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Wanted: Open Minds

NBA Statistical Analyst Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 8/9/05

I don't follow politics that closely.

It's not that I don't have opinions on issues, or take stands on what our government should be doing. However, the entire political process turns me off. Perhaps this is unfair, but all I see is a lot of people talking at each other and not people talking to each other. I don't see any chance for my opinion - or anyone else's - to make much of a difference.

People on both sides of the political aisle love to trash the "stars" on the other side, people like Al Franken, Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, with the implication that these people have some form of power. I don't buy it. To me, they and the vast majority of other pundits are preaching to the choir, and people who agree with them feel good about their opinions while those with dissenting viewpoints get all riled up. That doesn't do much of anything for me.

Unfortunately, I'm not always certain that the profession I've chosen is any better.

One of the more rewarding and more frustrating aspects of writing a column with a publicly displayed e-mail is the feedback it generates. I was fortunate while writing for to hear from a great many readers who kept me honest when I made mistakes or engaged me in quality debates. At the same time, I also heard from many fans whose opinion seemed based on an extensive analysis of whether they were rooting for the team in question or not.

My all-time favorite example of this came when, after I posted my 2003-04 predictions, I was accused of being biased against the Seattle SuperSonics, they merely being the team I've devotedly followed nearly since birth and was at the time employed by as an intern.

I'm being too harsh, of course. We all have our favorite teams and players, and we all want to see them succeed and be presented in a positive light. I know I'm a lot better at coming up with arguments as to why a negative statistic is irrelevant when it comes to the Sonics than to anyone else.

For the second time in as many columns, my inspiration for writing this was provided by Dan Rosenbaum's must-read blog. In two posts at his blog and a longer, more elaborate column for this Web site, Rosenbaum laid out his rankings of the best and worst defenders by position, based on a combination of adjusted plus-minus data and a method that translates individual statistics based on their relationship to these adjusted plus-minus ratings.

The reaction to these rankings in comments on Rosenbaum's blog, at the APBRmetrics message board and elsewhere on the 'net was interesting to see. Many were unswayed by the data Rosenbaum presented.

"Where is T. Prince en (sic) Kirilenko?" wrote one commenter. "There must be something wrong with your system." [Andrei Kirilenko in fact was listed at power forward instead of small forward, the reason for the confusion.]

"Interesting list, but Miles isn't even the best defensive small forward playing for the Blazers: Ruben Patterson is by a large margine (sic)," wrote another.

Rosenbaum himself seemed surprised by the reaction based on his disclaimer before the second blog post:

"It has been interesting seeing the reaction to my list of best and worst big men defenders. This writer never claimed for a minute that these were THE definitive lists (in the exact right order) of defensive big men. That is not the nature of statistical evidence. (If we are honest with ourselves, we would realize that this is the nature of most non-statistical evidence as well.)"

It's possible to infer from my tone that I don't agree with the commenters; I don't think anything in Rosenbaum's results was far enough off from my conventional wisdom to fail my "laugh test." Put another way, I'm also not certain enough of my defensive opinions of even certified defensive stars like Tayshaun Prince or Patterson to be stunned by their absence from Rosenbaum's leaderboards.

To me, however, the more interesting question is this: To what extent should any statistical ratings differ from conventional wisdom?

That might sound like a silly question, but it is an important one for anyone searching for the elusive "Holy Grail" rating system that will rank every player in the NBA from one to 425, produce perfect predictions for upcoming seasons and create peace in the Middle East.

If a system differs too much from our conventional wisdom, it's pretty clear that it will be rejected out of hand. For example, if I were to create the PELTON rating system (I don't know why it would be capitalized, but it would be) and tell you that it indicated the starting lineup of the all-time greatest players in NBA history read Muggsy Bogues, Voshon Lenard, Harvey Grant, Derrick Coleman and Kevin Duckworth, you'd be reaching for your mouse to click away from the rest of the article pretty quickly, wouldn't you? I know I would.

At the same time, if I managed to somehow tune the PELTON system so that it conformed precisely with my pre-held notions about which players were better than others, what would be the point? I'd be just as well off saving the Excel calculations and speaking qualitatively about players.

The ideal middle ground, as it always does, falls in the middle. Turning to football, I think Football Outsiders' DVOA system is a good example of this. It's no surprise that players like Peyton Manning and Shaun Alexander posted some of the best ratings in the NFL last season by DVOA (and DPAR, the value-based component). At the same time, the work of Aaron Schatz and company has shed light on why players like Deuce McAllister are overrated and players like my favorite Seahawk, Bobby Engram, are underrated.

Generally, I think Rosenbaum's ratings meet this criteria. While I'm still hesitant to accept the notion that Ben Gordon is an elite defender, Rosenbaum's work is insightful in terms of demonstrating why New Jersey center Jason Collins has been a starter for several years despite posting a PER rating near replacement level or why Chris Duhon was a surprise starter for the Bulls throughout last season.

Like me, Rosenbaum doesn't write about basketball in the expectation that readers will agree with everything he says. Not only is that unrealistic, it really wouldn't be any fun. The hope is to move the discussion forward by causing people to reevaluate their own beliefs. In this case, Matt Bernhardt of the excellent Bulls Blog is a great example, as he used Rosenbaum's results to take a second look at the defensive reputations of several Bulls players.

As Dan says, "What I really love to see is when people understand why I came to my conclusions. Maybe it is the teacher in me, but I think it is this deeper understanding of why I am getting the results that in the long run is what is most valuable."

Closed-minded fans are missing out on these kinds of potential insights. Ultimately, that's their loss.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA.
He can be reached at

Also see Kevin's previous articles on The Year in Stats and Why I'm an APBRmetrician

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