Study finds NBA players getting skinnier as teams focus on small ball

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Call it the Mike D’Antoni revolution. Say that it’s a copycat league and everybody wants to be the Warriors. Talk about how advanced analytics and the three-point shot have changed the game.

The NBA has been trending for years toward “small ball” — which is a nebulous term but essentially means playing fast and shooting a lot of threes. It means fewer traditional bigs and more centers and power forwards who can step out and drain a three (think Kristaps Porzingis or DeMarcus Cousins).

Harvard’s Sports Analytics Collective noticed an interesting trend that is going along with this — the NBA is getting skinnier. (Hat tip to Tom Haberstroh writing for Bleacher Report.)

It makes sense: If the focus is on athleticism and speed, then players will want to be thinner rather than bulkier.  Here is what the report found.

While both the height and weight of the league increased drastically from 1952 (the first year with minutes data) to 2000, the pattern in the 2000s is strikingly different. The weight of the league rose 7 pounds (per player) from 2000 to 2013, before dropping nearly 3 pounds steadily over the course of the next 4 years. Meanwhile, the weighted average height has stayed between 78.8 and 79.1 inches (about 6’7”), for the entirety of the 21 century….

This may seem like an incredibly obvious result, but it highlights another efficiency that NBA teams have gravitated toward in the past 5 years. Teams are slimming down, and using their athletic advantages to run the heavier teams of the floor. The NBA is again trending lighter, and it will be interesting to watch how this stabilizes over the next 5-10 years.

What the study also found was no correlation between hight or weight and winning, however, in recent years there is a trend of lighter teams playing faster. Which again just makes sense.

This trend toward lighter players and pace, plus increased three-point shooting, is ultimately a result of the rules and how they are enforced. Once teams were allowed to play zone defense (starting in 2004), it evolved into the Tom Thibodeau overload defense, which was designed to take away wing isolation plays (which were very common at the time) by bringing another defender over to the strong side. The best offenses started adapting to this in two ways — good off-ball movement on the weak side combined with better ball movement to get guys like Kyle Korver clean looks off a couple passes; and playing faster and getting in the offense before these defenses have a chance to set up.

Both of those attacks are designed for players to use their athleticism — so thinner, more athletic players have the advantage.

At some point, the move to get thinner will stabilize. But this style of play in the NBA will stick around until they tweak the rules again.