They know not what they say

In discussing LaMarcus Aldridge’s free agency with NBA front office “insider” Tom Penn, Greenie noted this morning that Aldridge is the anti-analytics player – he’s led the NBA in *two* point field goal attempts in each of the past three seasons.

God forbid Mike and Mike – or anyone else – mention the more salient fact about LaMarcus Aldridge: that he’s not an especially good two-point shooter. This is symptomatic of the larger problem with the way commentators discuss analytics these days. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to understand that shooting 36% from three point range yields more points per shot than 50% from two.  That is only one piece of the larger analytical puzzle, though it seems to be one that sports pundits have latched onto.  But why is it so hard, in evaluating player performance to consider how an individual’s performance compares to the average player at his position? This is the basis of Dave Berri’s Wins Produced formula and it should be at least part of the discussion about whether a player is actually good, shouldn’t it?

LaMarcus Aldridge is a coveted free agent not because of the eye test, or character or any of that stuff. He’s about to sign a max contract with someone because he has averaged 23 points and double digit rebounds the past two seasons and, protestations to the contrary, even pundits who say otherwise *do* love numbers, especially those.

But it doesn’t take Will Hunting to see that, in context, Aldridge isn’t all that good. Compared to the average power forward, Aldridge has become a very good rebounder. Apart from the fact that he fouls quite a bit less than the typical power forward, there is nothing else special about any part of Aldridge’s game.

Which brings us to those two-point field goal attempts. Aldridge shoots a lot. The typical power forward attempts about sixteen shots per 48 minutes. Aldridge has launched 27 per 48 minutes the past two years. The belief that this is, in and of itself, a good thing – a skill – is due, in part, to analytics. Specifically, shooting the ball a lot, part of the “usage” statistic, is an important component of Player Efficiency Rating (PER). PER is the brainchild of former ESPN writer and now Memphis Grizzlies exec John Hollinger. PER may be a less than optimal way of rating players. But it’s definitely part of the analytics wave currently understood to be sweeping the sport.

Which is all another way of saying that which I’ve said many times – even when people claim to like a player because of the “eye test,” not because of stats, in reality stats typically drive their assessments. So the fact that Aldridge – whose high point total is a function of how often he shoots – is a below average shooter from two-point range (he’s shot about 47% from two the past two seasons – the average power forward converts about 50% of two-point shots), ought to have at least some relevance in evaluations of what kind of player he is, shouldn’t it?

So, rather than make an off-handed and somewhat inane comment about Aldridge being the anti-analytics player because he shoots a lot of twos, how about taking one more simple step and asking: is he actually good at that which he does so frequently? And if he’s not, isn’t it at least possible that he’s not quite the player conventional wisdom seems to think he is? This isn’t a question of analytics, per se. It’s a question of doing minimally decent analysis.

Update: it’s also worth mentioning that Aldridge will turn 30 in less than three weeks. He will be will beyond his prime years by the time the next contract ends. Frankly, the only thing that really gives me pause in asserting that Aldridge is not worth the money that is about to be thrown at him is that the Spurs reportedly covet him.

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