How Correct Are NBA Box Scores? Not Very.

Last month, the Grizzlies’ former head stat keeper revealed that he regularly fudged the stats.  He worked for the Griz during their first few years of existence (back when they was in Vancouver and the name made sense, versus now being the Memphis Grizzlies?).  This wasn’t an individual case where everyone went, well, it’s this new expansion team, who cares, they suck anyway.  No, no, this guy (who has that most wonderific of first names, Alex) was trained by stat guys from other established teams, and apparently this habit is/was even encouraged by the NBA itself.

Wait, before y’all go thinking that this is another ref scandal and that this proves all yer conspiracy theories and that games are fixed, lemme clarify what these fudged stats are.  First off, the black & white stats of points, FG attempts, FT attempts, 3Pt attempts, etc, can’t be messed with.  It’s when things get subjective that the stat keeper has room to play with the box score.  Apparently the easiest stats to tamper with, and the toughest to call, are assists, steals and rebounds.  My boy Alex explains:

With stats as subjective as assists, each crew has a grey line…when a player is close to that line, who the player is plays a massive role in whether an assist is awarded or not. If the PG passes to a post player who dribbles twice while backing down and then hits a baby hook…he may well get that assist. A SF doing the same thing probably doesn’t.  […]   Same thing for REB, where it’s even easier. Battier taps a loose rebound in the air to Yao. Rebound Yao. Yao taps a loose rebound in the air to Battier. Rebound Yao. Steals…blocks…turnovers…all same category.

This helps explain why the NBA would (or used to) encourage it.  It’s better headlines if Yao get 13 rebounds instead of 9, versus who cares if Battier, Scola, and Aaron Brooks each got one less rebound.  Some of this it seems is unintentional (if from one’s angle it’s slightly tough to tell whether Aaron Brooks or Yao made a block, one would tend to assume it was Yao who got it).  However, there’s no checks and balance scheme (after box scores aren’t re-examined the way that refs re-watch a game to see which calls they got right).  As a result, the stat guys can purposely pad a players’ stats depending on whether they like them or not.  He tells two funny stories that illustrate this:

Partly because I disagreed with the blatant stat manipulation (that I did) and partly because I’m a Laker fan, I gave Nick Van Exel like 23 assists one game. If he was vaguely close to a guy making a shot, I found a way to give him an assist. Afterwards, I fully expected someone to talk to me about it. Indeed they did. A senior management guy – “great job Alex, that’ll get this game on Sportscenter tomorrow morning!”

And:

I also got bitched out by an Atlanta management guy because he felt I hadn’t hooked Mutombo up enough w/ blocks in a particular first half. (I hadn’t – I didn’t like him because he was partly responsible for beating the Sonics and because I thought he was a bit of a punk so I made sure he didn’t get a singly block that I wasn’t sure he’d gotten – which was one in that half.) I told the management guy that the box score reflected the game and if Mutombo wanted more blocks, he needed to earn them. About 5 minutes later, Deke walked out for pregame warmups, asked the official scorer (the person who enters fouls and points in the archaic official scorebook) who does stats, she kindly pointed him to me, and he proceeded to glare at me for about a minute (which is, imo, a really long time for a gigantic man to glare at you). I want to say he blocked three 2nd-half shots and after each one, he made a point of, um, ensuring that I’d gotten them.

The thing is, this isn’t just one stat keeper who messed around and therefore assumes others did as well.  During his training he did some research:

I spent most of my non-classroom/training time in my hotel room with a sweet A/V suite doing past games myself, then comparing them line-by-line with the actual stats. IIRC, there are around 400ish entered/recorded events per NBA game on average. I think at the time I calculated that the average NBA stat crew had about 20 unintentional errors per game – missing events, wrong players getting credit unintentionally.   […]  Keep in mind also that when I say 20 errors, I’m counting something like (ball stripped from player going up for shot on drive –> game log shows block, rebound) as four errors. Two bad stats awarded, two actual stats not recorded. I consider every “bad” or “missed” event an error. That may be double-counting, but I was concerned with both ends at the time.

Lastly, I’ve always been personally intrigued about what constitutes an official assist because it seems so inconsistent.  I’ve wondered if the receiver dribbles the ball whether it’d still be an assist.  And if it is, how many dribbles can you take, just one?  Or are is the receiver not even allowed to move at all?  Turns out I’ve been confused because the definition is in fact fairly general, allowing a huuuuge deal of subjectivity:

the official rule book definition is “a pass leading directly to a made basket”. There isn’t a ton of guidance outside that. If a defensive rebounder makes a good outlet pass to a breaking wing player ahead of the defense, who then makes three dribbles and a dunk, is that an assist? If the ball is passed to a player behind the 3-point line who catches, is totally unchecked, surveys the defense, then after a couple of seconds takes and makes a wide open shot, is that an assist? What about the same pass to a guarded player who pump fakes his defender in the air, then shoots and makes? Or pump fakes, then drives past his man for the open layup? The contested layup requiring a difficult shot?

The NBA: Where random assists happen.   Sometimes.   …And sometimes not.

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