March 19, 2005

Off the Mark

In basketball, perception trails reality

Carl Bialik

Perception: Gerry McNamara is a clutch shooter.

The Syracuse junior is "whom you would want taking the shot that you just have to make," FoxSports' Kyle Veltrop wrote last month. The Big East's head coaches named him to the All-Big East First Team. Before Syracuse's first-round NCAA tournament game last night against Vermont, CBS commentator Gus Johnson said, "Keep your eye on the man they call G-Money: Gerry McNamara. He can shoot it with the best."

Reality: McNamara can't shoot with the best. In the biggest games against the toughest opponents this year, he built whole housing communities with his bricks. There's nothing more clutch than hitting shots against good opponents, and by that measure, McNamara was incredibly not clutch.

In the sports press, perception trails reality, but the numbers don't lie. I analyzed McNamara's performance in Syracuse's 11 biggest games this year: The 10 the Orange played against ranked opponents, and then the tournament game against Vermont. In those games, in which the 'Cuse was 4-7, he shot 31% from the field, and 27% from three-point range. In all other games this year, he shot 41% from the field and 37% on threes. Last night, he hit just four of 18 shots and missed three-pointers at the end of regulation and overtime. Vermont upset Syracuse, 60-57.

These numbers don't tell the whole story. The basic shooting stats fail to give adequate credit to players like G-Mac who take lots of three-pointers and shoot well from the foul line. Here's a more-complete way to analyze a player's shooting effectiveness: scoring efficiency. This measure divides total points into the number of possessions used up by the player's shooting (since we're focusing on shooting, the stat doesn't count offensive rebounds, turnovers, and assists towards the number of possessions used or gained by the player, though one could envision a broader stat that does). How many possessions does a player use up by shooting? The number of field goals they attempt, plus the number of times they're fouled while shooting and miss the shot. That is, roughly, FGA + FTA/2. So this improved scoring stat, scoring efficiency or SE, is points/(FGA + FTA/2).

As a team this season, Syracuse had an SE of 1.09. McNamara's was 1.08. So he was about average on the team in converting shots into points. But in the team's 11 biggest games, G-Mac's SE was 0.9. In the rest of its games, his SE was 1.2. His scoring was 33% more-effective when playing against weak opponents.

It's no great surprise that the college-hoops press hasn't adjusted its McNamara scouting report. Even in baseball, where the stats-oriented revolution is well ahead of basketball's, reporters get bogged down in overrated measures like batting average and stolen bases. NBA writers likewise too often dwell on points-per-game averages, despite more-advanced stats available on College-basketball analysis veers closer to "Awesome, baby!" than to plus/minus ratings.

As a Syracuse fan, I have no hate for McNamara. His six three-pointers in the national-title game freshman year helped win Jim Boeheim his first title. McNamara scored 43 points in the Orange's first-round defeat of Brigham Young last year. He's fearless, an excellent ball-handler, and a fierce defender. But he's lost the right to his reputation as a clutch shooter, at least as far as the facts are concerned. I'll give him every chance to win it back during his senior year.

UPDATE: Reader Sanmay Das pointed out, rightly, that I failed to look at how Syracuse did in its 11 biggest games. Perhaps McNamara's scoring efficiency was no worse in those games than the team as a whole. So I ran the numbers. Syracuse's SE in those games was 0.96, down from its season average of 1.09, but still 6% better than McNamara did in those games. Subtracting out McNamara, the rest of the Orange players were 8% more-efficient with their shooting than was their supposed clutch shooter.

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- Sports
- posted on Mar 21, 05
Sanmay Das

One thing worth mentioning. You point out that McNamara's scoring efficiency on the season was 1.08 while Syracuse's was 1.09. But you don't compare his SE to his team's in the "biggest games" -- a priori I'd expect the team's scoring efficiency to be less against better teams, and if his performance is better than his team's in those situations, you could still make a "relatively clutch" argument for him.

- Sports
- posted on Mar 22, 05
Jimmy C

My take on the SU game, with help from fellow fan Greg C.

1. Pace should have been the go-to man at the end of the game and OT, only Big East teams seem to know how to stop his turn-around lefthanded floater.

2. Boeheim should have pressed earlier. Vermont had 5 players playing over 40 minutes. SU isn't the deepest team, but should have exploited that lack of depth.

3. Nichols finally has a good game at
a good time and he can't avoid foul trouble. McCroskey is just plain terrible.

4. The Roberts technical foul was ridiculous, but so is watching Terence Roberts try to make a move on offense.

5. Next year does look bleak, but so did 2003. We'll just have to wait and see.

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