Sixers History | A Podcast With Basketball-Reference About Numbers, and Their History

Open up sixers.com/stats, and you’ll be greeted by 13 columns of basic basketball statistics. Drop in on stats.nba.com’s page for the 76ers, and you’re welcomed by 20 columns of statistical data. Drop down menus let you dissect the information via per game, per possessions, and per minutes.

Go over to basketball-reference.comand you’ll find table after table of stats and data on the team, as well as for every player on this year’s roster… and for every roster ever assembled by the 76ers.

Still not satisfied? Well, you can use their Play Index and its smorgasbord of criteria to suss out all manner of statistical quirks and oddities.

For someone involved in basketball 70 years ago, this ability to catalog this many stats might be as mind-blowing as the internet itself.

The two major basketball leagues in 1948 - the BAA and NBL - didn’t exactly keep a plethora of statistics. The BAA tracked points, fouls, assists, field goals made and attempted, and free throws made and attempted.  

Seems paltry?

Well, the NBL only bothered to keep an eye on points, field goals made (but NOT attempted), and free throws made and attempted.

The NBL and BAA merged in 1949 to create the NBA, but stats-keeping didn’t immediately improve too much. We did see rebounds finally tallied in the 1950-51 season. Our very own Dolph Schayes led the NBA with 16.4 boards per game. The next season (1951-52) someone had the bright idea to record minutes played.

And there, the stats remained stagnant for two decades until blocks and steals were tracked beginning in the 1973-74 season, and turnovers in 1977-78. Unfortunately, this means that Wilt Chamberlain’s defensive dominance is not fully quantified. Newspaper accounts from the 1960s describe Chamberlain routinely having 10+ blocks. It also means his career total of 78 triple-doubles only derives from points, rebounds, and assists. Imagine how many more triple-doubles he would have if blocks were known?

Indeed, imagine how many quadruple-doubles the Big Dipper has that we don’t know about. His longtime opponent Nate Thurmond recorded a quadruple-double (22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocks) at age 33 in early 1974. If Nate Thurmond had one at that age, you can believe Wilt and Bill Russell did so with blocks and Jerry West with steals in their illustrious careers too.

And we’re just considering the “basic” counting stats here. More intricate stats have been devised over the years to further analyze play on the court: per possessions numbers, win shares, true shooting percentage, and value over replacement player just to name a few.

In retrospect, we can admire Wilt Chamberlain’s out of this world win shares, true shooting percentage (TS%), and player efficiency rating, but if you time traveled to 1963 and told Chamberlain he had a PER of 31.7, he’d be baffled and confused.

Perhaps the only people who would take you seriously in the 1950s and 1960s would be sports math and stats wizards like Harvey Pollack (pictured above), Eddie Gottlieb and Leo Ferris.

Pollack worked for the Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers as a statistician, publishing his Statistical Yearbook every year for over four decades. He also had a knack for publicity, and suggested Wilt Chamberlain hold up the “100” paper for his photo after that monumental game.

Eddie Gottlieb, the Philadelphian who founded the Warriors, was a master of numbers and ingenuity. Lock him in a room for a day or so and he’d figure out the NBA’s entire season schedule on his own. He could crunch the time schedules of planes and trains with no problem, and have the NBA go about its merry way.

And Leo Ferris? No one was officially tracking possessions per game back in the early 1950s, but the Syracuse Nationals GM noticed that entertaining, high-scoring games usually had around 120 field goal attempts. Take the 2880 seconds in an NBA game, divide it by the 120 shot attempts, and you arrive at 24 seconds to shoot.

Boom. There’s your shot clock, introduced in 1954.

So, just like players on the court pushing new and creative ways of playing the game, statisticians off the court - like the Basketball-Reference guys we speak to on our new podcast - have always been pushing new ways to interpret, record, and quantify the game.  

Pollack, Gottlieb, and Ferris did their computations and imagining largely by hand - sometimes even on cocktail bar napkins - but the creativity was still there.

Imagine what they could do if given a crash course with Sixers Stats, Basketball-Reference, or the player tracking system of Second Spectrum?

I just wish we knew how many quadruple-doubles Wilt Chamberlain had...

 

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