Thursday, August 13, 2009

Are NBA Scorekeepers Fudging the Books?

[Via Deadspin]

Deadspin has a very interesting article up. Essentially, it says that NBA referees make, on average, 20 mistakes a game, which means that they award 20 points of statistical categories incorrectly(for example, they could mistakenly award 10 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 blocks to the wrong players). The article also says that scorekeepers intentionally award 40 further points per game incorrectly. They do so when they dislike certain players, or want to help their team:

Anyway...on top of that ~20 errors per game, you have over double that in intentional errors. By intentional errors, I mean events that never happened (eg. loose ball rebound is deflected out of bounds by visiting team, instead of correct call - team rebound home team - you award the rebound to a home player in the viscinity...or fake blocks - among the easiest things to make up, next to steals and assists)...or events that are awarded to the wrong player (rebounds, steals, turnovers are the most common). The intentional errors are organizationally sanctioned/encouraged - they increase national media coverage/interest and increase your franchise's and player's visibility. There is also league pressure to protect/enhance the stats of the elite players. For example, I would guess that Stockton got between 1 and 2 assists per game for free. 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!" We (VAN) lost badly, of course.

This is very interesting, and will doubtless generate many conspiracy theories. However, there are some caveats to this.

For one, there are only a certain amount of statistics that can be awarded per game. Only a certain amount of points can be scored, and it is almost always clear which player scored. Therefore, points are not being inflated. Rebounds also have a hard limit on them. All the scorekeepers can do is award the rebounds to the wrong player, or credit a rebound that a player pulled down as a team rebound. However, the total number of rebounds in the game will always be the same. Therefore, there isn't much potential for inflation or deflation here.

The category that can be fudged the most is assists. The article references Nick Van Exel's 23 assist game, but there are plenty more examples. Basically, assists can be credited very freely, as they are somewhat subjective. But, the player that receives the assist has to be somewhere near the play, and most players that are credited with large numbers of assists(Chris Paul, Steve Nash, etc) are players who are critical to their teams, and are generally around plays. Steals and turnovers fall into this category as well.

Blocks can also be fudged fairly easily, but they are difficult because of how rare they are, comparatively. Mark Eaton is the only player to average more than 5 blocks per game in a season, and nobody else is even close. Blocks can be fudged(Dwight Howard's 9 in the finals might be suspect), but blocks are usually the last category in a stat line, and are rarely very high. So, while a player can look slightly better if the blocks number is fudged, it won't make them look that much better.

Field goal percentage would be very hard to fudge, as shots made and shot attempts are fairly clear cut. Shot attempts can doubtless be altered to a slight extent, but not in any meaningful way.

So, while this is very interesting, and closer scrutiny should be paid to scorekeepers, especially in the wake of Tim Donaghy, I don't think that it is as huge as a story as it initially appears to be. Overall, the numbers would trend towards superstars, as the home scorekeepers would seek to make them look better. However, if players are having statistics inflated at home, and deflated on the road, it would tend to average out. I think that the players that would be hurt the most would be role players, who would see some portion of their statistics credited to superstars in order to market to ESPN.

The article makes mention of John Stockton getting 1-2 extra assists per game. While this is significant, it does not affect his Hall of Fame career. Essentially, it seems like this manipulation makes players who are already good look slightly better, and players who are not considered good look slightly worse.

While the league should begin to have unbiased third parties review game tapes, and fine their scorekeepers for excessive errors, this issue is not as major as it first appears.

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