Catching Kareem

By Neil Rangwani

With opening night for the NBA regular season one week away, one storyline that isn’t getting much attention is Kobe Bryant’s pursuit of greatness. Already one of the greatest players of all time, Kobe enters this season with five championships, two Finals MVP Awards, a regular season MVP Award, fifteen All-NBA selections, two scoring championships, and innumerable comparisons to the G.O.A.T. However, one often overlooked career milestone is total points, in which Kobe is fourth, all-time, with 31,700 career points. The all-time leader, of course, is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with 38,387 points. With no top-tier teammates this year and in the foreseeable future to share the ball with, Kobe is uniquely positioned to make a run at the points record.

However, this past season certainly did not go according to plan for Kobe, who played in only 6 games as he recovered from injury. Now 35 years old, with 18 NBA seasons under his belt, and still recovering from a series of injuries, popular opinion is that Kobe’s chances of catching Kareem are slim. After reading this article, I decided to analyze Kobe’s chances of catching Kareem.

For reference, here’s a table of some of the top scorers in NBA history:

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Although Kobe is pretty far from Kareem, he’s closing in on Michael Jordan, so I added Jordan’s 32,392 points as a benchmark in the analysis. I’ve also included some of the other leading scorers in the NBA: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant, to see if they have any chance of reaching the upper echelon of NBA scorers.

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The MLB Division Series Should Be 1,101 Games Long

By Max Kaplan

The baseball playoff system is messed up. It’s a statistician’s worst nightmare. As both an Angels diehard and a statistician, I have descended into despondency.

After six months and 162 games of baseball, a 5-game coin flip decides the fate of the eight playoff teams. The Los Angeles Angels, considered by many to be the best team in baseball and considered by most to be a better team than the Kansas City Royals, were knocked out in only three games after leading the league with 98 regular season wins. That’s three games – the same length as the common regular season sweep.

I’m going to try to “fix” the randomness and unfairness of a short playoff series. And by doing so, I hope to resurrect the Angels 2014 World Series hopes.

How many games would we need in a playoff series to be fairly confident that the better team moves on? According to my calculations below, that number is 1,101.

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Betcha Can’t Choose Just One

By Dana Fesjian

I started writing this article after the Bills went 1-3 in the preseason. But after they won their first two regular season games I thought Buffalo’s quarterback quandary had been resolved. Unfortunately I was wrong.

Last November I also wrote an article about the uncertain future of Bills’ backup quarterbacks. Now that very same uncertainty has enveloped EJ Manuel. You’d think after a year the Bills would have solved their problem of having a solid quarterback and decent back up quarterbacks.

Unfortunately they haven’t moved on from the problem at hand. The Bills still don’t have the offense they need in order to win enough games to be in the running for the extremely weak AFC East, where 7 wins might be enough to make the playoffs. At least the Bills can look to make history in becoming the first NFL team to finish with the same record in 4 straight seasons.

After EJ Manuel’s multiple knee injuries last season, the Bills were left with Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis at quarterback. Fast-forward a full year and the question of “Who’s your quarterback?” is still valid. Although EJ was healthy during the preseason, one disappointing moment was August 23rd’s game against Tampa Bay. EJ should have stood out from his backups Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. He had 1 interception, 1 fumble, and got sacked 4 times. This didn’t bode well for Manuel’s starting job heading into this season.

thadlewis  jefftuel  jordanpalmer  ejmanuel  kyleorton

Then the regular season started and hope skyrocketed (at least for me). EJ led the Bills to an undefeated 2-0 start. Being able to say the Bills were undefeated was a literal dream come true. However, it didn’t last long enough. Watching EJ Manuel and the offense try to score points the past two weeks has been brutal. As Ron Jaworski of ESPN said, EJ’s accuracy is just not at the level it should be to be the starter as evidenced by his 47.7% completion rate and 2 interceptions in last week’s game.

That leads us to the next decision made by Doug Marrone and Doug Whaley: to bench EJ and put in veteran Kyle Orton. I don’t know about you, but I’m having some major déjà vu! Let’s not forget how just over a month ago the Bills signed Jordan Palmer to replace Thad Lewis and then let him go. The Bills need to make a decision on whom they want at quarterback and stick with it!

They drafted EJ Manuel in the first round for a reason and although Kyle Orton has experience, I’m not sure I know how I feel about this decision yet. We will just have to wait until we see Orton start on Sunday. But one thing’s for sure, the question of “Who’s your quarterback?” is still the most relevant question within the Buffalo Bills organization.

Assessing NBA Scoring Champions Relative to League Average

A Historical Study

by Aqeel Phillips

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With just a few weeks left in the regular season, some of us are left without much to root for anymore. HEAT fans remain optimistic in the surprisingly competitive battle for the first seed, and Suns, Mavs, and Grizzlies fans are biting their nails short in hopes that their teams can grab a playoff spot. However, a good percentage of us basketball fans now realize we have little to root for anymore (or if you’re a Sixers fan like me, you realized in about August), and are just waiting to see the final playoff seedings and end-of-season awards before the playoffs get underway. Besides the MVP, one of the most notable awards each year is the Scoring Title. Last season, we were treated with a thrilling ending as the battle for the Scoring Title came down to the wire between Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

This season, Kevin Durant aka the Slim Reaper has made things less interesting, currently scoring 32.2 points per game (PPG) over 2nd place Melo’s 28.0 PPG. Durant is the only player to average 30 points since he did in the 2009-10 season. The NBA has had a notable drop in scoring lately, a trend first starting when hand checking was instituted in the early 2000’s and extended as many teams have embraced sharing the ball throughout the team in order to better find open looks, namely threes, rather than relying on singular scorers. Durant’s current season widens eyes at first glance — averaging 4 points more than his next closest competitor will do that. But I find that PPG by itself doesn’t tell the full picture. Elgin Baylor averaged over 38 points in 1961-62, but that was over 50 years ago in a completely different league. So who had the most impressive season: 2014 Durant? 1962 Baylor? 2006 Kobe? We’ve witnessed plenty of monstrous seasons, and this study examines them in relation to the rest of the league at the time to contextualize the simple PPG marks.

League Scoring Average (Season)

To get a better comparison between scoring performances, we can divide a player’s PPG by their minutes per game (MPG) marks to see how they’re scoring with regard to the opportunities they’re being given. This is especially useful in calculating a league average scoring mark. We don’t want end bench players that average 0.6 PPG to drag down the entire league scoring average, most importantly because they outnumber the talented, 20+ PPG scorers in the league. Dividing PPG by MPG for each player across the league levels the playing field, and also accounts for the possibility that in any given season the league as a whole significantly played more or less bench/low-scoring players for whatever reason (for example, in the ‘60s there were much fewer players in the league and more minutes and points to go around).

For reference, here are the Points Per Minute values for the current league leaders in scoring:

League Leaders

(For those wondering about a full list of the league leaders in PPM, see the appendix)

In terms of points scored per time played, you can see that Durant is not just scoring at an average rate while playing more minutes, he is scoring more efficiently than the players below him on the list (shown by a higher PPM value than his competitors). It’s interesting to note that Melo averages more minutes than Durant, but Durant makes much better use of his time, scoring-wise, than Melo (Durant is also more efficient with his shot attempts – averaging 20.7 field goal attempts per game to Melo’s 21.5). This gives more evidence to Durant’s case for “best scorer in the league” – not only does he have the sheer output, but he also has the efficiency.

Next, we’ll calculate the average PPM value for the entire league, and compare each individual player to that average, to see how much better they score than the average replacement.

Unlike other studies I’ve done, I haven’t artificially subtracted out all of the players that aren’t contributing much (<20 MPG, <30 GP in previous articles), as using PPM should even out all contributions.

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Using Weighted Player Efficiency Rating to Predict the NBA Playoffs

By Neil Rangwani

This time of year means a few things in the world of sports: March Madness highlights take over ESPN, baseball stadiums start to fill up, and Knicks fans await their inevitable disappointment.

This NBA season looks remarkably competitive: the top of the league is crowded with legitimate contenders. The defending champion Heat and the Pacers, although sliding a bit recently, look to be the favorites in a weak East, while the Thunder, Clippers, and an extremely hot Spurs team each look like they could win the West.

In order to take a closer look at the playoff picture, we wanted to rank teams according to a metric that took into account various facets of a player’s game, so we decided to calculate a team equivalent of Player Efficiency Rating (PER). We took a relatively simple approach, since PER encompasses a number of basic statistics.

Introducing Weighted Player Efficiency Rating (WPER)

Using data for each player over the past four NBA seasons, we weighted each player’s PER by their playing time as a fraction of their team’s total playing time in order to account for a player’s actual usage. Then, we found each team’s Weighted Player Efficiency Rating (WPER) by summing the values for each player on each team.

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Stanislas Wawrinka – His Rise in Mental Fortitude

by Harold Li

In arguably the two best matches of 2013, Stanislas Wawrinka pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit. After an epic match point that has been seen over 200K times on YouTube, Wawrinka lost 12-10 in the fifth after 5 hours at the Australian Open. Eight months later, Wawrinka would lose to Djokovic again at the US Open Semi-Finals after leading two sets to one and winning just as many points as the Serb. After the match, Wawrinka was quoted saying, “At the Australian Open, I had to play my best level all the match to stay with him. [At the US Open], when I was playing my best level, I was better than him.”

In the most anticipated quarterfinal matchup at the 2014 Australian Open, another five-set battle ensued between the two titans, and it was Wawrinka that prevailed 9-7 in the fifth. This propelled him to his first grand slam title by overcoming Rafael Nadal in the final.

What changed? What got Wawrinka over the top? What made Wawrinka “better than [Djokovic]” on the day? By analyzing his three matches against Djokovic in the past 12 months and his Australian Open run, we outline the several key statistics in these matchups that show just how much Wawrinka has improved mentally to become the first player outside the Big 4 to win a Grand Slam since 2009.

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MLB Unveils Field Tracking System at Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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By Patrick Harrel

A few years ago, NBA teams started installing the SportVU system in their stadiums to get proprietary player tracking data and an edge over the competition, a decision that cost them $100,000 a pop. In the run-up to the 2013-14 campaign, the rest of the league caught up, making the tracking system standard and releasing the data to the public. Today at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Major League Baseball released their plan for a counterpart system, unveiling a player tracking system of their own.

This system has been in the pipeline for a while, with a pilot setup being deployed at Citi Field last year. This season, the system will expand to three stadiums, with all 30 MLB ballparks receiving the technology for 2015. Major League Baseball has been making a push to improve their technology in recent years, with PITCHF/x being released to the public years ago, giving us greater access to detailed pitch data.

Quite simply, the system looks beautiful. Check out this sample video the MLB released of Jason Heyward making a game-winning catch against the Mets last year. 

Ultimate Zone Rating and Total Zone Rating have advanced the field of defensive statistics, but they have their problems as they struggle with defensive shifts and do not differentiate between a high fly ball and a more looping strike. The idea with those systems are that over a large sample those variations balance each other out, but this new player tracking system will give teams and fans much more tangible evidence to determine if someone is a quality defender or not.

The biggest question will be how much of this data the MLB will hoard for themselves. PITCHF/x has been available in the public domain for years, so one can hope they will follow their own precedent (and the NBA’s) in releasing the data to the public. The possibilities for meaningful research are simply endless.