A Note about Statistical Comparisons

April 7, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Will Barton (5) reacts after a dunk against the Dallas Mavericks in the second half at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

April 7, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Will Barton (5) reacts after a dunk against the Dallas Mavericks in the second half at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been lots of talk this offseason about Damian Lillard’s defensive improvement and the ways he can build on his phenomenal rookie season. Let’s look at some comparable players.

Wouldja lookit that, I guess he’s Oscar Robertson. I guess we’ll be okay.

I bring this up to illustrate the dangers of cherry-picking stats. This might be my least favorite way that broadcasters and analysts abuse statistics. Every good young player finds himself the victim of “First rookie since (insert Hall-of-Famer) to average (insert half a dozen arbitrary and excessively specific cutoffs) in a non-lockout season” –type comparisons. They’re kind of fun, but it’s rare that they really mean much. Did you know Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is the only rookie to shoot over 85.6% from the line, average at least 3.1 assists per game, 22 points per 36 minutes, and fewer than 2.3 personal fouls per game? It’s true. Pretty special, right? So a disclaimer:

Numbers can be rejiggered so that they say virtually anything.

This is something to always keep in mind, but it seems to crop up most often when we try to put a player’s statistics into perspective. Throughout the season we were given constant updates on how Lillard’s season compared to the rookie seasons of Allen Iverson, LeBron James, and whoever else. These numbers were always carefully chosen to make Lillard look good. ESPN said when he was named rookie of the year that Lillard was “just the third NBA rookie with at least 1,500 points and 500 assists, following Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson.” No consideration was given to the efficiency of the scoring, or the fact that Iverson was younger, or that the Big O also averaged 10.1 rebounds per game that year.

Statistical player comparisons have become a crucial part of sports analytics, particularly in baseball. Nate Silver’s PECOTA projection system, and its offshoots, SCHOENE, VUKOTA, and KUBIAK, use rigorous statistical comparisons to predict player outcomes. Without proper precision though, statistical comps become context-less talking points.  Just like LeBron’s run of 30-point, 60% shooting games last season, they’re fun, but ultimately not especially meaningful.

Just for kicks, here are some absurd comparisons:

Luke Babbitt was the first 22-year-old over 6-foot-8 to shoot 43% from three on more than 35 attempts. I don’t know how we gave that brilliant young floor spacer up.

Meyers Leonard and Shaquille O’Neal are the only 20-year-old 7-foot rookies to have a turnover rate below 16% and a FG% north of 54.

Will Barton and Jason Kidd were the only rookies under 6-7 and younger than 23 with 5.7 rebounds, 1 steal, 0.3 blocks, and fewer than 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes (I worked hard for this one).

Hey guys, look, we have Jason Kidd, Shaq, and Oscar Robertson on our team. Never mind, this makes perfect sense. Long live the meaningless statistical comps!

Topics: Portland Trail Blazers

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  • Keith Smith

    Long live exaggeration! But point made.

    • Keith Smith

      Saying Lillard and Big O are the only ones with a first NBA game of 20pts/7assists is more direct, relevant, and less cherry picked than anything you suggested… But yes, cherry picking does happen…