Dennis Rodman is a – perhaps the – classic hard case for serious basketball valuation analysis. The more you study him, the more you are forced to engage in meta-analysis: that is, examining the advantages and limitations of the various tools in the collective analytical repertoire. Indeed, it’s even more than a hard case, it’s an extremely important one: it is just these conspicuously difficult situations where reliable analytical insight could be most useful, yet depending on which metric you choose, Rodman is either a below-average NBA player or one of the greatest of all time. Moreover, while Rodman may be an “extreme” of sorts, this isn’t Newtonian Physics: the problems with player valuation modeling that his case helps reveal – in both conventional and unconventional forms – apply very broadly.
This section will use Dennis Rodman as a case study for my broader critique of both conventional and unconventional player valuation methods. Sub-section (i) introduces my criticism and deals with conventional wisdom, and sub-section (ii) deals with unconventional wisdom and beyond. Section (b) will then examine how valuable Rodman was specifically, and why. Background here, here, here, here, and here.
First – A Quick Meta-Critique:
Why is it that so many sports-fans pooh-pooh advanced statistical analysis, yet, when making their own arguments, spout nothing but statistics?
- [So-and-so] scored 25 points per game last season, solidifying their position in the NBA elite.
- [Random QB] had ten 3000-yard passing seasons, he is sooo underrated.
- [Player x]’s batting average is down 50 points, [team y] should trade him while they still can.
Indeed, the vast majority of people are virtually incapable of making sports arguments that aren’t stats-based in one way or another. Whether he knows it or not, Joe Average is constantly learning and refining his preferred models, which he then applies to various problems, for a variety of purposes — not entirely unlike Joe Academic. Yet chances are he remains skeptical of the crazy-talk he hears from the so-called “statistical experts” — and there is truth to this skepticism: a typical “fan” model is extremely flexible, takes many more variables from much more diverse data into account, and ultimately employs a very powerful neural network to arrive at its conclusions. Conversely, the “advanced” models are generally rigid, naïve, over-reaching, hubristic, prove much less than their creators believe, and claim even more. Models are to academics like screenplays are to Hollywood waiters: everyone has one, everyone thinks theirs is the best, and most of them are garbage. The broad reliability of “common sense” over time has earned it the benefit of the doubt, despite its high susceptibility to bias and its abundance of easily-provable errors.
The key is this: While finding and demonstrating such error is easy enough, successfully doing so should not – as it so often does – lead one (or even many) to presume that it qualifies them to replace that wisdom, in its entirety, with their own.
I believe something like this happened in the basketball analytic community: reacting to the manifest error in conventional player valuation, the statisticians have failed to recognize the main problem – one which I will show actually limits their usefulness – and instead have developed an “unconventional” wisdom that ultimately makes many of the same mistakes.
Conventional Wisdom – Points, Points, Points:
The standard line among sports writers and commentators today is that Dennis Rodman’s accomplishments “on the court” would easily be sufficient to land him in the Hall of Fame, but that his antics “off the court” may give the voters pause. This may itself be true, but it is only half the story: If, in addition to his other accomplishments, Rodman had scored 15 points a game, I don’t think we’d be having this discussion, or really even close to having this discussion (note, this would be true whether or not those 15 points actually helped his teams in any way). This is because the Hall of Fame reflects the long-standing conventional wisdom about player valuation: that points (especially per game) are the most important measure of a player’s (per game) contribution.
Whether most people would explicitly endorse this proposition or not, it is still reflected in systematic bias. The story goes something like this: People watch games to see the players do cool things, like throw a ball from a long distance through a tiny hoop, and experience pleasure when it happens. Thus, because pleasure is good, they begin to believe that those players must be the best players, which is then reinforced by media coverage that focuses on point totals, best dunks plays of the night, scoring streaks, scoring records, etc. This emphasis makes them think these must also be the most important players, and when they learn about statistics, that’s where they devote their attention. Everyone knows about Kobe’s 81 points in a game, but how many people know about Scott Skiles’s 30 assists? or Charles Oakley’s 35 rebounds? or Rodman’s 18 offensive boards? or Shaq’s 15 blocks? Many fans even know that Mark Price is the all-time leader in free throw percentage, or that Steve Kerr is the all-time leader in 3 point percentage, but most have never even heard of rebound percentage, much less assist percentage or block percentage. And, yes, for those who vote for the Hall of Fame, it is also reflected in their choices. Thus, before dealing with any fall-out for his off-court “antics,” the much bigger hurdle to Dennis Rodman’s induction looks like this:
This list is the bottom-10 per-game scorers (of players inducted within 25 years of their retirement). If Rodman were inducted, he would be the single lowest point-scorer in HoF history. And looking at the bigger picture, it may even be worse than that. Here’s a visual of all 89 Hall of Famers with stats (regardless of induction time), sorted from most points to fewest:
So not only would he be the lowest point scorer, he would actually have significantly fewer points than a (linear) trend-line would predict the lowest point scorer to have (and most of the smaller bars just to the left of Rodman were Veteran’s Committee selections). Thus, if historical trends reflect the current mood of the HoF electorate, resistance is to be expected.
The flip-side, of course, is the following:
Note: this graphic only contains the players for whom this stat is available, though, as I demonstrated previously, there is no reason to believe that earlier players were any better.
Clearly, my first thought when looking at this data was, “Who the hell is this guy with a TRB% of only 3.4?” That’s only 1 out of every *30* rebounds!* The league average is (obviously) 1 out of 10. Muggsy Bogues — the shortest player in the history of the NBA (5’3”) — managed to pull in 5.1%, about 1 out of every 20. On the other side, of course, Rodman would pace the field by a wide margin – wider, even, than the gap between Jordan/Chamberlain and the field for scoring (above). Of course, the Hall of Fame traditionally doesn’t care that much about rebounding percentages:
So, of eligible players, 24 of the top 25 leaders in points per game are presently in the Hall (including the top 19 overall), while only 9 of the top 25 leaders in total rebound percentage can say the same. This would be perfectly rational if, say, PPG was way way more important to winning than TRB%. But this seems unlikely to me, for at least two reasons: 1) As a rate stat, TRB% shouldn’t be affected significantly by game or team pace, as PPG is; and 2) TRB% has consequences on both offense and defense, whereas PPG is silent about the number of points the player/team has given up. To examine this question, I set up a basic correlation of team stats to team winning percentage for the set of every team season since the introduction of the 3-point shot. Lo and behold, it’s not really close:
Yes, correlation does not equal causation, and team scoring and rebounding are not the same as individual scoring and rebounding. This test isn’t meant to prove conclusively that rebounding is more important than scoring, or even gross scoring — though, at the very least, I do think it strongly undermines the necessity of the opposite: that is, the assumption that excellence in gross point-scoring is indisputably more significant than other statistical accomplishments.
Though I don’t presently have the data to confirm, I would hypothesize (or, less charitably, guess) that individual TRB% probably has a more causative effect on team TRB% than individual PPG does on team PPG [see addendum] (note, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, I mean this only w/r/t PPG, not points-per-possession, or anything having to do with shooting percentages, true or otherwise). Even with the proper data, this could be a fairly difficult hypothesis to test, since it can be hard to tell (directly) whether a player scoring a lot of points causes his team to score a lot of points, or vice versa. However, that hypothesis seems to be at least partially supported by studies that others have conducted on rebound rates – especially on the offensive side (where Rodman obviously excelled).
The conventional wisdom regarding the importance of gross points is demonstrably flawed on at least two counts: gross, and points. In sub-section (ii), I will look at how the analytical community attempted to deal with these problems, as well as at how they repeated them.
*(It’s Tiny Archibald)
More info in the original post, but the upshot is that my hypothesis that “individual TRB% probably has a more causative effect on team TRB% than individual PPG does on team PPG” appears to be confirmed (the key word is “differential”).