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The Factors For Success

November 20, 2012 1:29 pm EST

Examining basketball's 'four factors' and its turn in the spotlight on the Rockets' new scoreboard

HOUSTON - Not long ago, the Holy Grail of major league baseball was thought to be found within its triple crown statistics: batting average, home runs and RBI. Those numbers served as the foundation of player evaluation, supposedly shedding ample light into everything fans, media and management needed to know about the men who made their living on the baseball diamond.

Then people like Bill James, Rob Neyer, Billy Beane and countless others helped usher in the statistical revolution, forever changing the way the game is viewed. Now we know the critical importance of on-base percentage. Numbers like OPS and WHIP finally occupy a (well-deserved) permanent place in the baseball lexicon. And even difficult to properly assess areas like fielding have seen significant strides in the way we determine the difference between those who are gifted with their gloves and those more prone to gaffes.

None of this is to say that the triple crown numbers have lost all meaning. It’s simply that the palette used to paint the baseball canvas these days now contains an assortment of colors that span the entire spectrum. As a result, today’s picture is far more vibrant, not only allowing us to see certain subtleties which went undiscovered before, but also enabling a greater appreciation of that which is absolutely essential to the beauty of the portrait as a whole.

The same evolution, of course, is well underway in basketball. An army of analysts, writers and executives, including Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, has helped bring a dizzying array of advanced metrics to the table, shedding light on some of the game’s finer points which had previously been left in the dark by the confines of the traditional box score.

As with baseball’s sacred stats of yore, these new numbers are not meant to completely take the place of the facts and figures that served as basketball’s foundation for so many years, but simply to put them in their proper perspective. Points per game and other such statistics still matter of course, but they become far more meaningful and impactful when placed within the context of terms like pace and usage.

It’s all part of the process of discovering that which impacts winning and losing the most, and it’s that ongoing search for the truth which lies at the heart of the analysis utilized by not just the Rockets’ brain trust, but a host of brilliant minds behind websites such as Basketball Prospectus, HoopData, 82games.com, Basketball Reference and many others as well.

This season the Rockets have taken the step of sharing a piece of their statistical perspective with the fans by keeping track of “The Four Factors” on their massive new center-hung scoreboard at Toyota Center. If you’re not familiar with the concept, “The Four Factors of Basketball” is an expression coined by Dean Oliver, one of the godfathers of hoops analytics.

Oliver broke down the keys to success on the hardwood into four categories: shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws, with shooting being the most significant aspect of the game by a large margin. That in and of itself isn’t groundbreaking, of course; most fans would come to the same conclusion about the nuts and bolts of the game whether or not they are analytically inclined.

What set Oliver apart, however, was the way he went about measuring the game’s key components. Effective field goal percentage is weighted to properly take into account the added significance of the 3-point shot. The formula for eFG%: (FG + 0.5 * 3P) / FGA

Why use eFG% as opposed to traditional field goal percentage? Again, it’s all about utilizing a better method to determine what truly impacts winning and losing. If Team X is shooting 50% from the field after 10 shots and all of its made baskets are of the 2-point variety, that’s good. But if Team Y is shooting 40% on its 10 shots but all of its makes came from beyond the arc, that’s even better given that they would be leading this hypothetical game 12-10. Effective field goal percentage recognizes the difference in value between the two shots and provides a better gauge of what’s taking place on the court, listing Team X’s eFG% at 50 percent and Team Y’s eFG% at 60 percent.

One last note on eFG%: there’s no need to worry about learning a new baseline for what’s considered a good percentage. The average NBA player sports an eFG% of 50 percent so anything above that number is positive.

As for the other three factors, Oliver measured them thusly: turnover rate calculates the percentage of possessions which ended in a turnover; rebound rate measures the percentage of available rebounds grabbed by a team; and free throw rate accounts for the number of free throws taken per field goal attempt. The Toyota Center jumbotron simplifies things somewhat, keeping tabs of offensive rebound rate and the number of free throws earned and turnovers forced by each team.

You see the pattern: The common denominator is a shift of focus away from the raw numbers since those tend to be so drastically impacted by the pace at which the game is being played. By instead examining the data using ratios or differentials, it evens out the playing field so to speak and allows us to obtain a much clearer view of a team’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s like looking through a microscope with a lens that magnifies the object 100x instead of 10x. And thanks to Toyota Center’s new scoreboard, Rockets fans are now getting a glimpse into the power of these new numbers as well.