NBA embraces advanced analytics as Moneyball movement sweeps pro basketball


Miami Heat star LeBron James is among the many NBA players who have embraced statistical analysis to improve their games. (Bill Haber/AP)
October 25, 2013

There were plenty of empty seats at Wells Fargo Center, and Sam Hinkie settled into one near midcourt, about 25 rows up, to watch his team. Depending on your perspective, Hinkie, five months into his job as the Philadelphia 76ers general manager, is presiding over what promises to be one of the league’s worst NBA teams or one of its greatest experiments. Perhaps both. ¶ A Sixers guard missed a three-pointer from the corner. The rebound bounced high into the air and fell into the hands of an opposing player. ¶ “Great shot,” Hinkie said of the miss. At other times, his team scored a bucket and Hinkie groaned, lamenting the field goal. His peculiar reactions are because he watches the game and judges every action based on probabilities — what should have happened, not necessarily what does happen. Such is the credo of the new NBA, and what exactly unfolds in Philadelphia the next couple of seasons could be the truest test yet of the analytics movement that is sweeping through the league. ¶ Hinkie, a Stanford School of Business graduate who cut his teeth at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm, got here in part thanks to numbers. He hopes he can build a team from the ground up aided by formulas, statistical models and data-centric philosophies that will reduce risk and lead to smarter decisions.

“It’s just information. We use it all the time in everything,” he said. “Fifty years ago, you wanted to know if it rains, you looked to the west. Now you just turn on your phone, and a million sensors send a prediction. It’s way better than looking west.”

The NBA opens its season this week, and the information surrounding the game has never been as rich, detailed or impactful. It’s not like the Moneyball divide that split much of the baseball world; most in basketball have embraced detailed statistical analysis.

“We use it. The Wizards use it. Everybody uses it to different extents,” Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.

One of the movement’s most ardent backers is incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver, whose interest in analytics dates from his days as a law student at the University of Chicago. “Clearly now, throughout the league, there is a cross section in terms of how they value it,” Silver said, “but I think there is a sense now from every team that at least it’s a factor, in considering lineups and considering players, and some teams use it more than others.”

Post Sports Live's Jonathan Forsythe chats with Wizards forward and 2013 first-round draft pick Otto Porter Jr. about his hip flexor injury, his mentors on the team and whether the Wizards can make the playoffs. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Roughly three-quarters of the league’s 30 teams have full-time staffers charged with dissecting numbers — most have clunky titles, such as Senior Quantitative Analyst, Basketball Information Coordinator or Manager of Basketball Analytics. The smarter dissection of data has changed the way general managers construct rosters, coaches teach players and those players act and react on the court.

“It’s been an amazing leap. Even 10 years ago, teams were trying to get fairly simple information, and it was just hard to come by,” said John Hollinger, a former numbers-cruncher for ESPN who’s now vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Teams regard much of their philosophy as proprietary. They won’t say how many data analysts they employ, what metrics they value most or how they use the information. The average NBA game is decided by just a couple of points, so even the smallest edge is still an edge.

“Risk has been mitigated,” said Shane Battier, a 12-year veteran known for his ability to rely on analytics to find subtle, effective ways to impact games. “It’s like playing blackjack in the casino. Teams are giving themselves the best opportunity to shave off a few percentage points and improve their chances of success.”

For the first time this season, the league will station cameras in the rafters of all 30 arenas to help produce more data than ever before. In short, everything on the court can now be quantified. Teams know, for example, that when Kevin Durant is within three feet of a rebound, he comes up with the ball 80 percent of the time. And when Chris Paul has an assist opportunity within 10 feet of the hoop, his teammates convert the field goal 89 percent of the time.

Every decision is considered in terms of risk, reward and value: trades, draft picks, shot selection. For example, number-crunchers all agree teams should shoot more threes — high risk but also high reward. The result? NBA teams averaged 20 three-point attempts per game last season, up 26 percent from a decade ago and more than double the mark from 20 years ago.

Hinkie, 35, joined the 76ers after eight years with the Houston Rockets, considered by many to be the standard-bearer of the analytics movement. He essentially left a team that could contend for a title this season for one that will likely contend for a top draft pick. It wasn’t an easy decision, he said, but ultimately the Sixers represented an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Analytics have been widely used to improve rosters, better inform decisions, inject logic in existing blueprints. With the Sixers, though, Hinkie had a blank slate.

“I knew if I was going to leave, it had to be just right,” he said. “And this was. All the right building blocks are here.”

A new crop of executives

While the NBA has a history of tapping former players to lead front offices, it begins this season with 21 general managers who never played the game professionally. Fourteen of the past 15 GM hires have been non-players, and most are widely praised for embracing analytics.

The new crop of execs are salary-cap savvy, highly invested in technology and devour all types of data. None pretends numbers hold all the answers; they all insist analytics are just another tool in the decision-making process. For Hinkie, gathering as much information as possible is how he approaches everything from saving his money to spending his time.

In terms of basketball, he’s trying to make decisions that make sense today but might pay bigger dividends down the road. Because there’s value attached to everything, each spot on the roster can potentially be leveraged into something better. Forward Donte Greene was a first-round draft pick in 2008. He signed his rookie contract five minutes before a Rockets’ summer league game and promptly scored 40 points. With Greene’s value particularly high, the next morning the Rockets worked out a trade that landed them all-star forward Ron Artest. (Greene went on to start just five games his rookie season and his career never blossomed.)

Building a team is akin to staring at a chessboard, and the modern-day GM has to think several moves ahead. The Rockets didn’t land all-star guard James Harden overnight. Officials there count 14 different roster moves that cleared salary cap space, freed up money and paved the way to welcome Harden via a trade last season.

To better understand value, teams rely on statistics that didn’t exist a few years ago, metrics like effective field goal percentage (which weights three-point attempts differently), points per possession (rather than points per game), rebounding percentage (the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while on the court) and Player Efficiency Rating (a catch-all stat that aims to capture a player’s overall production).

That last metric — PER — was developed by Hollinger when he was at ESPN and has altered how some players are regarded. While the numbers validate that some superstars, such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant, are good at what they do, they also reveal that others, such as Rudy Gay, Brandon Jennings and Ricky Rubio, might not be as impactful as the traditional box score suggests.

Hollinger joined the Grizzlies last December. A month later, the team raised eyebrows by trading away Gay, its leading scorer and most popular player. The criticism was loud in many NBA circles, but Memphis remained steady, entered the playoffs as a fifth-seed and upset the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder to reach the conference finals. Hollinger declined to specifically address Gay but said in general, “I think there’s a better understanding of what is a high-value player or a high-value shot versus just what looks good.”

Gay told NBA.com last month: “Honestly, how I view it, a computer can’t tell talent. It just can’t. When it comes down to it, it’s all about winning, and however you get the win.”

Game-changing numbers

There’s a trickle-down effect to the game’s newest stats. They often start with some number-crunchers in the front office, make their way to the coaching staff and then finally reach the players.

For the most part, basketball coaches have been information junkies for years, dating from legends Dean Smith and Henry Iba. Spoelstra earned his stripes running numbers and preparing reports for Pat Riley in Miami. “Back then it was just known as statistics, not analytics,” he said.

Spoelstra has said that of all the data he processes, he passes along maybe five percent of it to his players. “When you are appealing to your locker room, you can’t make it a mathematics class,” he said.

Not all players are necessarily cognizant of why their game has changed, but the lineups are different: the power forward isn’t as important as a shooting guard who can rebound, for example; the 18-foot jumper becomes more rare each season; teams are measuring players’ contributions on each possession as much as they’re tallying point and rebound totals.

Not surprisingly, James, a four-time MVP, shines in the metrics that attempt to measure overall impact. But his growth as a player can be better understood in the more specific areas, like shot selection.

“I remember when I was a rookie, I shot in the low 40s,” he said. “You take any shot that comes to you. When you’re a rookie, you’re just trying to get them up. Now, being a veteran, understanding how much every possession counts and things of that nature, I think I look at that more than anything.”

Scoring has moved closer to the basket (low risk) and beyond the three-point arc (high reward). Players whose bread and butter has been a midrange jump shot increasingly find themselves starved out of the game.

While three-point shots are up dramatically, the number of long two-point attempts – 15- to 21-footers — keeps shrinking, accounting for nearly 22 percent of all shots five years ago and down to 18.5 percent last season. Shots at the rim — three feet or less — have steadily increased, now accounting for one in three shots.

James’s two-point field goal attempts from beyond the 15-foot range have fallen from a peak of 490 in his third season to 305 last year. He’s become more effective from close range (he led the league in short-range field goals last season) and more effective from behind the arc (shooting a career-best 40.6 percent last year on three-point attempts).

The league as a whole has trended similarly.

“I think all of us, in basketball, want to rely on our instincts more than anything, but statistics confirm or deny certain hunches,” said Indiana Pacers Coach Frank Vogel, who relies on analytics to construct his team’s defensive scheme. “I think they also point out things that you may not have realized or understood and force you to evaluate further.”

James mostly plays coy when it comes to analytics, saying “the numbers will take care of themselves.” Teammates and coaches, though, praise his memory and study habits.

Seated nearby in the Heat locker room, Battier has studied the numbers more than most. He credits his time in Houston with Hinkie and Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey with his education.

“I’d read ‘Moneyball,’ but I never thought it could be applied to basketball,” Battier said. “They really gave me Analytics 101. . . . I like to think it helped me stick around the league a few more years.”

Playing the odds

There are some holdouts. Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller said that breaking down numbers could never trump the value of actually watching the game. “I’ve never been huge on analytics or statistics,” Miller said. “I was a big proponent of watching a lot of film and watching my opponent. I just liked to study teams and my opponent and really based my assessment off that. I never got it broken down into numbers. I guess it’s good to show players, but to me, there is nothing like the eye test.”

In Philadelphia, Doug Collins, the Sixers’ coach last season, once told the Philadelphia Inquirer if he had to rely on analytics, “I’d blow my brains out.” His methodology, he said, lies in his brain and in his gut.

Collins was gone before Hinkie came to town, but that mind-set doesn’t make sense to the Sixers’ new general manager.

“Let’s say you fly to Philly to watch us play. Do you want the pilot to fly on instruments or experience?” Hinkie said.

Like his players and coaches — and much of the league — Hinkie will be playing the odds this season. He had a long to-do list in Philadelphia. In a short period, he drafted the injured Nerlens Noel, traded away leading-scorer Jrue Holliday, hired Brett Brown as head coach and is taking a measured, information-based approach to all questions, big and small.

Sixers fans might not all like it, but quick fixes don’t equate to long-term cures in the NBA. A team’s vision must extend beyond the next possession or the next game. To illustrate the point, Hinkie notes that his favorite writer is Robert Caro, the meticulous author who thought his first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, would take nine months to complete. Instead it took nearly nine years.

“All my heroes built something that lasted,” Hinkie said. “Just the thought of him I love: Every day do your job and do it really, really well.”

Michael Lee contributed to this report.

More on NBA analytics:

Cameras will provide even more data

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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