The Bulls, PER, and the idiots who live by it

The Bulls, PER, and the idiots who live by it
Underwood & Underwood, US Library of Congress

First, let me say that while the title is harsh, if you are a person who uses PER to say "NBA player A" is better than "NBA player B", you're an idiot. And I know I have just risked offending idiots, you have my sincere apology.

I am sure the overwhelming majority of you are familiar with an NBA "advanced" statistic known as Player Efficiency Rating, or PER. The stat was invented by John Hollinger some time in the mid-1990s. Hollinger is currently the Vice President of Basketball Operations, although he never played or coached college or NBA basketball or held any position for any NBA franchise before Memphis hired him in December of 2012.

According to Basketball-Reference.com:

The Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a per-minute rating developed by ESPN.com columnist John Hollinger. In John's words, "The PER sums up all a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance."

Hollinger freely admits that PER is not the least bit effective in measuring a player's defensive contributions. His formula for PER includes blocked shots and steals, however- which seems kind of stupid to me- if PER cannot measure a player's defensive skills, why include two defensive stats in the formula?

A player can actually have a large number of steals and blocked shots, even though he is a lousy defender in the team concept (which is the only thing that matters). The reason for this, of course, is that lots of steals and blocked shots are the result of a player abandoning his team defensive responsibilities to gamble for a steal or a blocked shot.

And while it certainly is exciting and impressive and even effective to block a shot or grab a steal, compromising the team defense to do often results in an easy shot for the offense.

Of course, this isn't really a problem if people only used PER when discussing the offensive 1/2 of NBA basketball. Unfortunately, defense is every bit as important as offense in any sport, but far too many people take PER as a gospel number to compare two players.

For example, "Dick Johnson had a 18.5 PER last year but Peter Dragon only had a 15.5 PER, so obviously Dick is the much better player".

Outside of the obvious flaw that this ignores 1/2 of the game, PER itself isn't even a consistent indicator of a player's contributions to his team on offense.

According to another advanced statistician, The Wages of Wins author Dave Berri:

"Hollinger argues that each two point field goal made is worth about 1.65 points. A three point field goal made is worth 2.65 points. A missed field goal, though, costs a team 0.72 points. Given these values, with a bit of math we can show that a player will break even on his two point field goal attempts if he hits on 30.4% of these shots. On three pointers the break-even point is 21.4%. If a player exceeds these thresholds, and virtually every NBA player does so with respect to two-point shots, the more he shoots the higher his value in PERs. So a player can be an inefficient scorer and simply inflate his value by taking a large number of shots."

At least we can say the players with the top 20 PERs of all time are unquestionably Hall Of Fame material:

1. Michael Jordan* 27.91
2. LeBron James^ 27.65
3. Shaquille O'Neal 26.43
4. David Robinson* 26.18
5. Wilt Chamberlain* 26.13
6. Dwyane Wade^ 25.70
7. Chris Paul^ 25.44
8. Bob Pettit* 25.35
9. Tim Duncan^ 24.75
10. Charles Barkley* 24.63
11. Neil Johnston* 24.63
12. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 24.58
13. Magic Johnson* 24.11
14. Karl Malone* 23.90
15. Dirk Nowitzki^ 23.63
16. Hakeem Olajuwon* 23.59
17. Larry Bird* 23.50
18. Kobe Bryant^ 23.44
19. Kevin Garnett^ 23.32
20. Oscar Robertson* 23.17

*- Hall Of Fame Member

^- Active Player

Obviously LeBron, Shaq, DWade, Chris Paul, Duncan, Nowitzki, Kobe and Garnett will be in the Hall Of Fame some day, mostly in their first year of eligibility.

But when you get into players 21-50 on the PER list, it gets much more dicey:

Yao Ming (21), Amar'e Stoudemire (26), Tracy McGrady (27), Pau Gasol (30), Manu Ginobili (32), Elton Brand (39), Alonzo Mourning (40), Chris Webber (44), Chris Bosh (46), John Drew (47) and Kevin Johnson (49) are far from locks to be in the Hall Of Fame.

It's not hard to aruge that none of those players are Top-50 All-Time players in NBA history, either, as their PER would indicate.

At least for that list, however, one can make an argument that the rankings aren't too far off.  Paul Pierce, #50 all time with a 20.65 PER, is a Hall Of Famer in my book. The problem with comparing players whose PERs are under 20 are......

Sorry, you're going to have to read Part 2 of this article tomorrow for the answer.

Comments

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  • PER is tough to really value. The 1-20 looks good as a big tiered grouping - but then it definitely does get troublesome from 21+.

    Kind of related - for example - blocks and steals are not included before 1973-1974 which happens to be the season after Wilt retired. Even the most conservative estimates of blocks (3.5) and steals (1.5) would have Wilt clobbering all others in PER. But unlike our 21+ crew, Wilt definitely passed the common sense test of being a pretty legitimate GOAT type player...

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    Don Ellis started covering sports professionally when he was 15. The same year (1980), as a student assistant at Seeger Memorial High School in West Lebanon, IN, he was one of the first in the world to use, study and implement analytics in basketball. He attended Daytona State College and Ball State University, and some of his past credits include InsideHoops (NBA Runaround: The NBA According to Ellis) and ESPN Florida (The Florida Sports Reporters), where he was fortunate enough to work with many rising stars, including NFL Network's Dan Hellie, Redskins coach Jay Gruden, Magic radio and TV personality Dante Marchitelli, and WSB-TV (Atlanta) Sports Director Zach Klein. In addition to running the Bullsville blog and officiating basketball, baseball and football for the KHSAA, he is also a bass player and vocalist who writes and produces music in his spare time (you may remember his internet hit "I Hate Eddy Curry"). He's a 3rd-generation Cubs fan, a Bulls fan since the days of Van Lier and Sloan, and a life-long New England Patriots fan. He's seen Primus 9 times and thinks Les Claypool walks on water. By far his greatest accomplishment is being a father of three and grandfather of one.

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