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Crunching numbers in pro basketball

Dave Heeren knew he had really arrived when the agent representing a prominent NBA player asked him to develop a statistical portfolio for his client. Heeren consulted his innovative TENDEX rating system and advised the negotiator to increase the financial package. The agent broke off contract talks, and the club eventually signed the player for more than twice its original offer.

TENDEX really works.

"I'm kind of an agent's agent. I write reports, analyze statistics, and look at the strengths of players," said Heeren, 52. "Each year I send letters to about 30 agents. I usually hear back from about a half-dozen. I figure 20 percent response is good."

The third annual edition of The Basketball Abstract contains TENDEX ratings of more than 1,600 NBA and ABA players, and more than 500 college players. It includes a section on the greatest NBA players of the 1980s as well as a section on the best college players of the decade. There are also ratings of the top college players of 1989-90 who will be NBA rookies.

Heeren developed the TENDEX rating system as a student at the University of Delaware, covering basketball games as a correspondent for the New York Times. He worked for the New York Knicks and later became a sportswriter for United Press International. He has worked the past 24 years as a sportswriter for the Fort Lauderdale News & Sun Sentinel.

"It was suggested by two different people (to write a book)," Heeren said recently.

"I had no idea how, so I read books on how to get published. I mailed out five letters and received four rejections. I had almost forgotten about the fifth letter when I heard back from the publisher."

For the past five years, the TENDEX formula has appeared in national sports publications, the past four in The Sporting News. TENDEX factors 10 statistical categories into a carefully balanced formula to produce a rating of any player's performance.

"TENDEX is not a self-appointed expert given to expressing wild opinions," said Heeren in the 1990-91 edition. "It is a precise statistical system, but that doesn't mean it can't make implausible declarations."

According to TENDEX, Phoenix was the strongest team in the NBA last season, even though the Suns had only the fifth-best record in the Western Conference and were underdogs in all of their playoff series. They lost to Portland in the conference finals.

Once again, TENDEX picks Phoenix to win the NBA title. According to Heeren, Phoenix will face Chicago in the finals.

"Detroit and the Lakers are about as good as they can get and won't get any better," said Heeren. "I think Phoenix will win. I look for (center) Stacey King to improve enough for Chicago to overtake Detroit."

None of Phoenix's starting five players ranked among the top 10 in the league last season. But four of them were among the top 40, and three of the top four (Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers and Jeff Hornacek) were among the top five at their respective positions.

Heeren also found that Magic Johnson of the Lakers, the NBA's official MVP for the third year in the past four, was only the sixth-best player in the league last season. TENDEX chose Chicago's Michael Jordan all three times Johnson won the award.

Heeren also has some surprising projections for this year's rookie class. He predicts that Gary Payton, Seattle's first-round pick, will be rookie of the year and that Denver's Chris Jackson will be the most overrated player in the draft. He also thinks that Gerald Glass, one of Minnesota's two first-round picks, will be the steal of the first round.

Heeren's TENDEX rating reveals how skillful a player is _ a measure of how many points he is worth per minute of playing time. A player with a rating of .750 is worth three points to his team for every four minutes he plays.

A player with a high scoring average may have a low TENDEX rating if he does not contribute in other ways. Conversely, a player with a low scoring average may have a high TENDEX rating if he is accomplished in other areas.

"This is not a popularity contest," said Heeren. "I may not always agree with the findings, but you can't argue statistics."