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NBA scorekeepers, inflated stats and the Thunder

NBA scorekeepers, inflated stats and the Thunder

Tommy Craggs had a wonderfully detailed feature on Deadspin today taking a deep, deep look into the dark secret that is NBA scorekeeping. The verdict? Scorekeepers fudge.

Alex quickly found that a scorekeeper is given broad discretion over two categories: assists and blocks (steals and rebounds are also open to some interpretation, though not a lot). “In the NBA, an assist is a pass leading directly to a basket,” he says. “That’s inherently subjective. What does that really mean in practice? The definition is massively variable according to who you talk to. The Jazz guys were pretty open about their liberalities. … John Stockton averaged 10 assists. Is that legit? It’s legit because they entered it. If he’s another guy, would he get 10? Probably not.”

The piece goes on to mention specific examples including Nick Van Exel’s 23 assist game for Los Angeles and Hakeem Olajuwon’s triple double back in 1995. Those box scores were inflated. The Olajuwon game was mandated from a higher authority, Alex said. It was just something that kind of happened it seemed.

But Craggs had a very interesting point:

The bias is plain to see. Just look at the home-road splits. Last season, home teams leaguewide scored 101.58 points per game; road teams, 98.32. That’s to be expected: Teams play better at home. What’s surprising is that assists and blocks rise disproportionately for home teams — assists by nearly 8 percent, blocks by more than 15 percent. Last year’s Nuggets averaged 25 assists at home, only 19.4 on the road. They recorded 7.3 blocks per game at home and just 4.7 outside Denver. (Hell, Chris Andersen swatted 117 shots in 38 games at home against only 58 blocks in 33 games on the road. It was as if he stepped into the Pepsi Center and suddenly turned into Larry Nance.) The reason? People like Alex.

Those are eye-opening numbers. Enough to make me want to look at Oklahoma City’s. I think it’s pretty clear that basketball statistics are the most subjective of all because the game moves so fast and there is a lot of leeway in the numbers. But those differences are staggering. With scorekeepers inflating statistics for players, pumping up blocks and assists that may or may not have actually happened, is this the basketball equivalent to baseball’s steroid era?

I know that sounds nuts because the players aren’t the ones cheating and a fake assist doesn’t affect the score or outcome of a game. But if stats are fudged and not actually legit, doesn’t that compromise the integrity of the game? Couldn’t that potentially swing trades, drive up free agent costs and alter Hall of Fame/All-Star votes? Or what about the potential fantasy basketball scandal this could create? Deron Williams gets an extra couple assists and bang you’ve lost your league and most importantly the bragging rights that comes with it. And yes, I’m serious. That’s potentially a fairly big deal.

So what about Oklahoma City? Are there any major differences in the home/away splits for the Thunder? Eh, yes and no.

  • Kevin Durant played 37 home games and 37 road games last year. On the road, he dished out 88 assists last year. At home, he had 117. In blocks (the other stat that’s easily fudged) there was just a difference of three.
  • Russell Westbrook played 74 less minutes at home than on the road, but had 226 assists away from the Ford Center, compared to 209 at home. For the most part, Westbrook’s stats are very consistent. But could that change next year now that he has more “reputation” like John Stockton? I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s something I’ll watch.
  • Jeff Green played in two less home games, but his numbers compare reasonably well. The only main difference is he had 19 blocks at home compared to 14 on the road (again, in two less games). Not a major difference, but some reasonable discrepancy nonetheless.
  • Thabo Sefolosha played seven fewer minutes on the road than at home, and had 29 assists at home compared to 19 on the road. He had the same amount of steals, but had 18 blocks at home to just eight on the road.
  • For a total number, OKC had 818 home assists compared to 845 road assists. So those numbers don’t necessarily gel with the story. But OKC did register 17 more blocks at home, so there is a little to work with. But all in all, it doesn’t appear that the fudging happens that wildly in OKC.

The thing is, we don’t know about specific circumstances that may have been fudged. By no means am I speculating, but there may have been a home game where Westbrook was given a few assists, but in the end the total numbers balanced out anyway. One game that could be a candidate? Westbrook’s triple-double against Dallas at home. Again, not speculating that did happen, but those are the types of isolated incidents it seems Alex is referencing.

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Moreover, I thought this was one of the most interesting parts:

Everyone cooked the books, and the tendency, by and large, was to overcount — with a few notable exceptions. “Why would you underrerport? The only reason is to make your players look bad,” Alex says. “Normally, you wouldn’t want to do that. If the players look good, they’re more likely to be All-Stars and generate trades. You don’t want to undervalue your own assets. But if you’re a stupid franchise, and you don’t intend to make deals, and you want to depress your own players’ signability — well, which franchise is stupid enough to do that?”

In the same way teams may try and get a bench player that they want to trade some extra minutes near the trade deadline, could they also have the gumption to inflate their stats too? Wouldn’t that be something? Let’s say OKC is trying to trade Etan Thomas this year at the deadline. He gets some extra minutes he wouldn’t normally have and maybe he gets a few extra rebounds and blocks. Now he’s looking like all he needed was the minutes and his trade value went up. That would be cheating right? Or is that just “playing the game?”

This whole thing is largely based on the differences in individual scorekeepers and a lot of speculation. Alex may have been an isolated incident. It may be something every teams does. It may just be considered a little “home cooking.” Or heck, it could be largely coincidental with guys having a couple good games at home while some bad ones on the road. Look at Nenad Krstic. He shot the ball considerably better at home than on the road. Maybe that translates to being more focused in other areas too. We can only speculate and guess, but I’m not sure we have a lot of definitive answers, at least in Oklahoma City’s case.

So who knows? In terms of the Thunder, it looks like the home scorekeeper is pretty fair and doesn’t inflate numbers that drastically. This isn’t to say it doesn’t happen, but at the same time the numbers don’t really suggest it does. I guess we’ll know something’s up next year if Byron Mullens actually starts blocking shots at home.