanly and finding the open man is bad, and playing slow and deliberate is good.

      How about stfu, leave the stats as they are, and concentrate on things that actually have some value, such as MVP shares, All NBA teams, record with and without, championships, and even narrative.
      Hell, I’ll take narrative with context over crap like “pace adjusted stats” or Win Shares.

      But I guess that stat nerd never played basketball, so he doesn’t realize for every “stat” there is – there’s like 10 there aren’t. Hockey assists, good screens set, leadership value, boxing out, 1 on 1 defense, help defense, shots affected (not blocked), quick outlet passes that lead to hockey assists, loose balls saved by hustle, etc.

      My theory on judging players is simple: WATCH THE GAMES.

      If there isn’t enough footage, then they probably played in a time that can’t be considered modern basketball and should be judged separately and their “stats” taken with a grain of salt.

  2. Walt Coogan Says:

    And I have subscribed to your blog, now.

    Unfortunately, the nature of the Internet is that you see a link, you skim a blog, you put in your two cents (or, in my case, two hundred cents), and you move on. The format doesn’t encourage one to do what one should do, which is to take some time to research the history of the blog and the writers, the context at play, the perspective at play, and so forth. So I fell into that trap a bit.

  3. Walt Coogan Says:

    “If I don�t acknowledge that Jordan was getting far more opportunities in the late �80s and early �90s that�s just as bad as ignoring the changes to playstyle that profit LeBron as well.”

    But was Jordan getting far more opportunities, or more opportunities at all? Here is where I disagree and suggest that an assumption based on a fallacy is at play. Generally speaking, Jordan’s teams in the late eighties and early nineties were averaging about five-to-seven more ‘possessions’ per game than James’ teams. But that difference doesn’t mean that Jordan himself was averaging five-to-seven more offensive opportunities per game, because a faster pace dilutes the control that any one player maintains over the possessions. Again, PER incorrectly suggests that Chris Paul was a better point guard than Magic Johnson because it assumes that Magic was enjoying way more opportunities based on his team’s much faster pace factor. But that wasn’t necessarily the case, for while Magic’s team featured way more ‘possessions,’ his opportunities weren’t necessarily greater due to the way that the game changes with pace. That’s why Magic’s numbers did not really decline as the Lakers’ pace slowed over the course of the 1980s and into the 1990s, because team pace factors should not equated with individual opportunities, at least not for a star. What a star may lose in the quantity of ‘possessions’ that he could actually or theoretically be involved with, he gains in his opportunity to dominate the ‘possessions’ and post his statistics. In other words, the number of possessions and the nature of possessions need to be split, not lumped together in the manner of PER or pace adjustments. If you change the pace, then you also change the character of the possessions and the implications for a star’s numbers, and that’s what PER utterly fails to understand.

    Your comments about Rodman in the 1996 Finals and the space that James is able to work with (very similar, by the way, to what Steve Nash enjoyed in Phoenix) are excellent; obviously, you are a student of the game and a good one. But let me emphasize these dynamics about pace. In order to play at a faster pace, the nature of the game changes to an extent, at least. In order to play faster, you look to move the ball up and around the court quicker, and in order to do so, you don’t always wait for your star to circle back for the ball, or ensure that the ball is placed in his hands, especially in a scoring position. Sometimes, the Lakers would be playing so fast that Magic wouldn’t even touch the ball on a possession, or he might just make the first pass or a quick, intermediary swing pass, as opposed to milking and manipulating the possession in the manner of Chris Paul. Thus Magic may have tended to generate his statistics more via the number of possessions, whereas Paul generates his statistics more via the (slow, milked) nature of possessions. But if you give Paul a higher number, the nature changes and negates the benefit perceived (in simplistic, linear, robotic, false fashion) by PER. Likewise, when the Lakers’ pace slowed, there were fewer possessions for Magic to work with, but now he could dominate them more and matters balanced out to the point where his points, assists, and rebounds did not appreciably decline.

    Think of it this way: although the ratio is never actually two-to-one, imagine if you were creating two possessions for every one. In order to do so, the game would need to be so sped up that you really could not ensure much influence for your star or stars, and thus you could not ensure that their statistics would be even better. By trying to create two possessions for every one, your star would probably only benefit from one of the two, the same as if you’d just been using one possession all along.

    And perhaps here’s the real kicker: one could actually argue that at least at times, a slower team pace is beneficial for a star’s numbers, for it really increases his ability to manipulate the possessions. In ’92-’93, when the Bulls’ pace slowed to 92.5 possessions per game (not much faster than LeBron James’ clubs), Jordan actually posted his highest scoring average in three years, despite recording his lowest field goal percentage and True Shooting percentage in six years. And the guys who were arguably posting the most eye-popping numbers in the late eighties and early nineties, Jordan, John Stockton, and Karl Malone, were doing so at some of the slowest paces in the NBA. The fact that the Bulls were playing at the absolute slowest pace in 1987, 1988, and 1993 arguably helped Jordan, because Chicago was thus able to ensure that it placed the ball in his hands (and in advantageous spots) time after time. As I indicated earlier, if Jordan had played for a faster-paced club such as Magic’s Lakers, Kevin Johnson’s Suns, or the Doug Moe Nuggets or Don Nelson Warriors, would he have necessarily averaged more points? I would suggest not, because while he may have ran the court on more possessions, and while he may touched the ball on more possessions, he would have dominated the ball on a lower percentage of possessions. I mean, in ’86-’87, Jordan averaged 37.1 points, the most by any player not named Wilt Chamberlain. If you believe in pace adjustment, then what you’re essentially saying is that there were teams in ’86-’87 where Jordan would have averaged 40-plus points per game, even more than his historic average for Chicago. But I don’t see any justification for such an assumption, nor do I think that the relationship between Jordan playing for the slowest-paced team in the NBA and Jordan averaging the most points per game in history aside from Chamberlain in the first half of the 1960s (when the league was very different) is coincidental. More likely than Jordan being hurt by the slow pace is the chance that playing at the slowest pace helped Jordan, enabling him to dominate possession after possession and thus become the most prolific scorer that we’ve ever seen (to this very day) since Chamberlain before John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

    You noted in another article that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird seem to be hurt by PER; well, that’s because unlike Jordan, they weren’t usually playing for slow-paced teams. Again, a slow team pace can benefit an individual star, such as Chris Paul, who posted the best statistical season of his career in ’08-’09, which also happened to be the slowest team pace that he ever played at (87.8 possessions per game for the Hornets). That season, Paul joined Kevin Johnson in ’90-’91 as the only players in NBA history to ever average at least 20.0 points, 10.0 assists, a .500 field goal percentage, and 2.0 steals in the same season, yet Paul did so at a team pace of thirteen fewer possessions per game compared to K.J. So does that mean that if Paul (22.8 points, 11.0 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 steals) had been playing at the pace of the ’90-’91 Suns, he would have averaged something like 27.0 points, 15.0 assists, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.8 steals, numbers that no one has ever posted (not even Magic)? That’s what PER suggests, but was Chris Paul that much better (if he was better at all, a dubious proposition) than Kevin Johnson, who averaged 22.2 points, 10.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.1 steals in ’90-’91? Or, more likely, did Paul make up for what he lost in the number of possessions through the nature of the possessions, through the ability to manipulate and milk possession after possession, which you can do at a slow pace in a way that you can’t, to the same extent, at a fast pace? I think that common sense and a feel for the game’s history suggests that the answer is clearly the latter.

    (And by the way, there is no indication that Paul could generate the same pace as Kevin Johnson even if he tried, for his left hand is much weaker and he thus can’t or won’t cross over as easily, he can’t generate the same elevation on his jump shot, and he seems to prefer a methodical style to a game of end-to-end speed. Paul needs more time to create his shots and create offensive opportunities in general, and indeed, not all players can generate the same pace, thus speaking to another flaw embedded in PER, which acts as if players are simple sets of statistics rather than sets of statistics that actually emanate from all manner of physical and mental idiosyncrasies that don’t necessarily transfer from one athlete to another and that help account for differences in pace.)

    In fact, Magic Johnson’s scoring numbers actually went up as the Lakers’ pace slowed down. Clearly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s concurrent decline and eventual retirement played a role as well, but then, James Worthy and Byron Scott also helped breach that void, so Magic was far from the only option in replacing Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring. From 1987-1991, Magic’s last five full seasons, he averaged 21.6 points, 12.2 assists, and 6.8 rebounds, receiving three MVP Awards, while the Lakers played at an average seasonal pace of 98.24 possessions per game, becoming one of the slowest-paced teams in the NBA by the end of that time (yet without Magic suffering any real statistical decline). Over the previous five seasons from 1982-1986, Magic averaged 18.0 points, 11.6 assists, and 7.6 rebounds, receiving zero MVP Awards, while the Lakers played at an average seasonal pace of 103.3 possessions per game. Thus as the Lakers slowed down and lost an average of five possessions per contest from one five-year stretch to the next, Magic’s numbers (at least in terms of points and assists) improved, with the slower pace probably enabling him to dominate the ball more and thus effectively inflate his statistics. Thus to ‘adjust’ for the decreased pace would be totally incorrect, especially when, if anything, the decreased pace increased his numbers. Indeed, there’s a sense of cross-linearity at play, an inversion rather than the parallel that you and PER assume. So when you write, “If I don�t acknowledge that Jordan was getting far more opportunities in the late �80s and early �90s that�s just as bad as ignoring the changes to playstyle that profit LeBron as well,” you’re still subscribing to a fallacy, a myth, and ignoring or disregarding everything that I’ve written. Now, you’re certainly under no obligation to care about what I’ve stated, but I do believe that I’m speaking to something of value. Hopefully you’ll contemplate what I’ve written and, over time, see the value of it. The problem is that PER and these pace-based concepts took on a life of their own and now the bad habits that they’ve bred are very difficult to break. But they must be broken, for they really don’t withstand scrutiny or reflect the nature of the game. Indeed, PER is like an outdated, fallacious, simplistic computer program that needs to be shattered. In short, team pace factors should not be misconstrued as possessing a parallel relationship to a star’s opportunities; the game doesn’t work according to bureaucratic data assessments.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      I don’t disagree with you regarding the absolute number of possessions and the way that increased pace almost necessarily leads to lowered super-star-centricity in the offense. That said, I’ve run a lot of non-pace adjusted numbers using things like adjusted win score and very simple statistical plus minus figures, and the advantage to the faster paced players is unmistakable. Clyde Drexler comes out pretty far ahead of Kobe and Wade. Bird is too much better than Duncan. Breaking things down to a straight one-to-one per possession figure is not fair to the players that played at a faster pace, but not evening the playing field at all is similarly misleading.

      I did a player rating of a top 40 since 1980 using an adjusted win score model where I pace adjusted the pace-reliant stats like rebounds, steals, and blocks, but did not pace adjust the usage-related stats like points, assists, and turnovers. The results were pretty solid.

  4. kljlkj Says:

    I’ve always thought pace adjustment is kinda flawed.

    It’s an excuse to downplay (or prop up) one player over another.

    The 80’s is fast paced vs nowadays bla bla bla so we should adjust stats based on pace bla bla bla.

    Guess what geniuses? If you have the cardio to be able to play at a frenetic “pace” for 40 minutes a game, that’s a skill in and of itself. Whatever you gain in extra “stats” you would probably lose in efficiency and turnovers (see early 60’s ball), unless you’re REALLY good and prove your otherworldly ability to maintain a higher pace AND efficiency – example – Bird and Magic.

    Winning is all that matters. Stats are just a microcosm of winning, and frankly COMPLETELY unimportant.

    The only stat that matters is the one on the scoreboard, the one in the standings, and how many rings you have. Everything else is just masturbation…

  5. kljlkj Says:

    btw, when I say “geniuses” lol I’m not exactly directing it at you guys. I meant that in a very general way, and mostly to the idiots who obsess over this stuff like on RGM.

    stats are ego-centric. guys like bird and magic didn’t give a crap about stats. they cared about WINNING. I wish the game was played WITHOUT stats.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      What’s interesting about this comment is that I think players are getting more and more wrapped up in stats. Wade and LeBron went out and tried to shoot over 50% from the field last year. That’s great except when it leads to James passing up covered late clock shots so that Chalmers has to shoot covered late clock shots.

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