Analytics continues reshaping basketball, from top to bottom

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16: Stephen Curry
OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16: Stephen Curry /

All 30 NBA teams are engaged in building rosters for the 2017-18 season and beyond, with free agency in action and the NBA Draft recently concluded. Among a myriad of factors influencing decisions is the science of NBA analytics.

To get a good sense of where the math and technology are taking the sport of basketball, it’s first necessary to get a sense of how we see analytics having affected the past NBA season. Mathematics professor and basketball analytics consultant Stephen Shea, along with ShotTracker chief marketing officer Lori Gery recently discussed how advanced statistics and the analysis of them have produced the NBA that fans see today and will continue to shape the future of basketball.

Stephen Shea, who is the associate professor of mathematics at Saint Anselm College and author of the book Basketball Analytics: Spatial Tracking, offered up his perspective.

“The first storyline that really came to the forefront this past year was this new inside-out balance,” Shea commented. “The 3-point shot has become the new mid-range shot of the past. That’s the new outside game, and with the new spacing, the question becomes; in the NBA today, is there really a place for a post-up big? Back in the day, it was the Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal pound the ball down low, but now it’s not that way at all. Teams like the Houston Rockets, who could be seen as the trendsetters, almost never post up. The new inside game is all these cuts, drives and interactions. It’s getting the wings into the interior, and if anything, teams want to get their bigs out of the interior to get the defense out of the key.”

You can see this devaluation of the traditional center in the current NBA free agent market. CBS Sports ranked the top free agents available and you don’t find a center on the list until No. 20 — Kelly Olynyk, who averaged 6.2 3-point attempts per 100 possessions last season. The next is Pau Gasol at No. 37, who after years of dominating around the basket, nearly doubled his previous career-high in 3-point attempts last season and actually led the league in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage.

“I definitely think the devaluation of traditional big men is an analytics-driven strategy,” Shea explained. “Analytics bear out how much more efficient the drive is as compared to the post-up is as far as converting possessions into points goes.”

The other part of recent trends in the game that analytics have shaped is how teams transition from defense to offense.

“We are just really starting to understand the transition game,” Shea elaborated. “The Golden State Warriors, the intelligence of their schemes is often lost in looking at how much talent they have. The way they play the game is decidedly different from how other teams play the game. How quickly they move the ball on offense, how quickly they get out in transition and get a shot up, is a vast difference. I ran the numbers two years ago. Between two and nine seconds into the shot clock, the Warriors outscored their opponents by about 1,300 points over the course of the season. The rest of the time they were outscored. Thirty-six percent of their offense came within that early-clock time frame. That season and the next, they led the league in shortest touch time (the amount of time that one player has the ball before taking a shot or passing the ball to a teammate). They are far and away the best at getting a second assist, two quick passes and then a shot and they have the most transition opportunities.”

As trends like the prioritization of transition opportunities, quick ball movement, penetration replacing post-ups, and smaller players continue to gain traction, the mathematics and technology necessary to fuel the analytics driving these trends are becoming more uniform in the league.

“Teams like the Rockets will try nearly anything in their practices to see what works while other franchises haven’t been as interested,” Shea stated. “There’s some level of uniformity in that all the teams have advanced data but there is some huge discrepancy in how the teams are obtaining it and how they are applying it. Teams like the Philadelphia 76ers just get the full raw [spatial tracking] data and then have their own staff analyze it to create their own systems. A lot of teams are relying on outside services like Stats, Inc. and their “cookie cutter” versions of analytics.”

That’s where ShotTracker and other spatial technology platforms, which track the movements of the ball and players in real time during games, come in.

“Most systems are camera-based and require some level of human interaction and time to process all the data that these systems produce,” ShotTracker chief marketing officer Lori Gery added. “That’s a major investment by a team to do all of that on their own. There’s nothing that the technology does that couldn’t be tracked manually if a team had a staff of like 20 people writing down everything, but the technology automates all of that.”

As programs like ShotTracker’s system continue to influence the personnel and strategy of NBA teams, there will be a trickle-down effect. High schools and colleges who hope to produce NBA talent will not only play the style of basketball prevalent in the NBA, but develop players to thrive in that style as well.

“When we look at the NBA, they have sophisticated data and tools which allow them to do the kind of analysis that we have seen,” Gery said. “ShotTracker is appropriate for that market, but the exciting thing for us is bringing that kind of understanding and insight to teams further down the funnel. For high schools and small colleges, it’s a matter of finding benefits that are worth the costs. We want to deliver analytics in a time frame that is actionable, understandable and cost-effective for those programs.”

“When you move down the ladder, I think you will encounter more coaches who will be eager to try new analytics systems,” Shea added. “They tend to be younger and more focused on the next step. They are all looking for anything that can give them an edge. Especially the fresh coaches who just came to D1 programs, looking to compete with the more successful programs, they are looking for ways to make that happen. As you go down, teams are less interested in winning and more interested in developing players. That’s where products like ShotTracker are so great because they are practice-focused, and that’s where most of player development takes place.”

The day will come that the majority of head coaching and general manager candidates for NBA teams are not only adept at motivating others to believe in a system, but skilled in mathematics and fluent in the language of analytics as well. Contract negotiations for players will contain much of the language. How soon that day will come depends on how quickly analytics continues to permeate in the lower levels of basketball.

Next: Which NBA Team Has The Best Uniform of All-Time?

If the lower ranks of basketball buy into analytics systems like ShotTracker at a heavy rate, the next generation of players, coaches and executives will all be fluent by the time they arrive at the top of the pyramid.