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Understanding advanced NBA statistics

Profile Picture: Ryan Murphy

June 24th, 2020

Nearly every basketball fan is familiar with statistics like rebounds and assists, but what about effective field goal percentage and defensive rating? NBA front offices have been relying on these kinds of advanced metrics with increased regularity over the past five years to measure players and their impact on the game.

Prepare to take notes as we break down 10 of the most popular advanced statistics being used right now in the NBA.

Offensive rating (ORtg)

Offensive rating has a wildly complicated formula that’s sure to bring back all kinds of unpleasant memories of Grade 11 Algebra. However, all you really have to know is that it measures the number of points produced by a player per 100 possessions.

Perennial All-Stars like Kemba Walker and Kawhi Leonard are typically among the league leaders in this category, but the real god of ORtg is Boban Marjanovic. The Dallas Mavericks center doesn’t touch the ball a whole lot, but when he does, he makes good things happen. "Bobi" has a career 123 offensive rating, which is even better than Larry Bird (115), LeBron James (116), Michael Jordan (118), and Magic Johnson (121).

Defensive rating (DRtg)

Defensive rating, as you would expect, is the complete inverse of offensive rating. It measures the number of points allowed by a player per 100 possessions, and is an excellent metric for quickly gauging a player’s defensive chops.

It should come as no surprise that all three of the NBA’s career leaders in DRtg have also won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Topping the list is Lakers big man Dwight Howard, who was named the Association’s top defender in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Rounding out the top three are Kawhi Leonard and Joakim Noah, both of whom know a thing or two about stymying opponents.

NBA career leaders in defensive rating

Player Defensive rating
Dwight Howard
99.63
Kawhi Leonard
100.02
Joakim Noah
100.32
Andre Drummond
100.33
Draymond Green
101.56

True shooting percentage (TS%)

True shooting percentage, or TS%, as it’s more commonly written, measures shooting efficiency, and takes into account a player’s field goal attempts and free-throw attempts. It’s considered to be a far better reflection of an individual’s accuracy than either individual metric when assessed on its own.

The NBA’s all-time leader is true shooting percentage is Artis Gilmore, whose .6433 TS% is a reflection of his dominance in the paint. The 11-time All-Star led the NBA in field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage for four consecutive seasons from 1981-84.

Effective field goal percentage (eFG%)

No stat better embodies the modern game than effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the fact that three-point shots are inherently more valuable than two-point shots. eFG% is derived by multiplying the number of three-point field goals made by 0.5 and adding it to the number of field goals made. That number is then divided it by the number of total field goals attempted.

As with true shooting percentage, most of the NBA’s career leaders in effective field goal percentage are seven-foot Goliaths who seldom leave the lane. However, there is one notable exception. Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry ranks 10th all-time in eFG% thanks to his extraordinary accuracy from beyond the arc. The two-time MVP is a lifetime 43% three-point shooter who owns NBA records for most treys in a season and most consecutive games with at least one three-pointer made.

NBA career leaders in effective field goal percentage

PlayerEffective field goal percentage
DeAndre Jordan
.6695
Rudy Gobert
.6397
Artis Gilmore
.5990
Tyson Chandler
.5966
Steven Adams
.5887

Pace

Pace, also known as pace factor, is an estimate of the number of possessions a team will have over the course of a full 48-minute game. It’s a fascinating stat, can it can be wildly misleading as it tends to reward speed over efficiency. Consider this: in 2018-19, the top four leaders in pace finished well below .500 and were out the playoff race long before the season ended.

Secondary assist (Secondary Ast)

The NBA knows the value of a good idea when it sees one, which is why it recently borrowed the idea of the "hockey assist" from the NHL. The secondary assist, as it’s known in basketball circles, is the pass that leads to the pass that results in a made basket. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see this stat on the back of a basketball card, but it’s cool metric that rewards selfless players who keep the ball moving.

Potential assist (Potential Ast)

Not every pass leads to a bucket, which is why the NBA created the potential assist stat, which tracks a pass that leads to a shot, foul, or turnover. Few players are better at racking up potential assists than LeBron James, who led the league in 2019-20 with 18.7 per game, and has finished in the top three in this category in each of the last three seasons.

Usage percentage (Usg%)

Usage percentage is the NBA’s unofficial ball hog stat. It tracks the percentage of team plays used by a player when he is on the court, and factors in a number of positive metrics, like field goal and free throw attempts, as well as negative ones, like turnovers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo leads all players in usage percentage this season, but is followed very closely by Houston Rockets guard James Harden. The Beard finished first in each of the past two seasons and is fourth among all active players in career usage percentage.

NBA career leaders in usage percentage

PlayerUsage percentage
Michael Jordan
33.26
Russell Westbrook
32.68
Kobe Bryant
31.85
Allen Iverson
31.83
DeMarcus Cousins
31.82

Assist to turnover ratio (AST)

Unlike some of the other metrics on our list, assist to turnover ratio is pretty straightforward. It’s determined by dividing a player’s assist total by his turnover total. It can be an especially useful stat for assessing a guard’s ball-handling and decision-making abilities.

One name you’ll see over and over again when researching assist to turnover ratio is Muggsy Bogues. The 5-foot-3 dynamo did a phenomenal job of setting up teammates and protecting the rock, as evidenced by his outstanding 5:1 AST over a six-year period from 1990-95.

Personal fouls drawn (PFD)

Personal fouls drawn, or PFD for short, measures the number of fouls committed against a given player per game. More often than not, the league leaders in this category are high volume scorers who are unafraid to take it to the rim. If it sounds like we’re describing James Harden, then you’re absolutely right. The eight-time All-Star has been in the top seven in PFD in each of the last nine seasons.


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