Basketball in Dangerous Places

Two similar books get quick reviews tonight: Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver, and The World’s Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton.

It seems a little strange to put these books together, so why do I? Because they’re both from a new perspective, and that’s what makes them strong. There are lots of books on basketball, like there are lots of travel guides. You can find shelves of each at Borders. Most, frankly, are boring. Why do I need 20 uplifting autobiographies “with” a secondary author? Why are there 10 guides for each American state? It’s pretty much more of the same.

Basketball on Paper does something different. It tries to quantify the game. There had been, and continues to be, other work on the subject. There’s nowhere near as much as baseball with the Sabermetrics community. Mostly, that’s because baseball is easy to analyze. Almost all actions involve one or two people at a time. It’s pitcher versus hitter, then a fielder and a runner. Everything is separate. That’s what makes some people like baseball, while I find it slow. Basketball, on the other hand, involves ten players moving together, where one failure or success routinely changes several other actions. Basketball is tougher. People still try, and a good starting page is at SonicsCentral.

I’m not going to go into much detail, because if you’re a quantitative basketball fan, you should read the book. If you’re not, you likely won’t. Mr. Oliver is given credit for popularizing the concept of possession, offensive rating, and defensive rating, so it’s good to read to get examples. On the downside, the writing is pedestrian, and there are lots of tables. There are so many tables that my eyes would glaze a bit, and I like this stuff. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to read it all at once? The writing brings this grade down to 2 out of 5.

And if you want just a little detail, here are the key things to remember.

  1. The Four Factors are, in order of importance, shooting percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and free throws.
  2. The best shot attempt is an open layup. The second best attempt is an open three-pointer by a good shooter. The third best outcome is to get fouled and get free throws.
  3. Interestingly, jump shots have approximately the same success percentage at all distances from about 6 feet to the three point line. Thus, medium to long two pointers are silly shots.
  4. The disadvantage of a contested shot is very large. In one record, open shots went in about 61% of the time while contested shots went in less than 40% of the time.

Better writing, yet on another limited subject, grants Mr. Pelton’s book a 3 out of 5. Dangerous Places does something different. It provides a travel guide on countries that don’t have many of those silly travel books. As such, I learned a lot about North Korea, Afghanistan, Liberia, Yemen, and the rest. There’s good history. One small problem is that the book was published in 2003, so some countries – like Zimbabwe and Iraq – are somewhat out of date. On the other hand, South Africa and the United States still have bad spots.

The best part of the book consists of true stories, “In a Dangerous Place”. Some of the tales are just amazing. Even if you’re not a history or geography person, like I am, these are well worth the time. The Russian TV show, the Mali airport, and Albanian smugglers are all memorable. These are not happy stories; it’s no Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. You need to have a dark sense of humor to like things here, like the convenient list of mercenary companies. If you do, like with basketball, there are great rewards from an unusual approach.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network: http://adam.twelvefruits.com
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