Tyson v. LeBron

The Miami Heat and New York Knicks are playing this week in the first round of the NBA playoffs. After a controversial flagrant foul call on Saturday, all eyes will be on Heat superstar LeBron James and Knicks center Tyson Chandler.
Which has us at Mathalicious HQ wondering, Who’s better? In particular, who was the better scorer during the 2011-12 regular season? Name recognition aside, our analysis may surprise you.
Using stats from the NBA website, we broke down each player’s performance by shot type.

3-pointers 2-pointers Free Throws
Shots Made Points Made Shots Made Points Made Shots Made Points Made
Tyson 0 0 241 482 217 217
LeBron 54 162 567 1,134 387 387

In the regular season, LeBron contributed 1,683 points to Tyson’s 699 and outscored him in every shot category. When we take into account playing time --- points per game and points per minute --- we see that LeBron outperformed Tyson there, too.

  Total Points Games Minutes PPG PPM
Tyson 699 62 2,061 11.27 0.34
LeBron 1,683 62 2,326 27.14 0.72

Based on this, it seems obvious: LeBron is the dominant offensive player.
But there’s a catch. When we talk about how good a player offensively, we tend to focus only on the points they score. But what about the points they miss?

3-pointers 2-pointers Free Throws
Shots Missed Points Missed Shots Missed Points Missed Shots Missed Points Missed
Tyson 2 6 112 224 98 98
LeBron 95 285 453 906 115 115

When we re-analyze the data, we find that LeBron missed 1,306 points worth of shots, while Tyson --- who tends to take safer, higher-percentage shots --- only missed 328. We can then combine this with the previous numbers to come up with a new statistic, “net” points (pardon the pun): points made - points missed.

  Pts. Made Pts. Missed "Net" Points N-PPG N-PPM
Tyson 699 328 371 5.98 0.18
LeBron 1,683 1,306 377 6.08 0.16

When we take into account points missed, the results look very different. Before, LeBron was clearly the dominant scorer, but it now appears that he and Tyson performed roughly the same during the 2011-12 regular season. Mathematically it seems like Tyson Chandler and LeBron James are identical players when it comes to offensive output. (Actually, Tyson comes out a bit ahead, since he averaged 12.5% more points for every minute he was on the court.)
Of course, it may be a bit disingenuous to rely too heavily on “points missed.” After all, just because a player misses a 3-pointer doesn’t necessarily mean he “costs” his team three points. For one thing, a teammate may have gotten the rebound and scored (in which case the missed shot was more like an assist). Also, deducting "missed" points implicitly assumes that there’s something to deduct them from --- that the team was going to score otherwise --- when in reality there’s no guarantee that this will happen on any given possession.
We have to be skeptical of the Tyson=LeBron conclusion for another reason, too: it's totally contrary to what almost any NBA fan, player or coach would say. If you ask who they'd rather take the final shot --- Tyson Chandler or LeBron James --- most would pick the latter. LeBron is a superstar, and part of being a superstar means taking difficult, off-balance, buzzer-beater shots...

...and sometimes missing.
At the end of the day, relying on "points missed" may unfairly penalize LeBron for missing a shot that probably wasn't going to go in, but that the Heat needed him to take anyway. Casey may have struck out, but he was still the guy Mudville wanted at bat.
Still, this doesn't mean we should dismiss "points missed" altogether. While calculating "net" points may not be perfect, it's still a more accurate indicator of offensive contribution than "points made" alone. By over-emphasizing this, we implicitly favor ball-hogs who take lots of shots even if they're not very good ones, even if there was a higher percentage shot one skip-pass away. Meanwhile we risk overlooking players who don't shoot as often but whose shots have a better chance of going in...players like Tyson Chandler, whose 2011-12 regular season field goal percentage was among the highest in NBA history.
So who's a better scorer: LeBron or Tyson? On one hand, LeBron James is an undisputed all-star and we should be skeptical of anything that suggests otherwise.
On the other hand, we should also be skeptical of our skepticism. Because math doesn't lie. It may mislead, but so too do the billboards and the hype and all the other things that over time have convinced us that LeBron is the best offensive player on the floor. Maybe he is.
Then again, maybe Tyson Chandler is just as good.
Note: we're sure that many NBA fans are crying foul (though perhaps not too many Knicks fans). How could anyone suggest that Tyson Chandler is a better player than LeBron James?! So before anyone charges the court, let's remember what we're asking: we're not asking who's the better player, which would involve assists, rebounds, steals, etc. Rather, we're simply asking who was the better scorer during the 2011-12 regular season. And on paper, at least...

2 thoughts on “Tyson v. LeBron”

  1. I totally disagree. The “points missed” argument is absurd for all the reasons the author mentioned and many, many more. We shouldn't have have conversations that abstract away meaningful data for spurious data. The logic used to demonstrate that LeBron = Chandler reminds me of how politicians inflate costs of projects they don’t like.

  2. I like the idea of applying math to modern-day events/problems, but seriously, this example is severely flawed (perhaps obvious, but I know nothing about basketball, nor do I care, soccer is another issue altogether...)

    "Net Points"?

    In the 12 months of 2011, company A sells 190 of widget A to 190 customers at a profit of $1 per widget and company B sells 2 of widget B to two customers at a profit of $100 per widget.

    "Net profits" in company B are much larger than company A ($10 ~ nearly 5%!) but who would you invest in, the one that sells, or the one that doesn't?

    In this case, your math does lie -- as it so often does by the way. Just because Tyson doesn't try any 3-pointers (2 vs 95) he also doesn't miss any, giving him am immediate "Net Points" advantage of 279 points.

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