In honor of Dirk: ‘Points Per Miss’ and his spot among the NBA’s all-time greats

Last night, Dirk Nowitzki turned in one of the most mind-bogglingly awesome individual basketball performances I have ever seen. As I tweeted near the end of the game: “Nowitzki is German for un-fucking-believable. Sometimes, only the f-word will do.”

Here are the raw numbers: 48 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks in 41 minutes. As impressive as those numbers are by themselves, they do not even begin to tell the story of just how close to perfect a basketball game Dirk played last night.

Here are the most impressive numbers: 12-15 from the field, 24-24 from the free throw line. Feel free to re-read those numbers a few times to ensure that they sink in.

As Bill Simmons tweeted: “48 points, 3 missed shots total (FG + FT). We need a stat like ‘points per miss’ to see if that’s a record for a 40+ point game.”

For the evening, Dirk’s “points per miss” (or PPM as we’ll refer to it henceforth) was 16. 16! 16 points for every missed shot. That is astounding, and it is a terrific way to appreciate what was one of the best single-night shooting performances on any level of basketball ever.

And as I went to bed last night, Simmons’ tweet had me thinking. Just how useful of a stat would PPM be? So I decided to get up this morning and investigate it a little further.

dirk-nowitzki-points-per-missImage source: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez via ESPN.com

Points Per Miss (PPM)

First off, let’s assess what we’d hope to ascertain by comparing players’ PPM values.

By analyzing the number of points a player is able to score for every shoot he misses, we are assessing one component of his offensive efficiency. There are a number of ways to do this already, and PPM would simply add another layer to how we view a player’s worth to his team.

Specifically, because a missed shot equates to a missed scoring opportunity that could have perhaps been capitalized on by another player, PPM should give us some measure how efficient a player turns the shooting opportunities he takes for his team into points.

Points per game is an oft-cited stat, but it provides little in the way of efficiency. A player could score 40 points per game and lead the league, but if he just does it because he chucks up half of his team’s shots, his team probably is not very good or balanced on offense. Another player who scores only 25 points per game but who is highly efficient at turning shooting opportunities into points is maximizing his own scoring chances while, theoretically, not wasting his team’s scoring opportunities shooting lower percentage shots (by comparison) than what his teammates could get.

Obviously it is all relative, and the composition of a team goes a long way to determining who should be shooting and how often, so in no way am I positing that PPM can be anything close to a be-all, end-all comparative stat. But I do think it can be both fun and illustrative, especially at the superstar level, so let’s dig into the numbers.

Plus, looking at the average PPM numbers for the greatest players in history of the game will give you even more of an appreciation for last night’s ridirkulous performance in Dallas.

PPM in 2010-11

Here are the top 23 scorers in the NBA this season (based on total points scored during the regular season) ranked in order of their PPM:

PlayerTPFG MissedFT MissedPPM
Dirk Nowitzki1681569482.724
Paul Pierce1511514632.619
Pau Gasol1541527762.556
Kevin Love1476544752.384
Kevin Durant2161827812.380
LeBron James21117271602.380
Kevin Martin1876714752.378
Chris Bosh1438532872.323
Amare Stoudemire19717381242.287
Dwyane Wade19416921582.284
Dwight Howard17844253702.244
LaMarcus Aldridge1769708932.208
Zach Randolph1504590962.192
Brook Lopez16736651042.176
Carmelo Anthony1970819982.148
Derrick Rose2026886792.099
Al Jefferson1528665692.082
Kobe Bryant20788991002.080
Russell Westbrook17937761002.047
Danny Granger1622725712.038
Luol Deng1430624832.023
Blake Griffin18456802491.986
Monta Ellis1929885911.976

As you can see, Dirk’s performance last night should not come as a complete surprise considering that he led the top scorers in the NBA in points per miss. More on the big German in a minute.

First, a few observations about the above chart:

  • Paul Pierce is much higher than I thought he would be, and this makes me appreciate his game more. Pierce took almost 300 3-pointers this season, but still managed to shoot almost 50% from the field while shooting 86% from the line. Not only does this show how well-rounded Pierce’s game is, it also shows the impact that a balanced offense and a good, pass-first point guard can have. The Celtics have many good players, so one player does not have to chuck up shot after shot for them to have a chance to score. Instead, the C’s can work the ball to get good, high percentage shots, and Pierce took great advantage of this. Ray Allen was not among the league’s top 23 scorers, but his surprisingly high PPM (2.521) for a guy who shoots a lot of threes is a testament to the Celtics stars’ shooting ability and keen shot selection.
  • Kobe Bryant is below Al Jefferson. That’s not good. It is illustrative, I think, not only of Kobe’s modus operandi as a high volume shooter but also his declining skill set and athletic ability. His inability to get to the basket and get easy shots, most notable during the sweep against Dallas, results in him taking more difficult jumpers and therefore missing more shots than he used to. For comparative purposes, Kobe’s career PPM is 2.140.
  • Some (though certainly not all) of the guys near the top of the list are older vets while the guys at the bottom of the list are younger players. This suggests to me that PPM is a decent indicator of a players’ relative strengths in the area shot selection, which is partly a function of experience. At the top of lists are vets like Dirk and Pierce while young guys like Blake Griffin and Monta Ellis are at the bottom of list. I’m not saying it’s a perfect indicator of shot selection, but it’s in the stew, so to speak.

Now back to Dirk.

A big part of Dirk’s offensive efficiency is his superb free throw shooting, which this PPM stat takes into account*. Dirk is an 87.7% free throw shooter for his career, which is outstanding, especially for a guy who stands 7-feet tall. And free throw efficiency should play a part in telling the story of a player’s overall offensive efficiency, which is one reason I like this stat.

* – I should mention at this point that I realize for this stat to be better there should probably be some kind of weighted adjustment to more accurately incorporate field goal attempts, worth two or three points, and free throw attempts, worth one point, into the same stat. I’m not smart enough to figure out exactly how that should go to make this stat more accurate, but I’m open to anyone’s ideas in the comment section.

UPDATE: After taking into account the bevy of excellent reader comments below, we have updated the PPM formula.

Let’s take a guy like Shaquille O’Neal. He was clearly a very efficient offensive player, but think how much more efficient he would have been had he converted just 60-65% of his free throw attempts, or if he had never been fouled in the first place and could have instead had more non-free throw attempts at the basket. Shaq getting fouled and going to the line for two shots resulted in at least one missed shot almost half the time. A guy like Dirk, on the other hand, has no shooting black holes like Shaq. Therefore, his efficiency at turning scoring chances into points is even better than a guy like Shaq’s because Dirk has no weakness that consistently turns into missed shots and, most likely, into the other team’s possession.

For his career, Shaq averaged 23.7 points per game. Dirk averages 23.0 points per game. Yet Dirk has a 2.386 career PPM while Shaq has a 2.127 career PPM. The difference in their case is mostly due to free throw shooting.

PPM and the All-Time Greats

And while we’re on the subject of all-time greats, which certainly both Dirk and Shaq are, how do their career PPM numbers stack up against the best scorers in the history of the game? Here are a handful of the best players ever and their career PPMs.

PlayerTPFG MissedFT MissedPPM
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar383871247025922.549
Dirk Nowitzki2279287557972.386
Larry Bird2179187435112.355
Michael Jordan322921234514452.342
Oscar Robertson267101011214912.302
Karl Malone369281268234012.296
Kobe Bryant278681165813652.140
Shaquille O’Neal28596812753172.127
Wilt Chamberlain314191081658051.890
Allen Iverson243681143917931.842

Update: I should explained this better when I originally posted. The above list is not top 10 all-time or anything close to it; I just chose a handful of players that I thought would make for interesting comparisons. I need to expand this list to be more inclusive of all NBA greats when I have a bit more time. For example, as a commenter points out, Magic Johnson’s career PPM is actually 2.671, higher than both Kareem’s and Dirk’s, and is yet another measure of just how incredible Magic was.

What is interesting about the table above is that Dirk comes in ahead of Bird, Jordan, and so many others. Does this mean Dirk is a better player than Jordan or Bird? Of course not. But it does mean that he is as efficient a scorer as those two were, if not better. Scoring efficiency only tells one part of the story on one side of the floor, which is why PPM can only be considered a small piece of the puzzle when comparing players, but it is a good way to give one of the most unique scoring talents in NBA history is due.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said last week that Dirk was one of the ten best players of all-time. Most people disagree with this assessment, and I do to. However, had Carlisle instead said that Dirk is one of the ten most efficient offensive players of all-time, I don’t think anyone could argue.

Something else I also found interesting is that the only player of those I analyzed that is above Dirk is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Update: and Magic), the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. This is interesting to me because while Dirk and Kareem are different in so many obvious ways, there is one way in which they are very much alike, and it is the reason why they both have such highly efficient offensive games: their go-to shot could not/cannot be guarded.

Dirk Nowitzki’s step-back jump shot is simply unguardable; heck, in many ways any Dirk shot is unguaradable because of his size, high release, and ability to make shots at weird angles. The turnaround or step-back shot is especially tough because Dirk becomes even more unguardable by creating additional space. And he is such a good shooter that he rarely misses. The same was true of Kareem and his sky hook. There was no way to defend it.

Few players in NBA history have go-to moves that literally could not be stopped. This is why Kareem is always someone I think of when trying to compare Dirk’s game to someone else in the NBA history. The truth is that there isn’t anyone in NBA history that I consider to be a lot like Dirk (no, not even Bird), and we should all appreciate his unique greatness now while it is at its peak.

Final Thought on PPM

To wrap up this relatively brief but hopefully fun look at this Bill Simmons-suggested stat, my final thought is that I like PPM, I think it’s fun, and it seems to do a good job of organizing players in terms of their abilities in this specific area, but it faces that same limitations that most single statistics do. It only tells us one aspect of one part of the story, so no argument should begin or end with PPM.

Mostly though, it illustrates just how incredible Dirk Nowitzki’s performance last night was. The guy renowned by almost everyone as the greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan, had a career PPM of 2.342. Last night, in one of the biggest games he’s ever played in, Dirk Nowitzki’s was 16.

As I said in my tweet last night: un-fucking-believable.

What do you think of Points Per Miss as a stat? Is it useful? Can it be improved? What does it suggest to you about a player’s abilities?

Chime in below.

(Also, if anyone wants to take Simmons up on researching the top single-game, 40-point PPMs in NBA history, go right ahead. Email me and we’ll post it. I didn’t have enough time so I made my analysis more general.)

Update: Andy Bailey tackled Simmons’ specific question. Not surprisingly, Dirk’s game is head and shoulders above any other high scoring game in playoff history. (Though I think MJ’s 63 against the Celtics is missing.)

About the Author

Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.