Analytics in the NBA


Whether or not you agree with Charles Barkley that “analytics are crap,” it is hard to dismiss the fact that they have played a large role in the NBA, and it’s only going to get bigger. 26 NBA teams are currently using analytics, although they use it at different lengths, but no team uses it like the Houston Rockets.

Analytics took a huge stride in the NBA when the Houston Rockets hired Daryl Morey in April of 2006 to run basketball operations and since then, he has made advanced stats a monumental part in the Rockets game plan. “The Rockets continue to increase investment in analytics people and systems to maintain a differentiation in this area, especially as XY SportVU data comes online and we try to stay ahead of the competition,” Morey told ESPN.com.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

For many teams, it is difficult to determine what effect analytics have had on their playing style, but not the Rockets. Last season, the Rockets shot the most three-pointers, shooting 32.7 per game, which was 5.2 more than the second place Cavs. This came out to be 39.4% of their shots. They also shot 40.2 shots inside 10 feet per game, which was fifth in the league. 74 percent of their shots came from behind the arc or at the rim, which was much higher than anyone else in the league. The Rockets rarely shoot long-range two-pointers because they are too far away from the basket, and the two points are not worth the risk, unlike three-pointers that are rewarded with an extra point. This is analytics at its finest.

The analytics revolution that Daryl Morey helped pioneer, known as “Moreyball,” has put a significant emphasis on efficiency. Similarly to how Billy Beane focused his attention to players that got on base rather than some of the other more prominent stats, such as batting average and RBIs, Morey focused his attention to three-point shooting rather than mid-range shots. On average, shooting 33 percent from three is the same as shooting 50 percent on 2-pointers. Because of this philosophy, the Houston Rockets have highlighted players that can either shoot the three ball effectively, shoot 50 percent or more on 2-pointers, or get to the foul line on a regular basis (Houston took the second most free throws last season and James Harden shot the most free throws (10.2 per game) in the league).

The Houston Rockets are not the only team that has followed “Moreyball.” During their championship run during the 2010-2011 season, the Dallas Mavericks took a page out of Daryl Morey’s book. They, like the Rockets, emphasized the three-pointer, shooting 27.4 percent of their shots from behind the arc. This past season, the Mavericks shot 29.6 percent of their shots from behind the arc, which was ninth in the league. Although they were only ninth in that category, they almost eliminated the mid-range shot completely as you can see from the heat map below.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2015/02/11/charles-barkley-is-wrong-about-analytics-in-the-nba/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2015/02/11/charles-barkley-is-wrong-about-analytics-in-the-nba/

As a part of the emphasis on efficiency, Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) has had a big impact on the NBA. Now it’s not as valuable to be a volume shooters as it may have been in the past because a player’s PER takes into account missed shots. This is leading to teams searching for more efficient players, and shying away from volume shooters such as Kobe Bryant.

Analytics also help illustrate what kind of impact a certain player has on their team. For example, Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan were first and second in offensive rating (an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) with 133.4 and 126.1 respectively. If you just look at the box score, it is difficult to see how much of an impact both Chandler and Jordan make on offense.

Likewise, Chicago Bulls’ small forward, Mike Dunleavy, is known for being a veteran, knock-down three-point shooter. However, Dunleavy allowed the fewest points per game (10.0) among wing defenders. Analytics like this show that some players that seem to be average or below-average in a category may actually have more value than people give them credit for.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

An immense part of analytics is player tracking. Starting in 2013, the NBA installed player-tracking in all 29 of its stadiums.

“Using six cameras installed in the catwalk of every NBA arena, SportVU software tracks the movements of every player on the court and the basketball 25 times per second. The data collected provides a plethora of innovative statistics based around speed, distance, player separation and ball possession. Some examples include: how fast a player moves, how far he traveled during a game, how many touches of the ball he had, how many passes he threw, how many rebounding chances he had and much more” (NBA.com).

These player-tracking systems add a whole new perspective to the NBA. You can see plays develop and player movement like never before. Player-tracking gives NBA personnel the opportunity to gather information they otherwise couldn’t, allowing them to play as efficiently as possible. For example, Detroit Pistons’ guard, Reggie Jackson, led the NBA in team points per game on drives with 15.6 (1.3 PPG more than second-place James Harden). Knowing this, the Pistons can game plan in order to get Jackson the ball going to the basket, where he is very effective.

Although analytics have been monumental for the NBA, it may not always be so effective. Unlike baseball, in the NBA, one player can make all the difference. A balanced team made up of players that play extraordinarily well together may still not be able to beat a team consisting of LeBron James. When a former teammate of James, Shane Battier, was discussing analytics at the annual Sloan MIT Conference, he said, “Analytics are a tool, just like a jump shot or strength training.”

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