Myth and Measurement after Game Three of the NBA Finals

Posted on June 15, 2006 by

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Three games into the NBA Finals and each team has held serve on their home court.  I have looked at the data from these games and read a fair sample of the media’s coverage. What are the myths (some of which I just made up) – and corresponding measurements (which I didn't just make up) – from these first three contests?

Myth One:            Jerry Stackhouse is a “Super Sub”

Let me begin with the end of the Game Three.  With three second left Dirk Nowitzki, a career 86% free throw shooter, stepped to the line and missed a free throw that would have tied the game. Somehow Dwyane Wade, who was lined up in the third position behind Jerry Stackhouse, still ended up with the rebound.  Yes, Wade somehow moved past Stackhouse to grab the miss.  That one play captures why a player like Wade is extremely productive – a point I will touch upon momentarily — and a player like Stackhouse is well, not quite as productive.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into the game of Jerry Stackhouse.  In the second game of the NBA Finals Stackhouse led all non-starters with 19 points.  And he scored efficiently, making six of eleven shots, including four of five from beyond the arc.  After this game, Jamie Aaron of the Associated Press labeled Stackhouse the “super sub.”   Now if this was the only game you ever saw Stackhouse play you would clearly think he was a super sub.  He was an efficient scorer and in terms of Wins Score, which takes into account all of his stats, Stackhouse was an above average player. 

The problem with focusing just on Game Two is that it clearly was not a typical Stackhouse effort.  Obviously no one in the NBA typically makes 80% of his shots from beyond the arc.  And Stackhouse would not have been the one you would expect to post such numbers.  For his career he has taken 2,576 three point shots in the regular season.  He has only made 774 of these, for a conversion rate of 30%.  The average NBA player made 36% of his three point shots in 2005-06, so Stackhouse – despite his Game Two effort — is not too dependable from long distance.

In Game Three, Stackhouse reverted to form. In 31 minutes Stackhouse took nine shots.  From two point range he made one of eight, and from beyond the arc he missed the only shot he took.  For all three games in the NBA Finals Stackhouse has now taken 31 field goal attempts, and from these scored 26 points.  So per field goal attempt Stackhouse is only scoring 0.84 points, which is a bit off his career mark of 0.89.  In the 2005-06 regular season the average NBA player scored 0.98 points per field goal attempt.  In sum, despite a career scoring average of close to 20 points per game, Stackhouse has been, and remains, an inefficient scorer.

Beyond inefficient scoring, what else does Stackhouse give his team?  Remember, it was Wade who grabbed the rebound.  This is not surprising because Stackhouse, for his career, is a below average rebounder at his position.  Beyond rebounds, he is also below average in generating steals.  Where is he above average? Again, looking at his career numbers we see that he turns the ball over at a per-minute rate that is more than 50% higher than the average player at his position.  In sum, Stackhouse scores inefficiently, gives the ball away at an alarming rate, and doesn’t do much else to help his team win games. If we put it all together, it’s hard to see how Stackhouse is a “super sub.”

Myth Two:            Dwyane Wade is the next Michael Jordan

Wade’s performance in Game Three was definitely Jordanesque.  In 43 minutes he took 26 field goal attempts, converting these into 29 points.  He added 13 points from the free throw line, on admittedly below average shooting from the charity stripe.  Still, he scored 42 points, the best scoring output seen in the Finals this year.  Beyond scoring, though, Wade grabbed 13 rebounds, including the one noted earlier with three seconds left.  He also added two steals – again one of these to close the game — and only committed one turnover.  If you put all his numbers together we see that Wade had a per-minute Win Score of 0.453.  The average shooting guard posts a per-minute Win Score of 0.128.  In the playoffs Jordan posted a career average per-minute Win Score of 0.255.  So Wade was very far above the average player at his position and even bested the average Jordan playoff performance. 

And it is important to emphasize why Wade was so good.  Yes he scored and he scored efficiently, just like Jordan.  But beyond this he contributed rebounds, steals, and limited his turnovers.  And this is also just “Like Mike”.

Does all this make Wade the next Jordan?  Well in Game One Wade had a per-minute Win Score of 0.105.  In Game Two his per-minute Win Score was 0.075.  Each of these performances was below average.  Of course in the regular season Wade’s per-minute Win Score was 0.244 — that would be far above average – and more importantly, he produced 18.2 wins.  So Wade is a very good player.  Is he the next Jordan? 

Jordan produced more than 18 wins in every full season he played before 1997-98, his last season with the Bulls.  In sum, Wade is not quite Jordan. But if keeps playing like Game Three, one can someday see people wondering if so-and-so is the next Dwyane Wade.

Myth Three:          Erick Dampier is better than Shaq 

Erick Dampier, for the third consecutive game, has posted a better Win Score than Shaq.  Does this mean that Dampier is better than Shaq?  Well let’s put these three games into some perspective.  Since Dampier entered the league in 1996-97 he has produced 32.8 wins, total.  Since 1996-97 Shaq has produced 164.6 wins.  Yes, Shaq is more than a bit more productive than Dampier. 

Yet in the Finals, Dampier has offered more.  In game three Dampier played 29 minutes.  In this time he grabbed nine rebounds, created three steals, and made six of the seven field goals he attempted.  Shaq played well, but his overall production was reduced by his seven turnovers.  So much to my surprise Shaq has been outplayed by Dampier.  Given the history of these two players, though, it is not a good bet that the trends in the first three games will continue.

Yes, I expect Dampier to remain above average.  He certainly was in the regular season.  But Shaq has always been better, and it's likely that is what we will see in the next few games.

Myth Four:           Miami is Now Back in this Series    

Miami overcame a thirteen point fourth quarter deficit to win Game Three. Does this put the Heat back in contention for the NBA Title?  The road for the Heat is still very steep.  The 2-3-2 format the NBA employs for the finals appears to put the team without home-court advantage at a significant disadvantage.  Since the NBA went to this format in 1985, the team with home-court advantage took a 2-0 lead eight different times.  In all eight instances, that team – who is Dallas this year – took the series.  In fact, only the Pistons last year managed to drop the first two games on the road and still came back to force a game seven, which Detroit lost.

So can the Heat comeback? The odds are stacked against Wade, Shaq, and company.  Of course, if Wade can keep impersonating Jordan, and Shaq ever decides to impersonate Shaq, then I guess anything is possible.

— DJ