Tag: NBA statistics

Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Four

Former missile tracking technology revolutionizing NBA stats


People who dismiss the NBA’s statistical revolution as a bunch of nerds in front of computers with Google-like algorithm don’t get the real picture.

The reality is that a stats-loving coach who incorporates them into formulating his game plans is about to win an NBA title in Miami. The reality is pretty much every team has an advanced stats guy in house.

And those stats are going to the next level now thanks to former missile tracking technology that can literally track a player’s every move on the court. Teams are already paying for the next level of advanced statistics and the early results have wowed statheads at places like the SLOAN conference at MIT.

There’s a great story on the technology at fastcodedesign.com (go read the entire thing).

Now, SportVU systems hang from the catwalks of 10 NBA arenas, tiny webcams that silently track each player as they shoot, pass, and run across the court, recording each and every move 25 times a second. SportVU can tell you not just Kevin Durant’s shooting average, but his shooting average after dribbling one vs. two times, or his shooting average with a defender three feet away vs. five feet away. SportVU can actually consider both factors at once, plus take into account who passed him the ball, how many minutes he’d been on the court, and how many miles he’d run that game already.

A perfect example of this principle is in how SportVU can track assists. Traditionally, the NBA will award a player with the assist if they pass the ball to a player who immediately scores a field goal. It’s a human calculation, a judgment call based more on feel than science (much like a foul). Aside from clear issues of accurate counts, think about everything that generalized “assists” stat misses: What if the best passer in the world is on a team of people who can’t shoot? They’re making the correct play but getting no credit because they’re surrounded by mediocrity. But put this playmaker on a good team, and that team might excel.

SportVU can track these potential assists, and even track the person who passes it to the person who makes the assist. Now scale this level of assessment to every single skill in basketball, and our view of players could change as we know it.

The next level of challenge for coaches is to turn this data into something the players can assimilate. It’s one thing to tell a player “Kobe Bryant shoots X percent less if you force him to go left for two dribbles into a pull-up jumper” and another for a player to really grasp it and apply it in a game.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (among others) tries to put these tips in video packages — don’t tell the player, show the player. Most of us are visual learners, if we see it we process it faster.

But the revolution is here to stay, and with companies like SportVU there is only going to be more and more data out there to mine for an edge. And teams will pay and do just about anything to get an edge.

Who gets the most “hockey assists” in the NBA?

Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce

In the NBA, the guy who makes the pass to set up a shooter gets an assist. But often you will see a point guard drive and draw the defense, kick out to a guy at the arc, who will then see the defense rotate and make a pass to a second open shooter who knocks down the shot.

In that case the point guard doesn’t get any credit even though he created the play. They’re called “hockey assists” because the NHL gives out a second assist on goals.

So who gets the most of those in the NBA? Well, we don’t know for sure, but Zach Lowe at Sports Illustrated worked with the guys at STATS — the company with special cameras in 10 NBA arenas that track every last moment of players (creating a mountain of stats for teams in those buildings) — to try and answer that question.

It’s important to note the caveats here: The STATS cameras are in only 10 of 30 arenas, and in order to filter out random noise, the STATS study supplied to SI.com tracked only players who have appeared in front of the cameras in at least eight games this season. That rules out some pretty darn good passers, including Chris Paul and Deron Williams.

1. Derrick Rose, 1.9 per game (10 games)
2. Steve Nash, 1.6 per game (8 games)
2. Raymond Felton, 1.6 per game (11 games)
4. Mike Conley, 1.4 per game (8 games)
4. Tony Parker, 1.4 per game (31 games)

Brandon Jennings and Rajon Rondo were next on the list. After that (all tied at 1.1) are Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Manu Ginobili and Jose Calderon. Seeing two Spurs mentioned seems logical considering how that team moves the ball. Same with Rondo, running pick-and-rolls with mobile Boston bigs.

As Lowe said, it’s easy to picture why Rose is on top of the list.

You can picture those hockey assists in your head right away, can’t you? Rose sets up for a pick-and-roll with Joakim Noah, and Noah’s man decides to trap Rose above the three-point arc. Rose threads a bounce pass to Noah at the foul line, and Noah, seeing Carlos Boozer’s man rotating his way, slips a quick-hitter to Boozer for a layup. The sequence happens so often, both because Rose demands so much attention and because Noah and Boozer are clever passers capable of playing either role in the above scenario.

Go read the whole post, this is interesting stuff.

Making the advanced statistics movement relevant to players

Kobe Bryant, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson

There is a fantastic, must read post over TrueHoop by Henry Abbott, timed to coincide with the start of the SLOAN Conference — THE sports statistics conference — going on at MIT in Boston this weekend.

Abbott’s point is a good one: It’s one thing for a front office to have a bunch of advanced statistics in hand and use them in player and lineup evaluation, it’s another all together to explain those numbers to players. Or even some coaches. The new breed of coaches embraces these stats — Dallas last year used numbers extensively to see which five-man units worked best, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra is a numbers guy — but how do you get the lessons learned in those stats to the players?

Abbott has an idea:

Video. Game footage.

In other words, don’t tell me Kobe Bryant takes a lot of insanely difficult shots in crunch time, show me those fallaway leaners against the triple team….

Whatever your point is — that this player should play shooting guard, that that one is worth a ten-day contract because of his D-League rebound rate — stop saying it in nerd-speak charts and tables. Get ye to Synergy and show them all that stuff on game tape.

Use the stats and the spreadsheets more than ever, but behind-the-scenes, like plumbing — not as the final element in the presentation.

Synergy is a reference to Mysynergysports.com, a site that (for a fee) lets you look at video of games broken down by play and situation. I’m a big user, a lot of bloggers and writers are. If you want to see how LeBron James does in transition, you can call up the video of all his transition shot attempts almost instantly (he’s really good at it, by the way). Or you can see what Rajon Rondo does as the ball handler on side pick-and-rolls, or what Lamar Odom does when you force him right off the dribble. You get the idea. Very valuable scouting tool.

But if you’re trying to tell a player to attack off the pick-and-roll and stop pulling up for a jumper behind the screen, showing him a string of video on how he does in that situation (miss, miss, miss) is far more valuable then showing him stats on a page.

Abbott is right, the statistical revolution has to be televised for it to work.

Suns head coach Gentry cares not for your three-point field goal defensive statistics

1 Comment

The Phoenix Suns, just like most teams in the league, pay a fair amount of attention to all kinds of statistical data. And, just like most teams in the league, they have their favorites. It’s safe to say that three-point field goal defensive statistics are not one of them.

Before Friday night’s win over the Trail Blazers, it was pointed out to Suns head coach Alvin Gentry that Portland was among the league’s best at defending the three-point shot — an area where the Suns have struggled mightily so far this season, despite taking a high number of attempts from distance. So, the question was this: Would Phoenix try to do anything differently in that area given Portland’s defensive success?

Not exactly. And Gentry was completely dismissive of the statistic while giving his response.

“I don’t buy into that,” Gentry said of a given team’s supposedly strong defensive numbers against the three-point shot. “I think that’s the worst stat in the NBA, defending the three. I think teams either shoot it well against you or they don’t. You know, most of the three-point shots that are taken are open shots; people are usually not forcing three-point shots.”

For the record, the Suns haven’t faced Kobe Bryant and the Lakers yet this season, but you get the idea.

“Maybe they close out better or they do a good job of running you off, I don’t know,” Gentry said. “It’s just not a stat I think is relevant at all, I really don’t.”

Now, Gentry’s comment on this particular stat isn’t at all indicative of the way his team approaches statistical data in general. Phoenix considers publicly available information like defensive field goal percentage allowed valuable, and went so far as to place boards in the locker room last season which tracked those numbers league-wide for his players to see on a daily basis.

This year, Gentry and new assistant coach Elston Turner have talked about the difference between dead-ball and live-ball turnovers, and the importance of making sure his team is making a conscious effort to cut down on the latter. And, the team tracks its own internal numbers in a variety of areas to provide data to back up the coaching staff’s chosen points of emphasis.

The three-point defensive statistic, however, is not one of them.

It’s easy to see why Portland currently leads the league in defensive three-point field goal percentage allowed at .254. They have a seemingly endless number of long, athletic guys who, by merely getting a hand up in the vicinity of a long-range shooter, would seemingly be able to alter that shot.

But looking at the teams that rank third and fourth in the same category — Milwaukee and Sacramento respectively, who combined have just 5 wins in 14 games on the season — it becomes a little bit murkier to see the correlation.

In case you were wondering, Gentry isn’t simply being a “hater” here. Phoenix is better than average in this regard, currently sitting at eighth in the league by holding teams to a .299 shooting percentage from behind the three-point arc.

We’re early in the season, and still in the area of extremely small sample size when trying to measure the validity of certain statistical information. What is clear, though, is that the Suns won’t be altering their approach based on another team’s statistical success in defending the long-range shot.

In fact, Gentry was so cavalier in discussing the topic that he jokingly equated it to the statistical data surrounding the “defense” of an opponent’s free throw attempts.

“I think teams shot worse against us from the foul line last year; I think we were in the top five,” Gentry said. “I don’t know that we did a whole lot to defend the free throw line.”

NBA battle over NBA “Moneyball” stats mirrors regular life

1 Comment

We watched it play out in baseball around the time “Moneyball” the book came out. There were the old-school guys and Joe Morgan saying baseball can’t be defined by statistics and the new-school guys like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein winning that way.

Now the movie “Moneyball” is out and it is sparking the same debate in the NBA, where more advanced statistics are becoming part of the debate about players.

Henry Abbott over at TrueHoop saw the film — he would never miss the opening weekend of a Brad Pitt movie — and then talked to stats guys with a few NBA teams. Their reaction was that some of the scenes in the movie where stat guys are have a tough time getting attention is pretty much spot on. Abbott relates this story from a one guy working in the NBA.

I was asked to get involved in a negotiation with a certain player. I did a little homework on the guy, and then went back into the GM’s office, and asked how we should handle the guy’s injury history, specifically a torn ACL that had kept him out of the league for a year-and-a-half.

“He tore his ACL?” asked the GM, sounding surprised. “Where’d you learn that?”

I told him I had just googled the guy. This was in the last couple of years.

He said “ok, you’re going to have to show me how to use this google thing.”

The thing is, the stats can be an effective tool to use along with traditional scouting. That is what happens in Dallas, and that worked out pretty well for them (they love to use a variety of stats, particularly looking at how combinations of players work together). The Celtics and Thunder are stats-heavy teams that are doing well. There are others.

But there is plenty of resistance. Tons of it. Because you can’t define all the intangibles of the NBA into statistics, right? We’ve done just fine without stats like this in the past.

All the arguments struck Dwight Jaynes of CSNNW.com as familiar. Not just from baseball or sports, but from life.

I’m not alarmed when I see that battle between old school and new school because I’ve seen it play out my entire lifetime. I’m old enough to remember how offended people where when I got one of those early phone answering machines — the ones with the little tape recorders in them.

“I’m not going to speak to a recording,” someone in my family said. “That’s an insult.”

Computers? Remember when people hated them? And I mean really HATED them. Some still do, I guess. But I don’t know what I’d do without them. Same for cell phones. My goodness, people were downright offended that others felt they needed them.

Folks, advanced stats in the NBA are here to stay, and that’s a good thing. It’s not the answer to every question, but it can help. It’s a tool. In the end, what really matters is how well you know how to use the tools you have.