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Leandro Barbosa and “The Iverson Factor”

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During Game Three of the Mavs-Suns series, Leandro Barbosa was in the middle of one of his patented runs in which he suddenly gains confidence and begins to resemble Tiny Archibald in his prime.

When that happens, the whole game changes for Phoenix. Passing lanes open up, the Dallas big men flock to the lane to try to cut off the drive, and the home crowd surges toward the court. It always starts with a circus shot and then a length-of-the-court drive that is pure, breathtaking speed, followed by the real killer: the play that I call “The Iverson Factor.”

What happens is that Barbosa turns the corner for the third or fourth time in the last 60 seconds and the crowd readies itself for an explosion of excitement, and the defense gets geared up, and then … the shot bounces off the rim. Or Barbosa overshoots it off the glass. Either way, the shot misses. However, because of the penetration, there are no Dallas defenders. A Phoenix player (in the example case, Boris Diaw) swoops in for the easy rebounds and slams it home.

You probably have already connected the dots and deciphered the meaning of the name for this particular play. For years, Allen Iverson has done this for his team. He is one of the most fearless and relentless penetrators in the game and after he’s converted three of four times, the defense inevitably collapses harder and swarms more emphatically — leaving the glass completely unprotected. Over the years, Iverson’s teammates — luminaries such as Derrick Coleman, George Lynch, Kenny Thomas, and Samuel Dalembert — have made a killing picking up these easy caroms and tossing them in the basket.

I remember watching a Sixers-Hornets playoff game in 2003 in which this happened at least a half-dozen times. I recall that the analyst covering the game (I forget who it was) pointed out how many easy baskets the Sixers were getting via Iverson’s missed layups, and for the first time, I wondered if there was a way to calculate this as some sort of statistic.

Now, there are other considerations to be pulled out of this little story, not the least of which is the curious fact that Philly has failed to surround Iverson with any decent offensive rebounders in recent years. However, the important thing here is that both the Iverson tale and the Barbosa example prove that a missed shot can be a lethal weapon in the game of basketball.

The Iverson Factor is particularly intriguing, because missed shots have been a presumed chink in his armor over the years. His percentage is way up the last two seasons, but the common perception with AI is that he shoots — and misses — too often. However, would you still think that was the case if you could statistically prove that 19% (totally random number) of those misses led directly to easy baskets for his team? And that those baskets came only as a result of his prodigious penetration ability?

What if a miss like that didn’t count as a miss, but as an assist? This is obviously ridiculous, but bear with me and pretend that is the case. In the event that a player got an easy layup in a situation where it was created purely by the driving player, that goes as an assist and not a miss. If Iverson creates three such plays a game, then he has three less misses and three more dimes. His numbers from 2001 (when he was at the peak of his “missing layups while drawing four defenders and creating an easy follow-up dunk for a teammate” ability) would go from 42% shooting and 4.6 assists per game to 48% shooting and 7.6 dimes per night. Those are huge differences.

Again, I am not suggesting that we try this. For starters, the rules say that a missed shot is a missed shot and should be scored as such. Also, this would be tough to gauge — when do we know that the shooter created the put-back and when it was the rebounder doing the majority of the work? Obviously, it would never work to call a missed shot an assist. However, I think you get the point here. Iverson taking the ball to the basket and drawing the whole team was an extremely positive play for his team, even when he missed. Yet the stats say it was a completely negative play. This is a pretty significant disparity. And it matters because we use these stats years later to say how good a player was. Things like missed shots play a significant role in ascertaining a player’s supposed value.

For instance, the very misses I am claiming where tremendously valuable for the Sixers were the same shots lowering such analytical stats as John Hollinger’s PER. To put it plainly: Iverson’s personal stats are taking a hit even though he is helping his team.

You might ask: So what? After all, there are many instances where players must watch their own stats take a hit for the good of the team. You might shoot more threes to open it up for teammates underneath (although we now have eFG% and true shooting percentage to account for this). You might be the master of making the pass that leads to the assist, so you never get any stats for your good work. In baseball, you might hit a groundball to the right side in order to advance a runner, all while coming up with nothing but an 0-for-1 in the box score. I understand that argument.

However, the problem here is that now analysts and experts and economists are trying to quantify how many wins an individual player is generating for his team. Malcolm Gladwell touched on this in the New Yorker this month when discussing a book, The Wages of Wins, written by three economists purporting to quantify how many wins players were personally responsible for during the course of a season. Gladwell uses Iverson as his primary example of a player that doesn’t produce wins, according to the stats. He even cites Iverson’s “dismal shooting percentage” and then surmises that the Sixers would be “better off without him.”

I don’t blame Gladwell for drawing these conclusions based on the book. I don’t even blame the authors of the book for their results. However, I do think that this whole situation is an example of why you can never rely completely on stats when evaluating a player.

We don’t have a stat for the “Iverson Factor” — for those instances when a supremely talented athlete becomes so unstoppable that the whole team has to try to guard him. Those instances where an attempted pass would merely become smothered by the bodies and arms of all those defenders. Those instances when all the attacking player has to do is throw the ball up off the glass or the rim and watch a teammate slam it home (that is, if it doesn’t go in, or if a foul isn’t called).

In this case, the work has already been done. Guys like AI arrive at this situation because they have had so much success in the past that the opponent can’t help but break down defensively. Yet for all that, he gets penalized. Not only on the stat sheet, where this sort of thing tends to happen (again, think of the baseball player racking up an 0-for-1 at the plate for moving a runner over), but also in the books and columns about “Win Shares” and other statistical measures that attempt to take stats and turn them into failsafe ways of measuring a player’s ultimate impact.

The Wages of Wins probably comes fairly close to determining how many wins a player creates. However, the Iverson Factor proves that it — like pretty much all analysis that purports to rely entirely on stats — is ultimately flawed. Because when Leandro Barbosa got rolling in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals, he reached a level where he was able to so devastate the defense that he got his teammate Boris Diaw a wide open layup. TNT’s Doug Collins went on and on about Barbosa’s ability to create and to “make it happen” for his team, discussing the “value” in having a player that can penetrate the defense.

Yet in the box score, he gets an FGA and nothing else.

And if someone were to write a book about who contributed “wins” to the Suns in the 2006 Playoffs, this important and valuable play would fail to show up in their analysis.

That’s why you shouldn’t rely on books like The Wages of Wins. More importantly, that is why you should look beyond the stats and appreciate the little things that players do on the court that lead to wins. The pass that leads to the pass (think of LeBron moving the ball out of the double team and getting it to Larry Hughes who turned and passed it to Damon Jones for the winning shot in the Washington series). The tipped ball that results in a dunk on one end or a fast break on the other. And yes, the missed shot in traffic that works just like a pass.

Maybe we can’t come up with a stat to reward guys like Allen Iverson and Leandro Barbosa, but we can at least try to appreciate it when it happens. Maybe we will reach a point where the “good miss” reaches the level of the one-yard run for a first down (bad for the average, great for the team) in football and the ground ball to the right side to move the runner to third in baseball.

Hey, I can dream.

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