Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Problem with Per Game Statistics

With so many better metrics available, it’s hard to believe the mainstream sports media still uses per game statistics to evaluate player performance.

ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd recently compared Derrick Rose to Allen Iverson. The comparison makes sense on some levels. Both players are shoot first, pass second point guards. Both are incredibly quick and great finishers. Cowherd’s mistake was using per game statistics, which made the players appear closer in performance than they really are.

Cowherd started by saying Iverson had the edge in points per game over Rose in their third NBA seasons: 26.8 to 25.0. This brings up the biggest reason per game numbers fall short: starters vary tremendously in how many minutes they see per game. Iverson played 41.5 minutes per game versus 37.4 for Rose. Using points per 40 minutes to even the playing field, Rose (26.7) has actually scored more than Iverson (25.8).

Rose had a huge edge in assists per game (7.9) over Iverson (4.6) in their third seasons. That difference increases with the more revealing assists per 40 minutes figures: 8.4 to 4.5. Iverson did spend extensive time at shooting guard that year while Eric Snow played point for the Sixers, which impacted his assist numbers. Still, Iverson never came close to matching Rose’s assists per 40 minutes figure in any career season. Rose had also shot for the higher percentage from both two-point (47.2 to 44.0) and three-point range (33.2 to 29.1) in season number three.

Rose had the advantage in John Hollinger’s PER as well, 23.4 to 22.2 over Iverson. Both players have high usage rates – which estimates the number of their team’s plays they use while on the court – of nearly 33 percent. So while they both use a high percentage of their team’s possessions, Rose produces more in those opportunities.

Iverson did have a big edge in steals per 40 minutes in his third season. And while he reached the foul line more often than Rose, they made nearly the same number of free throws per minute due to Rose’s far superior free throw percentage.

Most importantly, Rose is younger than Iverson was in his third season by one year and four months. It makes more sense to compare Rose’s third season to Iverson’s second campaign, which would cause the gap between the players to widen even further. Finally, Rose stands three inches taller than Iverson and weighs 25 pounds more.

While they have some similarities, Rose holds a decisive edge over Iverson at the same stage of their careers. That becomes clear when taking a look beyond their per game statistics.

Iverson was a great player. But in both performance and from a branding perspective, Rose is on track to soar much higher than Iverson ever did.

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