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Stats to trust in football, basketball and hockey

Statistical experts opine on which numbers are definitive, which are deceiving.

August 20, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Golden State's Monta Ellis had a high scoring average last season, but there's another way to view efficiency on offense.
Golden State's Monta Ellis had a high scoring average last season,… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

Times staff writer Ben Bolch asked sports statistical experts their opinions on which stats most definitively convey whether teams and players are good, and which stats are the most deceiving:


Team stat: Aaron Schatz, creator of the stat-based website, likes net yards gained per play because it shows how well teams do regardless of the pace they establish and whether they are more oriented toward the run or pass. "Every team gets a different number of attempts," Schatz said. "What matters is your efficiency."

Player stat: For a quarterback, Schatz prefers net yards per pass. For a running back, he likes yards per carry. And for a receiver, he likes yards per target, which includes all passes thrown to a receiver, not just the ones caught. Schatz said each of those stats effectively measures efficiency.

Most deceiving stat: Touchdowns for running backs and receivers. "Your team can do all the work to get you to the one-yard line," Schatz said, "and then you run it in and you get the touchdown." The most deceiving team stat, according to Schatz, is passing yards allowed, because many good teams give up big yardage to opponents trying to catch up.


Team stat: Kevin Pelton, a contributor to who also consults for the Indiana Pacers, likes net efficiency differential. It measures points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, accounting for varying paces. The difference between those numbers explains most of the discrepancies in teams' records.

Player stat: Net plus-minus measures the difference between the points a team scores and allows while a player is in the game versus when he is on the bench. The higher the net plus-minus, the better. Pelton said it takes a few seasons for net plus-minus to stabilize because of its variability, but nothing is more comprehensive at rating players because so many crucial aspects of basketball — especially at the defensive end — are not recorded in a box score.

Most deceiving stat: Points per game is affected by two key factors: minutes played and team pace. Golden State's Monta Ellis, who played a league-high 40 minutes per game for one of the fastest-paced teams, averaged more points than Dwight Howard or Dirk Nowitzki, who were far more efficient per possession.


Team stat: Bob Waterman of the Elias Sports Bureau said goal differential is a fairly accurate indicator of a team's strength. "Teams that outscore their opponents by 100 goals over the course of a season, it's hard to see how they could be anything but a very good team," Waterman said.

Player stat: Save percentage is a more reliable indicator of a goaltender's prowess than goals-against average, Waterman said, because the latter statistic penalizes goaltenders on weak defensive teams who face more shot attempts.

Most deceiving stat: Plus-minus figures for players from different teams. "If a guy is minus-five for Ottawa and another one is minus-five for Detroit," Waterman said, "chances are the guy who is minus-five for Ottawa is having a stronger season than the guy on the Red Wings because his team may have a weaker defense."

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