Tommy Craggs of Deadspin reports on a former NBA scorekeeper who cooked the books for the Grizzlies, inflating stats such as individual assists and rebounds.
The story suggests that the manipulation of individual stats is endemic in the NBA, and there is plenty of evidence that players are the beneficiaries of measurably higher totals at home. This makes sense: NBA franchises have a vested interest in their players, and a triple-double or an impressive streak of double-digit rebounding games is an easy way to get a team showcased on Sportscenter and makes for a nice capsule in the next day’s notes column.
But what if a franchise wanted to depress the value of its players to keep payroll down?
In the latter half of the 1990s, the Clippers held down their own players’ assists with an almost suspicious regularity. Between 1987 and 2009, home teams assisted on 61.8 percent of their field goals; away teams, 58.3 percent — a gap of 3.5 percentage points in favor of the home squads. Year after year, the Clippers reversed the trend. In 1996, the Clips’ scorekeepers credited the team with assists on 47 percent of its field goals (with only Pooh Richardson averaging more than five assists per game); in other arenas, the same Clippers team assisted on 60 percent of its field goals, a difference of 13 percentage points. No team since 1987 has underreported its own assists by a larger margin. Second-largest: The Clippers in 1999, with a difference of 12.2 percentage points. Third-largest: The Clippers in 1998, at 12.1 points. Fifth-largest: The Clippers in 1997, at 9.1 points.
“The numbers are huge,” Alex says. “It’s pretty amazing. This is total conjecture. But do I think someone from management went to them and said, ‘You need to underrerport stats’? There’s no way — even with an organization as dysfunctional as the Clippers. That would expose them to civil liability, if they’re intentionally diminishing the market for a player — that’s almost criminal. But if someone goes to a statistician and says, ‘We’re being way too liberal on steals, blocks and assists,’ that’s probably legitimate. You can define that as, ‘We want the numbers to be correct.’ But as a practical consequence, your own players look worse on paper.”
At times last season, it was tempting to believe that Clippers fans were being subjected to a conspiratorial disaster. The next time you’re feeling really badly about the team, just remember there was a period when those conspiracies weren’t just metaphors.