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Statistically speaking: BYU study shows assists, teamwork important to winning on court

Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers is a solid NBA player, but nobody would consider him a superstar by any stretch of the imagination. After all, the fifth-year small forward has never averaged more than the 11.4 points he scored per game last season.

Yet Walton may do more to help his team win than any other single player in the NBA, if you are to believe recent statistical analysis done by Brigham Young University statisticians.

BYU statistics professors Gil Fellingham and Shane Reese and master's student Garritt Page compared the value of 13 box score statistics from an entire NBA season across the five player positions to see how much each contributed to winning games.

Their findings? Small forwards who assist teammates and don't turn the ball over are golden. Of all the combinations of stats and positions, the study found that assists by small forwards contribute the most to a team's likelihood of winning. Meanwhile, turnovers by small forwards do more harm than turnovers by players at other positions.

That's where Walton comes in. His combination of averaging more than six assists with fewer than three turnovers per 48 minutes played last season at the small forward position makes him incredibly valuable, according to the BYU statistics.

"A lot of people wouldn't think of Walton being great because he doesn't light up a stat sheet in scoring," said Reese. "But the fact that he's starting on a team that can spend a lot of money on players shows that his coach values his contribution. ... Our analysis would give Luke Walton huge weight for the production he provides for his team."

The statisticians actually used the 1997-98 season for their study, which was recently published in a scientific journal. That season was the second year the Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals. A follow up with a later season or season, which has yet to be done, could show how things have changed in the NBA in the past decade, but Reese suspects assists would still be the biggest indicator at each position of a player's success toward helping his team win.

That's because they found passing the basketball to set up a score is more important than actually making a field goal when it comes to winning, according to the analysis.

"My initial guess would have been that field-goal percentage was the biggest thing," said Reese. "But that was quite a bit less impact than assists at every position."

That can explain some of the success for the Jazz last season, which led the NBA with 24 assists per game en route to a Northwest Division championship and two rounds of playoff victories.

"This suggests having a group of players play as a single unit increases the chances of winning a game," Fellingham said.

Added Reese, "It really showed playing team basketball is best. I don't think modern NBA philosophy would agree with that, where it is very much about the individual player. But it speaks volumes for Jerry Sloan and his philosophy of basketball. Our paper really validates that coaching style."

Other findings show that steals by centers are more closely related to winning than steals by any other position. Last season's leader in that category was Ben Wallace of the Chicago Bulls, who averaged two steals per 48 minutes played.

"It was a little surprising, but if your center gets more steals than your opponent's center, it has a fairly big impact on final score differential," said Reese.

Another difference maker was offensive rebounds by point guards. Getting to the offensive glass for point guards more than the opposing point guard was more valuable than offensive boards by other positions. Jason Kidd of the Nets was the leader in that stat, averaging 2.2 offensive boards per 48 minutes last season.

Also important, according to the BYU study, are defensive rebounds by shooting guards, a category led by Josh Childress of the Atlanta Hawks last season, with 8.3 defensive boards per 48 minutes.

Analyzing box score statistics has limitations, of course. But the authors of the study feel the analysis could have value in game preparations.

"I'm a statistician, not a basketball guy," said Fellingham. "But I think a coach could look at these trends and it could help him exploit favorable matchups."

The study can be found in the current issue of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis of Sports.