Why Statistics Don't Tell the Whole Story

Basketball coaches love statistics. Many coaches, and TV commentators, seem to believe they tell an accurate story of a game. Winning coaches use them to pump their coaching ability and losing coaches use them to explain where their players let them down.

Here are two examples. First, our depleted team had just gotten hammered by one of the best teams on our schedule. We lost by 32 points. Using the stat sheet to rationalize our performance, one of the coaches said, "If we didn't have foul trouble we would have had a chance." I asked him to explain that. He said "their starters only outscored our starters by six."

He did not see that we were in foul trouble because each of our starters played at least 36 minutes. The longest one of their starters played was 22 minutes. When put in that context, the reality is that being outscored by six was a result of the limited minutes the other team's starters played, not how well our starters played. Had their starters played more minutes, we may have lost by 50.

The second example is a game we lost in triple overtime. We worked our way to 51 offensive rebounds. That's correct, 51 offensive rebounds. Again, after the game, coaches massaging their egos could not figure out how we could lose a game where we dominated the offensive glass so completely. The answer is simple, to get 51 offensive rebounds, we have to miss a lot of shots. We lost because we shot horribly. Our job, based on that statistic, was not to harp on offensive rebounding but to find better shots. Shots we can make.

There are a lot of statistics like that. Take the media favorite—blocked shots. Is that good defense or is your perimeter defense letting you down by allowing the ball to get too close to the basket?

Shooting percentage is often not an indication of how good your shooters are but rather shot selection. In most cases (but not all), teams and players who shoot for great percentages take a lot of layups. If you continue to rely on jump shots because you perceive you have a team of great shooters, invariably your shooting percentage will decrease and your shooting will let you down.

I have a friend who was an excellent coach and had very good teams. We had a discussion about his current season, which wasn't going so well. He was adamant that the previous season, in which his team was very good, had made more foul shot than the other team attempted. This season, he couldn't create the same situation even though he was doing the same things.

He did not understand that the previous year he entered the last five minutes of the game with double-digit leads in 19 of 26 games. What happens when a team is down that late in the game? They foul. This year he was often behind so they were the ones that were fouling. Last year his team was good, and THEN they shot foul shots. They weren't good BECAUSE they shot foul shots. That statistic prevented him from addressing his team's real needs.

There are a lot of statistics that are meaningless unless linked with another statistic:

  • Your team made six steals last night. Great defense? To evaluate that, you have to look at how many times did you attempt a steal and what happened when you didn't get it. Pressure coaches often misinterpret this stat. They had 10 steals (good) but they tried to steal the ball every time (bad). They gave up a layup on 50 percent of their steal attempts. That is a tough thing to recover from.
  • Free-throw attempts are directly linked to shot attempts near the basket. Have a big man who is always in foul trouble? Maybe you need to work on perimeter defense so he is not put at risk as often.
  • Defensive field goal percentage is useless unless you link it to percentage of defensive rebounds.
  • Are you a poor free-throw shooting team? Maybe your good shooters are not getting to the line as often as your poor shooters. We had back-to-back games in which we shot 51 percent from the line in the first game and 82 percent in the second game. How did we get so good so quickly without practice? Simple, in the first game, our 41 percent shooter went to the line 13 times, in the second game he didn't go at all and our best shooter went to the line 16 times. Now that's coaching!

Statistics are not answers. They are meant for you to look for answers. They will help if you look in the right places.

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