NBA Team KPIs

Bear with me for a minute, basketball fans.

If you work in digital analytics, you are familiar with the concept of the Key Performance Indicator (KPI). A KPI is a piece of data, shown over time, that gives you immediate insight into how your business is performing against your goals. Sometimes they are very general (such as Orders per Visit, a.k.a. Conversion Rate) and sometimes they are more specific (for example, Bounce Rate for visitors coming from search). These things are lifeblood of some business goal you’ve set. A business typically has several KPIs that they monitor every day. And not every metric is a KPI; a common rule is that it isn’t a KPI unless it’s something that, if decreasing below acceptable norms, would cause your business to take immediate action to rectify.

If you don’t work in digital analytics, but you are an NBA fan, we can finally explain KPIs to you using NBA statistics, a language you probably already speak. Here it is, courtesy of basketball-reference.com:

How do basketball teams win games? While searching for an answer to that question, Dean Oliver identified what he called the “Four Factors of Basketball Success”:

Shooting (40%)
Turnovers (25%)
Rebounding (20%)
Free Throws (15%)

The number in parentheses is the approximate weight Mr. Oliver assigned each factor. Shooting is the most important factor, followed by turnovers, rebounding, and free throws.

The article goes on to explain that each of those four factors is expressed in a rate: Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Rate, Rebounding Rate, and Free Throw Rate. These have all the markings of good KPIs. I want to be as good as I can be in each of those four areas, and if I succeed, I’m almost definitely going to win basketball games.

If I were compiling a basketball team, or coaching a basketball team (or advising a basketball team on how to begin analyzing itself), those would be my first KPIs. Those are the metrics that I would use to gauge success. And while basketball, like business, has one metric that trumps all others (for basketball, it’s wins; for business, it’s profit), these are strong leading indicators of a team’s ability to win.

So, basketball fan, think of your digital analytics friends as something like basketball coaches who are looking at effective field goal percentage and benching that wing player who won’t stop taking threes early in the shot clock, or a GM who sees that his team is weak in rebounding and therefore targets an athletic big man in the NBA Draft. It’s clear to an NBA fan, looking at how his team is performing in each of the Four Factors, how a coach or GM might address a deficiency in these areas, just as analysts are great at coming up with recommendations when a KPI is struggling and needs to improve.

In fact, that’s the great thing about KPIs: they provide a really nice, simple jumping off point for analysis. Why were the Jazz so bad at eFG% this past season? We can begin to answer that problem for management with some very specific advice, especially when we add in analysis of shot location and lineups/rotations. Why are my web site visitors who arrive after performing a Google search leaving so quickly? We can look at that user segment and see what they’re doing and where they are running into roadblocks, or look at our landing pages and analyze them for effectiveness. Same thing.

So now you’ve got something to talk about with your digital analyst friends. And digital analysts, you can ask your NBA friends how their team’s turnover rate has been trending lately. Your next cocktail party is sure to be a smashing success!

Intruder

Last night I woke up in my hotel room at around 3:00 AM. I got up to go to the bathroom. The bathroom door has a full-length mirror on the outside of it. Thus, as I approached the door in the nearly total dark of my room I saw a figure coming toward me.

It so terrified/startled me that I briefly lost feeling in my left foot, and did not get back to sleep until 4:00 AM.

C’mon, Marriott. There has got to be a better place for that mirror.

FAQ

Eight months ago, on this blog, I described with excitement my decision to leave Adobe and join ESPN as an analytics manager. At the time, I knew that I was embarking on a tremendous learning experience, and I thought I even knew how everything would go. Sports, analytics, and New England; how could I lose? Call it a youthful sense of invincibility, if you will.

Well, as of this past Monday, I have rejoined Adobe, and I am thrilled, excited, and grateful for the entire turn of events. The Adobe Digital Marketing Summit took place this past week in Salt Lake City, and as I wandered the halls of the Salt Palace among colleagues, customers, and industry folks, a few things happened.

First, I felt like I was home, immediately. Second, I answered a barrage of questions about the past eight months. I took mental note of these questions and I’m going to answer them here, in good old FAQ form. So here we go.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT BEN’S RETURN TO ADOBE

Q: So. . . what happened?

A: This is actually a tremendously complicated question, but I will simplify it by saying that once I started at ESPN, I quickly started to realize that making software is what gets me out of bed in the morning. When one of the engineers at Adobe asked me this question, I told him that I was sure he could go be a fantastic analyst, but he probably wouldn’t enjoy it—he needs to be programming and solving problems using code. That’s just in his DNA. I certainly could have stuck it out—and, in fact, tried to stick it out—but it wasn’t for me. If I needed to spend this time in order to learn that lesson, I can’t say that it wasn’t worth it. I’ve got a strong sense of direction for the foreseeable future, and that’s valuable.

Q: How were the people at ESPN?

A: They were great, and I consider many of them friends. In fact, I saw them at Summit and it wasn’t weird. . . well, it wasn’t too weird, at least. I’m so grateful that they gave me a chance. They’re brilliant and they are doing cutting-edge things with digital analytics. If you ever have a chance to them talk about cross-platform analysis, as my former VP Dave Coletti did at eMetrics NYC last October, you will know what I mean.

Q: What will you be doing at Adobe?

A: I’m returning to the Product Management team, working on analytics products—SiteCatalyst and more. When I originally joined that team almost two years ago, I wrote that I felt like a minor-league baseball player getting the call-up to the majors to play with his heroes. I still feel that way, and am excited to be part of such a bright and talented group. It seems that Adobe’s recent acquisitions have only added to the brainpower and passion. I hope that I now bring at least a little bit of unique insight having been an analytics practitioner for most of the past year.

Q: Are you staying in Connecticut, or moving back to Utah?

A: Actually, we have really enjoyed our time in Connecticut. The area is beautiful and our neighborhood is full of kids who want to play with our daughters almost constantly. But we still own our home in Utah, and rented in Connecticut, and it’s time to get back to the family and friends that we’ve missed so badly. But we had a great quality of life in both Utah and Connecticut. We will definitely miss Connecticut and hope to visit our friends there in the future.

Q: Why did you go back to Adobe?

A: First, as I mentioned above, I need to be in tech/software. That’s a given. Second, I believe in what Adobe is doing in digital marketing and I want to be a part of it. Third, there is a reason that Adobe consistently appears on Fortune’s “top places to work” list. It really is a fantastic company in too many ways to list here, but I especially love the way Adobe trusts its employees and values input from all over the organization. At least, that has been my experience, and I hope it will be again.

A personal appeal to Jazz fans

I loved this quote from Bill Simmons’ recent 2012 NBA Trade Value column:

On TV a few weeks ago, Chris Webber said something that made me say, “I wish I had thought of that first.”They were talking about trades, and C-Webb pointed out that championship teams are always stubborn. In other words, instead of caving to the whims of their fans, the pressure of the media, the ebbs and flows of a season (or even someone’s career) or especially conventional wisdom, they say to themselves, “Screw this, I know what I have, I’m sticking with it.”

So, Jazz fans, you want a GM with a championship mentality, or one who wavers and waffles?

I know you hate Kevin O’Connor’s strategy: get very young, develop talent, suffer through a few seasons in the lower half of the conference, then emerge with a core that can contend for a top spot in out west. You want to win now. If you could trade Paul Millsap or Derrick Favors for a wing who can shoot, you would do it in a heartbeat, even though it would only make the Jazz a seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs, right? It’s almost like you expect not to be alive in two or three years, and all you want to do before the heart attack comes is see one more Jazz playoff series, at any cost.

You’re being ridiculous. Here are two people who are on record saying that they see O’Connor’s vision and they like it: John Hollinger and Chad Ford. It’s cute that you have 1,300 Twitter followers, but you don’t know the NBA as well as those two men do. I’m sorry, but you don’t. (I certainly don’t, either.) When they want to understand what the Jazz are trying to do, they can actually pick up the phone and call people around the league to discuss. Or they use (or invent!) advanced statistical measures that give us more an accurate, data-driven sense of what is really going on. In most ways, we can’t compete with that. We see C.J. Miles jacking up threes early in the shot clock and we cannot understand why that guy is on the Jazz roster, without bothering to understand that C.J. has actually been a more efficient offensive player this season than Kyle Korver. (I’m not defending wasted possessions, just pointing out that our view of the world is heavily skewed sometimes. It’s confirmation bias: we tend to see evidence that supports our position. We see the worst in C.J. because we’ve already decided that we dislike him.) This is all that Hollinger and Ford do. (Well, Ford also teaches at BYU-Hawaii, actually.) This is their life! They’re certainly not always right, but are any of us? I’ll take my chances with two smart, accomplished, respected NBA analysts, and they’re taking their chances with a stubborn Kevin O’Connor.

Look, if we were talking about a perennial bottom-dweller then I would say sure, let’s talk about firing KOC. You’re so used to winning that you have no idea how weird life could be under David Kahn or Bryan Colangelo. Growing up in Boston during the M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino eras, let me tell you: I know what a franchise devoid of direction looks like. Stubbornness is most definitely a positive trait.

You’re welcome to hate this team, hate the coach, hate the GM. But by ignoring your persistent whining and demands that KOC mortgage the farm for Rajon Rondo (who, by the way, is a HORRIFIC outside shooter) or Wesley Matthews (he’s not coming through that door, to borrow a line from the aforementioned Pitino era in Boston), O’Connor is actually displaying a trait that demonstrates one reason why he is general manager and we work elsewhere.

So here’s hoping that KOC ignores us all and sticks to the plan.

(I will now record a YouTube video in the style Chris Crocker called “LEAVE KEVIN O’CONNOR ALONE!” Where did I put my blonde wig?)

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Day Two

As I have been tweeting, blogging, and updating Facebook about the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I keep hearing comments like: “I wish I could go, but I will never be able to” and “this is definitely on my bucket list now.” A few things about this. First, at $500 for non-student admission, it’s a bargain; even with hotel and airfare I’ll bet most of you could do this conference for well under $1,500, and it will be a truly memorable experience. So start saving a few dollars a week in a cookie jar today. Second—and I don’t think people realize this—anyone can attend. You don’t need to work for ESPN or an NBA franchise. My sister has a friend who does Account Management for Google, but he loves sports and analytics so he pays his own way to fly out every year from the Bay Area. All are welcome.

The other thing which pleasantly surprised me (I touched on it yesterday) is that you do not need to be a Ph.D. candidate in advanced statistical modeling or econometrics to thoroughly enjoy the conference. There were some sessions that really stretched that area of my brain, and others that were accessible even to non-sports fans, let alone non-academics. So don’t let that scare you away.

Highlights and thoughts from day two:

  • There was a request on Facebook to hear more about Bill James. As the godfather of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he was definitely one of the stars of the show. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like he shared much new information about himself or his work. Simmons did a live BS Report with James at the end of day one, during which they rehashed his rise from unheralded part-time stats geek to patron saint of sports nerds, but it’s all stuff we read about in Moneyball. Day two featured a “Boxscore Rebooted” panel with James, John Thorn (MLB historian), and John Dewan (baseball info solutions), but most of it is so widely accepted in these circles at this point (“Wins for a pitcher is too arbitrary! The Internet makes analytics easier!”) that I barely took notes. To be honest, it felt really strange to be so nonplussed by this guy who quite literally invented advanced baseball analytics. In talking to a few other attendees, I got the sense that I’m not the only one. We all have tremendous deference for what Bill James has given the world, but he does not seem to be on the bleeding edge of sports analytics anymore.
  • The conference (at least this year) leaned heavily toward basketball, probably because the millennials who dominated the conference are in a demographic where the NBA is excelling, whereas I believe I heard that the average baseball fan is between 45 and 55 years old.
  • I reviewed three basketball-themed research papers in yesterday’s post, but the best was yet to come. The two best research papers by far (in my mind) dealt with “spacial analytics” in the NBA, meaning the study of where the 10 players and the basketball are placed on the floor (or in the air) when key events occur, as opposed to pouring over isolated numbers to obtain insight. Jared Dubin of Hardwood Paroxysm did an excellent job reviewing these two presentations (he even has screen captures), so I won’t go into too much detail.
  • I will add that I thought the rebounding study was not fully matured—it presented a ton of potential to help teams understand how to position players in rebounding situations, but it wasn’t quite there yet. Key Insight: Teams’ offensive rebounding percentage decreases significantly the farther the shooter is from the basket, until you get to the three point line. Behind the three point line, offensive rebounds are more common than for mid-range jumpers. Especially considering that neither a mid-range jumper nor a three is likely to generate a lot of free throws, it stands to reason that mid-range jumpers are the least effective shot on the floor (which we’ve all kind of known for some time, but it’s nice to have data to back up the theory).
  • My absolute favorite research paper was Kirk Goldsberry’s creation of the “Range %” number, a statistic which tells us the percentage of spots on the floor where players are effective scorers (defining “effective scorer” as “one point per FGA”). The average NBA player is effective from 17.2% of the 1,284 spots on the floor that Goldsberry measured by breaking the floor into a grid. Even though Tyson Chandler leads the NBA in FG%, he is far below average in Range %, scoring effectively from just 4.3% of the floor (not that anybody thinks Chandler’s high FG% means he is a great shooter). Dubin recaps the top few players in Range %. I was mildly surprised that Steve Nash beat out Ray Allen for the top spot (using data from 2006-2011), but mostly the data confirmed what you would expect in terms of the most comfortable shooters and least comfortable shooters. Key Insight: I can’t express this in terms of a specific recommendation, but Goldsberry’s most immediately applicable contributions are “heat maps” which show exactly where players are effective scores, as well as where they are less effective but still love to try. If I were a coach, I would buy Goldsberry’s technology (he did have a chance to share his methods with Mark Cuban at the end of the conference, so I assume the Mavs will be employing it shortly) and try to get my defense to force opposing scorers to the spots on the floor where they can be coaxed into shooting despite low effectiveness. Similarly, I would design plays that put my players in the best position to score from spots on the floor where they shoot well. It’s not rocket science, but I believe it would work. Isn’t this the kind of thing that Shane Battier has been doing for years? (And where has he been getting his data? Presumably just from video scouting. Goldsberry’s method is more complete.)
  • Best panel of the entire conference in my mind was Saturday’s “Fanalytics” featuring Bill Simmons, Jonathan Kraft, Tim Brosnan (EVP Business, MLB), Nathan Hubbard (CEO of Ticketmaster), and John Walsh (EVP, ESPN). It was supposed to have Mark Cuban on it as well, which would have been even better, but Cubes was running late. The whole thing was about improving the fan experience through technology. This one deserves sub-bullets:
    • The NFL is improving in every possible metric except for fan attendance. Today’s fan needs to be able to use the Internet on mobile devices (for Twitter, fantasy football, live video of other games, etc.) or they won’t come to the game. Mark Cuban doesn’t want people using their cell phones at NBA games, but the NFL recognizes that its whole fan experience model is different because of the pace of the game (frequent stops and starts) as well as the nature of the NFL (everything is happening all at once, on the same day of the week).
    • Kraft: “We’ve spent $2-3 million [to upgrade WiFi infrastructure at Gillette Stadium] in the last couple of years.” He continued, saying that to allow 70,000 people to stream video over WiFi at Gillette would cost “literally tens of millions of dollars.”
    • Simmons asked whether it would be feasible to charge different prices for tickets not just by section, but by individual seat. For example, one section at an NBA game might stretch from the baseline to almost mid-court, and why are those tickets priced the same? I had wondered this, since obviously the technology to price tickets on a seat-by-seat level exists. The answer is that if a fan sees that the guy next to him has a different face value on his ticket, he is likely to get resentful and angry. So they do it by section and live with the fact that this isn’t fully optimized pricing.
    • On the night of the AFC Championship Game, when Kraft wanted to relive Billy Cundiff’s missed FG, he went not to NFL.com, but to YouTube. This is surprising since the NFL maintains strict media rights, and the video was available on NFL.com. Why YouTube? Because a guy sitting in the endzone had the perfect angle to film the kick sailing wide left, and had uploaded the video. It was the best angle Kraft had seen. The lesson regarding NFL media rights and fan-shot video? “You can’t stop it, so you better start learning how to use it.”
    • TicketMaster operates both a primary ticket vendor and a secondary market vendor (TicketsNow), so they can use Omniture (nice shout out for my friends) to analyze ticket re-selling and compare with original sales. According to Hubbard, “Technology is showing us that our tickets are worth more than what we’re selling them for.”
  • Weird recurring theme of the conference was presenters’ inability to pronounce player names. The professionals did not have this problem, but the student researchers did. The two most egregious (and there were others) were the old classic “Da-RON” Williams instead of “DARE-in” and the even-less-excusable Kevin “Dur-ONT” instead of “Dur-ANT.” I mean, Kevin Durant is a top-three player. How can you be presenting on the NBA at a conference of sports nerds and not pronounce his name correctly?

I could keep going, but I need to stop somewhere. Suffice it to say, SSAC was an absolute blast. I can already see myself looking at certain aspects of game action and the sports world at large a little differently, in a good way. As I said to people numerous times during the conference, I will definitely be coming back, even if I have to plunk down my own money to do it. Sports and data, together at last. I think it’s a beautiful thing.

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Day One

It’s time for a different sort of analytics conference. The eMetrics festivities may not start until Monday on the west coast, but 2,200 sports dorks gathered in Boston this weekend to talk about sports analytics in the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

What does this mean? Well, the sports world is full of data. Every dribble in basketball, every pitch in baseball, every snap in football generates new data points that we can analyze to understand the games we love. Last season, the Dallas Mavericks used advanced analysis to determine that their best starting lineup included J.J. Barea. They made the change. . . and won the NBA title. Analytics isn’t just for business anymore. That is what this conference is all about.

I won’t give a travelogue. Instead, some general, brief highlights and observations, from the perspective of a sports fan and digital analyst.

  • I know I just said that the conference is about analyzing the game and the players, but I was surprised at the amount of a.) sports strategy discussion devoid of data, and b.) sports business analytics (e.g., StubHub discussion ticket sales analytics; ESPN, NBC, and others discussing the world of media rights). There really is something for just about everyone.
  • There is a LOT of crossover between digital analytics and sports analytics. Maybe the tools are different, but the principles and challenges are the same. The basketball analytics panel featured a bunch of quotes that could have occurred at eMetrics or Omniture Summit:
    • “There is ‘counting things’ and there is ‘analyzing the things you count.” -Dean Oliver, ESPN Stats & Info
    • “Statistics do two things as a coach: they allow you to figure stuff out, and they allow you to communicate.” Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst and former NBA coach
    • “”A lot of times in analytics, you don’t want to come out with a single number.” -Oliver
    • Oliver also talked about preparing insights for coaches, and said that he used “very few numbers” in these reports, instead translating everything into words that coaches (i.e., executives) could understand.
  • The people at this conference are crazy smart. 73 professional teams and something like 175 colleges are represented. I couldn’t even follow a lot of the math/statistics in the research papers. Unlike some conferences I’ve attended, I was mentally worn out by the end of the day. Great feeling.
  • This conference is a tremendous value. Admission was less than $500, in exchange for which you get to see the greatest minds in sports debate cutting edge strategy and analytics, and they are all accessible. If you ever wanted to ask ESPN’s John Hollinger a question about NBA analytics, this is the place to do it. People like Bill James wander the halls just like anybody else.
  • Jeff Van Gundy was a revelation today. Everything he touched was comedic gold. We’ve become familiar with his wit during the ESPN NBA broadcasts, but he was in fine form today, tossing out sardonic commentary at every opportunity. Everyone I’ve talked to has agreed that we all need more Jeff Van Gundy in our lives.
  • Just a few sports insights and possible recommendations, if you’ll indulge me. The great thing about sports analytics (for me) is that it’s REALLY easy for me to see the kinds of recommendations you might make based on the data.
    • One study of performance under pressure showed that the home team shoots free throws worse than usual in late-game, high-pressure situations, whereas the away team is unaffected. The reason, they hypothesized, is that the crowd tries to avoid distracting its own team in these situations by getting very quiet, which inadvertently allows the player to focus on the action of shooting, causing them to “overthink” the shooting motion. The away team has fans yelling and jumping during their free throws throughout the game, so there’s no real difference. Recommendation: Fans shouldn’t get silent during home team free throws late in the game.
    • Another study took the concept of plus-minus and broke it out by individual skills, making it possible to see how players impact their teams in very specific ways beyond top-level stats. They also demonstrated that some skills are synergistic, meaning that putting two players who excel in a certain area on the floor together make both players (and other team members) better in that area than they would be otherwise. The whole ends up greater than the sum of its parts. Recommendations: Find synergies and build rotations to maximize plus-minus in key areas. For example, put players who create turnovers on the floor together to get even more bonus turnovers.
    • Finally, a study attempted to show the relationship between  experience and playoff success; do teams require experience in order to succeed in the postseason, as is often assumed? The answer was no. Experience does not matter among players. Young teams fare as well in the postseason as experienced teams. However, coaches who have coached in the postseason before perform better in subsequent playoffs. Recommendations: Depending on your team’s situation, consider not overvaluing veteran leadership. Also, look for head coaches who have coached in the postseason (even if they haven’t won titles).

It was a very full day, but tomorrow looks great as well. Time for bed so I can fill my brain with more sports analytics tomorrow.

Dear Google+ enthusiasts. . .

Please stop blaming journalists or measurement firms for the fact that the time spent per visitor numbers on Google+ are so low. You are doing Google a disservice by blowing smoke and telling them that this place is vibrant. I hope they are not listening to you. The folks in Mountain View have done a terrible job marketing Google+ to the world and you need to let them know it. Friends don’t let friends fail to articulate the benefits.

As I understand it, Google aims to own all the world’s data; it wants to use Google+ data to better target ads to consumers. It cannot do that if the only people who are playing here are tech enthusiasts and social media gurus. It needs people of all demographics and psychographics to come, and to stay for a while when they come. Sure, comScore’s panel-based measurement does not represent you. But it does represent people that Google wants and needs to attract. Those people are not sticking. That is a problem for Google (and Google alone) to solve. But you need to remind them.

Some, like Robert Scoble, have said that they would prefer to have Google+ reserved for geeks. On his blog, he wrote,

Google+ is for the passionate users of tech. . . it’s clear Google has turned a corner. They have now proven to everyone that they can do social and get on the playing field.

But they haven’t yet proven that they can convince your mom to use it and that’s just fine with me.

That’s great, Robert. But it’s not fine with Google. It can’t be. When has Google ever been satisfied with a product that only appeals to a niche? Teen bloggers have Google Analytics, and grandparents everywhere have used AdWords. This is the greatest digital advertising platform ever created, and you really think they should be happy with a few thousand actively participating nerds like you and me?

So the latest Wall Street Journal piece, which claims that “Visitors using personal computers spent an average of about three minutes a month on Google+ between September and January, versus six to seven hours on Facebook each month over the same period, according to comScore,” should be welcomed, not discarded.

No, perhaps you are not well represented in the comScore panel data. Your type would certainly bring up the average somewhat. But there is a group of people who are represented in that sample, and they are not giving Google+ a chance. You can discard that data, or you can do even just a little bit of critical thinking and realize that it tells us something really meaningful—that the average user does not understand why he or she should stay on Google+ and revisit it often. They don’t understand the benefit. They are not like you, but they are important to Google if it wants to win at social media.

To you it appears that Google+ is a vibrant community, a “discovery engine” that has introduced you to dozens or hundreds of new friends who have enriched your lives. But you are making a false assumption that, because you like Google+, everyone will (or should) like it. As they say in Pragmatic Marketing and elsewhere, “your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” Unfortunately for you, Google has other aims, and they involve getting all of those people who use Facebook for hours every month to spend some of that time (or some additional time) on Google+.

I know you don’t think that Google and Facebook are competing, and maybe they aren’t. But there are only 24 hours in a day, and Google needs some of those hours. It needs the masses, the sheeple whom you so despise. Otherwise Google+ will not be what Google has intended it to be. It may remain a cute little place for nerdy discussion, but it will lose strategic influence in Mountain View and will become marginalized. I’m sure that is not what you want.

So what do you need to do? Stop worrying about it, because I think Google will figure this out. But, in the mean time, you want journalists to stop saying that Google+ is dead? You want comScore to stop recording data that shows low engagement?

Well, first, stop telling everyone that everything in the world of Google+ is fine. You can be elitist and not see the problem—and just accept that there will be negative reviews—or you can acknowledge the problem and help to change it.

Second, articulate the benefits of Google+ to your friends. Not your nerdy friends, but the guy across the hall or the lady who serves you coffee. Don’t just list a bunch of nifty features. “It has hangouts!” is not a benefit. How does Google+ improve your life? Share that with the people around you.

Slowly, they will begin to adopt it. They will learn tips from you that will help them see why Google+ offers unique benefits. They will download the app to their phones. They will start to tell their friends. I’m sure you can see where I am going with this. The comScore data will literally change, and there won’t be a story for the Wall Street Journal to write.

And maybe Google will do itself a favor and begin to market this thing correctly.

Ten Things Your Vendor Wishes You Did Better

Before joining ESPN, I spent a little over five years at Adobe (formerly Omniture, prior to 2009 acquisition) as an enterprise software vendor. While I had four different titles during those five years, the overall theme of my time there was “customer relations,” as I moved from technical support to community management to product management. I gave a lot of thought to the different kinds of customers I worked with. What made some companies really successful in their interactions with us (and likely with other vendors), while others—using the same products/solutions—struggled to get value out of the relationship?

Anyway, I was honored to be invited to present at Web Analytics Demystified’s first ACCELERATE conference in San Francisco last month. The WAD team thought it might be nice to have me present on ten ways to get more value out of vendor relationships, and I tweaked that slightly, giving it the title “Ten Things Your Vendor Wishes You Did Better.” It was intended to be slightly edgy—hopefully we all realize that there are no perfect software vendors, but I wanted to be clear there are also no perfect clients, and (despite what some conversation out there may suggest) vendors are not actually evil, two-headed, fire-breathing monsters. My goal was to give listeners some points that they could use at they work with their vendors so that both sides of that relationship can benefit and improve together as partners. (As I said when I got to the podium, I am the Dr. Phil of ACCELERATE.)

So here are the ten things that your vendor wishes you did better, with some articulation on each. These are in no particular order, and while they were written to apply to digital analytics (and that is how I will speak of them), they likely carry weight in other types of enterprise software as well.

1. Teach your internal users that not all problems are the vendor’s fault. When I got to ESPN, we had an intern who had just finished doing a survey and holding focus groups to help us understand some of the problems that our internal analytics customers were facing in working with our software solution of choice. One of the themes that emerged was that they were having a hard time finding the reports they needed.

Don't just blame the vendor!It would have been easy for us to lay that on the vendor and complain about the non-intuitiveness of their interface. But my VP wisely pointed out that our vendor gave us the ability to customize the UI nearly five years ago; we simply haven’t taken advantage of that feature. So is that on them? Maybe partially. But it’s also partially on us, and if we make that clear to our users, they will be able to maintain a bit more trust and confidence in the tools that we are providing to them.

Similarly, if your analytics implementation is three years old, don’t immediately complain that your vendor “doesn’t understand your new business initiatives.” They are there to support you, but ultimately your company is responsible for updating your implementation as your strategy changes.

Take some responsibility and hold yourself partially accountable for implementing, maintaining, and supporting the vendor solution. Everyone will look better in the long run if you do so.

2. Don’t be “the client who cried wolf.” A few years ago I worked with a customer for whom every issue was more than critical—it was (they claimed) cause for termination. We ended up in a cycle where they would call in and demand an immediate resolution “or else.” That “or else” also included the promise to publicly embarrass us using social media or any other means available to them.

Your vendor is not your puppetIt is neither wise nor responsible for your vendor to react to every product complaint or feature request in the same way. In other words, if everything is nuclear, nothing is nuclear. And if you keep insisting that everything is nuclear, it becomes difficult for the vendor to discern which issues really are mission-critical, and which are merely important. As a result—somewhat paradoxically, it might seem—you actually risk getting worse service. In the case I just mentioned, I believe we maintained a high level of support, but we certainly did not shift around resources every time we got a phone call from this group. If you act like a bully, expect to be treated like a bully. It’s the only way for vendors to maintain some semblance of order and progress.

There are certainly scenarios where a relationship has deteriorated to the point where it might be time to look elsewhere. Maybe you’re not seeing the value you expect over a long period of time. Just make sure that you don’t play that card unless you really mean it. And if that remains your ace in the hole, it will carry some real weight when you play it, and your vendors will do whatever they can do to see you through to resolution.

3. Share your business with them. I spoke with one Account Manager who said that this was the most important thing that her clients do to help her serve them. A few years ago she was working with a food delivery business. In the course of her conversations with that team, they had explained what they do, and why they are passionate about their brand and their product. They had gotten her into their product catalog.

Your ideal account team on the vendor side—sales, account management, consulting, support, etc.—functions almost as an extension of your own team, right? They are more than just representatives—the people you call when something is broken or when you need to purchase a new product/feature. What better way is there to create an extension of your team than to share with them what you’re trying to do? Help them feel like a part of the team and they will do just that. So tell them what’s going on at your company. Tell them why what you’re doing is neat and how you’re changing the world.

When this Account Manager saw her client’s product catalog, she actually became a customer by purchasing some food for delivery from them. How is that for closing the loop? Now not only does she know what their business goals are, but she has been through their whole site experience, and she is uniquely qualified to offer strategic and tactical advice. That makes her happy, and it certainly helps her client get more out of the relationship.

4. Use the right resource for the question. What would happen if your vendor salesperson sent an important and time-sensitive question about your contract to your Network Operations team instead of to you? There are a few possible outcomes:

  1. Network Operations fumbles around trying to figure out who is the right person to answer the question. The e-mail finally makes it to you, but precious time is wasted.
  2. Network Operations wastes a bunch of their own time and resources to answer the question themselves, when you may have known the answer off the top of your head.
  3. Network Operations assumes they know the answer and fires off a quick (but incorrect) response, creating an awkward situation months later.

To some extent, the same outcomes are possible when you send to your one of your vendor’s product mangers a question that is really ideal for their support team, or when you submit a request for detailed consultation to your account manager instead of to your consultant. It is likely that your account team has specialized roles that are uniquely suited to serve your varying needs. Talk to your Account Manager and find out what resources are available to you all across their company. You can always rely on your Account Manager as a point person, but take advantage of access to people whose roles are uniquely designed to match your differing needs.

There certainly is a time to call product management as opposed to support or sales, but if you can learn whom to contact in various scenarios, you will get faster, more expert care and you will find yourself much less frustrated with the process of getting the answers you so desperately seek.

5. Participate in the community. I know I get a lot of value out of participating in my vendor’s community, but how does it help the vendor serve me?

Smiling community facesFirst, understand that by “community” in this case I am not referring solely to Twitter (although that may be a large part of it). This includes opportunities such as beta testing, customer advisory board participation, and more. When I was at Adobe we launched the Idea Exchange, which allowed customers to share their product enhancement ideas with one another. Not only did that give us, as a vendor, some phenomenal ideas (many of which we implemented), but customers frequently solved each others problems.

And that’s my point: even if all you do is sit on the sidelines and listen—you watch the tweets or the ideas or the forum posts—you will be exposed to some of the forward-thinking solutions that other customers are creating. You will be hip to all of the latest news coming out of your vendor’s headquarters. It’s also a great way to establish relationships outside of your account team. When I operated the @OmnitureCare account on Twitter, I was never part of anyone’s dedicated account team, but the relationships I established through the community allowed me to serve customers efficiently and, often, publicly—to the benefit of casual observers who may have had similar questions.

6. Don’t assume telepathy. My colleague at ESPN once told me, “People think that our vendor should be able to read our minds without us having to tell them what we expect and when we expect it.” What a recipe for disaster!

You hate when people do this to you:

  • “Hey Ben, can you tell me whether our campaign was successful?”
  • “How do our metrics look?”
  • “Did our change to the home page lead to more engagement?”

Vendors are not Dr. X.These are vague questions that are tremendously frustrating to serve. I know that a ton of analysts out there get these questions frequently from their colleagues, because I see the complaints on Twitter. Why do we think that our vendors are any better at reading our minds?

Be clear. You don’t just want an executive dashboard; you need one that has a specific set of KPIs and addresses specific business requirements, and perhaps it needs to look a certain way. Oh, and you need it by a specific date so that you can show it off at your next quarterly department meeting. Even this is too vague, but hopefully you get the point. Hopefully you have smart, talented vendor representatives working with you, but (thankfully?) they are not Miss Cleo. So be as clear with them as you wish people were with you, and they will amaze you a lot more frequently.

7. Hold that periodic call and make it count. This happened all the time: I would field an angry (sometimes borderline violent) complaint from a customer via Twitter. I would talk to the Account Manager to ask what is going with this client, and he or she would (often with a wistful sigh) respond some variation of:

  • “We have a weekly call scheduled, but he never shows up.”
  • “I want to meet with them, but they won’t accept my invites, e-mail, or phone calls.”

Even if you need to yell, hold the callFrankly, as a vendor, I had a hard time mustering up sympathy for an unhappy client who refused to get on the phone with the account team to discuss the relationship every so often. I hope that your vendors are offering some sort of regularly scheduled “check up,” be it weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. More importantly, I hope you are actually engaging with your vendor to make sure that you are both on the same page. If you need to yell at them during the call, so be it. Just make sure you’re having it. Anything is far, far better than nothing.

In an ideal world, this phone call is more than just a discussion about your complaints, product bugs, feature demands, etc. It’s a great opportunity to get your account team involved. Hold them accountable to provide strategic guidance in your use of their products and solutions. Tell them three items of priority to your business, and ask them how this relationship is going to help you achieve those goals during the coming quarter.

I worry that many of the clients I mentioned above—the ones who wouldn’t bother with that scheduled phone call—got in the habit of skipping the call because there were, at some point, no major complaints to address. If there are no showstoppers, why spend the time, right? Wrong. This is your time to really move forward. In most cases, the act of resolving support tickets is not going to change your business as quickly as huddling on your strategy is going to change your business.

8. Understand the reality of resource limitations. This is a true story. Once I was at a basketball game and I tweeted a photo of the court from my seats. I got a response a few minutes later from a client who said—and I know he was mostly kidding because there was a smiley emoticon attached to the tweet—”How dare you attend a basketball game while my bug, #XXXXX, is not resolved!” He may have been mostly kidding, but he was also partially serious.

It would be great if vendors could build everything that we need built, and fix everything that we need fixed, and do it yesterday. This Venn diagram speaks the truthThink 24/7 support, engineering, network, and product staffs spanning the globe and just building, building, building. But it isn’t so, and will never be so.

The reality is that vendors are tasked with looking out over their customer base and their market/industry and determining what needs to get done, and in what order it needs to happen. Sometimes this will be pleasing to you; sometimes it won’t. You will not love every product or feature that they release. That’s okay. Part of their job is to balance your voice with their own interpretation of the future.

It took me a full year in product management to realize that if vendors always build what exactly what their customers are demanding, those customers will never be happy.* The vendor will always end up a step behind because things change so rapidly. We, as customers, ask for the things will help us right now, not necessarily the things we are going to need in a year or two or three.

So do not be upset if a product manager goes to a basketball game. Understand that the world is more complex than the bug you reported, and that the vendor has its own vision and strategy that will hopefully impress you in the long run—even if there are sometimes point releases that make you yawn with boredom.

(* – Note that Cuban is going for high shock factor in the title of his blog post. In reality, listening to customers is critical, and is something that the best vendors do really well. My point is simply that there are also other sources of insight, vision, and innovation which help your vendor make the best decisions.)

9. Prioritize everything. And I do mean everything: support tickets, outstanding questions, bugs, feature requests, consulting projects, and more.

Prioritize everything!This is about expectations. Help your vendor understand what matters most to your business at any given time. This is critical because the list may change frequently. Something that mattered greatly two months ago may have been superseded by a new challenge. Don’t let your vendor go on thinking that the old assignment is still priority number one if it’s not.

This is actually a fantastic opportunity to use data. When I was preparing to move into product management, I asked a developer friend (not with my company) what successful product managers do to help developers. He said, “They bring data. If you can show that Feature X will generate $5 million in profit, or that 80% of customers are demanding Feature Y, it gives our work clear purpose.”

Applied to your interactions with vendors, consider how much easier it is for your account team to understand the priority of a bug fix if they know that you have $400,000 in revenue riding on it. That kind of data helps you prioritize your work, just as it helps your vendor understand just how much their services matter. That makes it much easier for a developer, support agent, or consultant to justify spending an extra few hours getting the issue resolved.

Where I have seen customers prioritize their needs, it has improved their level of service immensely. Account teams and clients are always on the same page, with both groups understanding what needs to be addressed first, and why.

10. Ask! This little list could easily be twice as long, but at 2,685 words and counting, I’ll stop on this point. Every company is different, every vendor is different, and every account team is different, so ask what you can do to help them serve you more effectively. I honestly do not know a single Account Manager who would not appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation, and to discuss how both vendor and customer can get more out of the relationship.

I have seen a number customers who, either intentionally or serendipitously, have applied some of the suggestions that I have discussed here. Are there still hiccups? Certainly. I said up front that no vendor is perfect! But I believe that these customers also understand partnership, and the concept of increasing returns.

So give it a shot; help your vendor help you. Simple concept, worth its weight in ROI.

All photos © ShutterStock

In which I defend the BCS (sort of)

Alabama-LSU

I’m not really defending the BCS, but I knew the title would grab some attention. Nobody defends the BCS.

I’m in favor of a playoff in college football. I also recognize that no system is ever perfect. March Madness snubs deserving teams every season, and some fan base is always up in arms over having to settle for the NIT. Major League Baseball just expanded its postseason field, either ruining the playoffs or suggesting that the previous format wasn’t quite right (depending on your preferences). Someone is always going to feel shafted, and championships don’t always tell us who the best team really is. I agree with my colleague, Mark, who said that the NBA is probably the closest to getting it right of any North American league.

Mad as hellLately, Twitter has been irate over the matchup in the BCS national championship this year. Undefeated LSU (13-0) is playing 11-1 (and SEC non-champion) Alabama. It’s not fair. It’s not fun. Suddenly, friends who hated Rick Reilly a few months ago consider him the peoples’ champion. I respect most of the arguments that I’ve heard against LSU-Alabama II, and I even understand most of them. But I don’t agree with any of them.

(NOTE: This has nothing to do with my feelings about Oklahoma State. I would love to have seen Oklahoma State have a crack at LSU, but not because they “deserve it” more than Alabama. Mostly, I just like Coach Gundy, I think it would be a good matchup, and I’m in favor of anything that might prevent the smug SEC from winning another title.)

What follows is a list of the most common points that I’ve heard against this national championship matchup, with some thoughts in counterpoint. Most of you are probably going to hate what you read. You will sit there foaming at the mouth and wondering how someone as stupid as I am is capable of enjoying sports. That’s fine. Please share your wrath in the comments and I will use them to enhance my self-disapproval. Here goes!

“BCS: Every game counts, except for LSU-Alabama on 11/5/11!”
This argument would make sense, if it weren’t the opposite of the truth. Think about it. It is because Alabama lost by three in overtime that we are even having this conversation. Do you think that we would be talking about the Crimson Tide if they had laid an egg against LSU and been blown out by 40 points? I certainly do not.

In college football, every loss is not created equal. Alabama proved that it belongs right up there with the best team in the nation by coming closer to beating LSU than anyone else. No, your real concern should be that round one of LSU-Alabama counted too much. If anything, people put too much stock in that game as a sign of Alabama’s superiority over everyone other than LSU. If you don’t want to see LSU-Alabama II, you should wish this game counted less.

And the coup de grace: If every game is supposed to count, shouldn’t Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 a mere two weeks ago count, too? It’s easy to ignore that one when making this argument!

“We already saw this game, and it was boring.”
Look, you’re welcome to prefer a shootout, and Oklahoma State can definitely bring the offense. This is a matter of preference, though. Just because you didn’t like LSU-Alabama the first time around doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen again. It means that you didn’t like it. That’s as far as that goes.

Or maybe you just like variety. Variety is cute, but have I mentioned that we’re trying to decide a national championship? It seems backward to force a matchup in the name of variety when there is another matchup that ostensibly makes more sense (#1 versus #2).

I wasn’t bored, and I would watch that game again. That’s my prerogative, just as it is yours is to complain about a close game between the two best teams in the nation. (Sorry, I’ll tone down the passive-aggressiveness.)

“If Alabama wins, the ‘series’ with LSU will be tied, 1-1. We won’t have a clear champion!”
If you win the championship game, you are the champion. This really should not be disputable. You’re trying to say that it’s the entire body of work that makes a champion, which defeats the whole purpose of deciding the championship in a single game.

Rematches happen in championship games all the time in various sports. Why is college football the only one where a regular season game suddenly has the same efficacy as the championship game? To borrow an example that my friend Daniel Nielson used, if North Carolina beats Kentucky in the men’s basketball championship game this coming April, is anyone going to argue that they need a third game to determine which team is better? Absolutely not.

If we’re going to start insisting on tiebreakers, then I want to go back and play one for the 2008 Patriots, who beat the Giants to end their 16-0 regular season before losing to them a month later in the Super Bowl. (And don’t give me any “it’s-different-because-it’s-a-playoff” garbage. If you want to pretend that it’s a series, then be consistent. If “1-1” isn’t decisive enough for you in college football, it isn’t decisive enough anywhere.)

If you win the rematch, you’re the champion. Whatever happens in the final game of the season is what counts.

“Alabama didn’t even win their conference!”
So what? The 2004 Red Sox didn’t even win their division. The 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels didn’t win the ACC tournament. In college football in 2011, is there a rule which stipulates that a national championship game participant must have won its conference? Oh, there isn’t?

“But it’s not fair!” Sure it is. It isn’t against the rules. Nowhere does it say that winning your conference gets you a leg up on the pile. I would be open to discussing just such a rule, but you can’t do it in the middle of the season.

Just be aware that if you institute this rule, it’s possible that you will have #1 playing #3 or even #4—what if the season had ended two weeks ago with LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas ranked #1, #2, and #3 respectively?—in the title game. Maybe you’re okay with that. Maybe you’re not. Either way, it’s something to consider.

Also, consider this: as conferences get larger, the odds of a legitimate contender not winning its conference increases. It simply becomes more likely that a single, massive body of teams making up a super-conference will contain more than one of the best teams in the nation. Maybe we aren’t headed toward the formation of super-conferences, but maybe we are. It’s a side note, but a compelling one.

“Did you even SEE what Oklahoma State did to Oklahoma?!”
I turned it off after Landry Jones’ second fumble, which made it 34-3 Oklahoma State. Yes, it was sheer domination. By my own logic (I weight late-season games far more heavily than early-season games), I have to agree that this outweighs Alabama’s trouncing of Arkansas in September. Oklahoma State was trying to send a message, and it sent one, loud and clear.

Unfortunately for OSU, also fresh in voters minds is a loss to an Iowa State team that finished below .500 in Big 12 play. I feel horrible for the kids at Oklahoma State, but you can’t blow a game (which you led 24-7 in the third quarter) against an utterly mediocre team on November 18 and expect to play for the national title just because you blew out a shaky Oklahoma team, which had been completely exposed by RGIII and Baylor two weeks earlier. The bottom line is that if voters had been sufficiently impressed by the last two weeks of Oklahoma State’s cumulative body of work, they could have voted Oklahoma State ahead of Alabama. They didn’t. In fact, 70% of coaches put Alabama ahead of Oklahoma State. 70%! And most of them had no skin in the game. Troy Calhoun put OSU fifth, and three coaches whose teams are not even remotely close to the championship race put them fourth (in addition to Nick Saban and David Shaw, both of whom obviously stand to benefit from their votes). Blame them if you’d like, but let’s not pretend their ambivalence makes no sense whatsoever.

Oklahoma State’s blowout of Oklahoma was impressive, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a major slip that only happened 15 days prior.

“Alabama had their chance and failed!”
So did Oklahoma State. They failed to Iowa State, and Alabama failed to LSU.

– – –

I’d also like to point out that I’m picking on Oklahoma State because I find them to be the only even remotely compelling alternative to Alabama. Here are two other teams that Rick Reilly suggested, along with reasons he is wrong:

Stanford: Laid the egg against Oregon that Alabama did NOT lay against LSU. Too injured to pose much of a challenge to LSU.

Boise State: To steal another point from Daniel, for how long are we going to allow Boise State to schedule one good-but-not-great big name team in week one and then use that as the only real arrow in their quiver in BCS discussions? It’s wonderful that they beat Georgia, but they really didn’t do anything else worth writing home about. You want to put that in the national championship game? Really?

Everyone else has two losses, except for Houston, and my contempt for Case Keenum and his wildly inflated numbers is well known.

Just so we’re clear, here is what I would like to see out of college football, in order of preference:

1.) Some sort of playoff. It’s time to settle this on the field, not because I believe we’ll ever be able to say conclusively “which team is better,” but to get as close as possible to that point.
2.) Revert to the pre-BCS days when you might have 2-3 bowl games that impact the national championship discussion but you’re often within a #1-versus-#2 matchup
3 through 1,390.) Anything else. Seriously.
1,391.) Stick with the current system.

But this year, we’re stuck with the current system, and the system did what it is supposed to do: it gave us #1 LSU and #2 Alabama.

(Now go ahead and tell me in the comments I’m an idiot. I can take it. To paraphrase Coach Gundy, “COME AFTER ME!! I’M A MAN!! I’M 30!!”)

Analyzing the NBA and college hoops: Not so different after all?

Every basketball season, we can count on a few things: Duke will be a top 10 team, LeBron James will disappoint his fans in the postseason, and basketball lovers everywhere will argue about whether pro basketball or college basketball is superior.

(For the record, I hate this debate. It seems terribly unproductive; if you don’t like college basketball, turn it off. If you hate the NBA, watch something else. This isn’t a standards war; arguing for the NBA doesn’t mean that college basketball will go away, nor does defending the college game impact the NBA in any way.)

Jimmer FredetteHowever, I’ll tell you that I’m a college basketball guy. I love March Madness more than I love the NBA playoffs—there’s no better stage for David-versus-Goliath matchups than the NCAA Tournament. I love the passion of the players and the insanity of the student fans. (You can’t storm the court in the NBA.) I love knowing that at least some of these players are getting educations while playing hoops, and that they walk around campus just like anyone else. I love that you can tune into two teams you’ve never seen before and learn about them and their players, and then weeks later see one of those teams celebrate at center court after punching a ticket to the Big Dance. I love figuring out who is the best of the 346 Division I teams despite the fact that disparities in conference difficulty and the learning curve of college ball make this nearly impossible. (I love that tonight they played a game on the deck of an aircraft carrier while the NBA continued its labor talks.)

But that’s just me.

Here’s why I sat down to write: I started to discuss this topic with Twitter friend @Neildos (who, for the record, is one of the smartest basketball fans I know and happens to prefer the NBA) earlier tonight, and the conversation led me to wonder about the data backing (or not backing) some of the common arguments on the pro-NBA side. One of the standard points against the college game is the terrible shooting and the lack of athleticism compared to the NBA. I won’t debate the second point; the NBA has the benefit of cherry picking the best of the best, which is why someone like Jimmer Fredette, who dominated in college, is expected to struggle to beat NBA point guards offensively (and stay with them defensively).

However, I take some exception to the first point, which is a staple of any anti-college argument. Here’s some data on shooting percentages, all from the 2010-2011 college and NBA seasons:

  • The San Antonio Spurs led the NBA in three-point percentage at 39.7%. Northern Arizona led the NCAA at 42.5%. Limiting our comparison to “major” conference teams (which you’re more likely to see on TV than Northern Arizona), Ohio State led at 41.3%. This is likely due in part to the fact that the college three-point line is three feet closer to the basket.
  • 13 college teams had three-point percentages higher than the Celtics.
  • The median college team (Northwestern State) shot 34.5% from beyond the arc, compared to 35.5% for the median NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers. The worst college team, the Niagara Purple Eagles, shot just 27.5% for three, compared to an NBA low of 31.6% from the Toronto Raptors.
  • Boston led the NBA in field goal percentage at 48.6%. Kansas led college ball at 51.4% Six college teams out-shot the Celtics.
  • The median college teams (most notably Arkansas and tournament darling Florida State) shot 43.6%. The median NBA team, again the 76ers, shot 46.1%.
  • The worst college team from the floor was Alcorn State at just 36.9%, which is terrible. The worst NBA team (Milwaukee) crushed this, coming in at 43.0%.

I started with three-point and field-goal percentages because they’re a better way of analyzing the effectiveness of an offense than raw points per game numbers. That’s especially true when comparing one version of the game which is 48 minutes long, with 24-second shot clocks, to a version which is 40 minutes long with 35-second shot clocks. But perhaps an even better starting point is the Points Per Shot metric, because this blends all three methods of scoring into a simple measure of efficiency: how well are you able to turn shots into points?

  • Denver led the NBA in this category, at 1.33 points per shot. The median teams averaged 1.21, and the last place team (Milwaukee) came in at 1.15.
  • The top college teams annihilated Denver’s 1.33 points per shot. In fact, no fewer than 49 college teams had PPS numbers matching or higher than the Denver Nuggets.
  • In fact, the median college teams, of which there are several, beat the NBA median, coming in at 1.26 points per shot.
  • The worst college teams are far, far worse than the worst NBA teams in this measure. Little USC Upstate registers a 1.04.

A final point of analysis here concerns the complaint that the college game has a 35-second shot clock, which potentially makes each possession up to 11 seconds longer than an NBA possession. In other words, NBA fans hate the pace of the college game. They believe it is too slow. Let’s find out. Keep in mind that the NBA game is 48 minutes, whereas the college game is 40 minutes.

  • The NBA shot clock allows each team a minimum of 60 possessions, assuming that they use every second of every possession, whereas the college game allows 34 possessions. Despite this, NBA teams average about 80 shots per game. College teams average around 54 shots per game. This means that NBA teams use possessions at a rate of 1.33 times the minimum speed. College teams use possessions at a rate of 1.58 times their minimum.
  • What does that mean in real terms? NBA teams, on average, use about 18 seconds per possession. College teams use roughly 22 seconds. Certainly a difference, but not a huge one.

So what do I make of this?

  • The range of offensive skill (i.e., the difference between the best teams and the worst teams) in college basketball is greater than it is in the NBA. This makes sense when you think about games between SEC powerhouses and tiny schools from small towns which often end in scores such as 104-53. This also seems logical when we consider that the NBA is made up of the best college players; even the 12th man on the worst NBA roster was, at worst, a solid contributor in college. This means that, night in and night out, the NBA is “more competitive.” Spreads are smaller.
  • Most importantly, college offense is not nearly as bad as NBA fans would like to believe. There are fewer shots per minute in college due to the longer shot clock (1.4, versus 1.67 in the NBA), but this should not be confused with poor shooting ability. In reality, the average college team misses less than one more shot per game than the median NBA team would miss given the same 40 minute game and a 35-second shot clock. So you can argue that NBA players are more athletic, and you can argue that there is more parity in the NBA, but unless you think you’re going to notice one additional missed shot every game and a half, it’s really unlikely that you’ll notice an actual difference in offensive skill between college and the NBA.
  • This final one is a bit subjective, but having seen the data I believe that the 35-second shot clock is overrated as a detractor from the college game. Yes, college teams spend four more seconds per possession, on average, than NBA teams do. But NBA fans often make it sound like college teams are using all 35 seconds, whereas the NBA gets to the rim immediately. That’s not the case. It’s 22 seconds per shot versus 18 seconds, and that just isn’t significant in my mind.

Ultimately, this is all about preference. Most of the reasons why I prefer college basketball have less to do with the product on the floor than they do with the environment surrounding it. (And it’s not because I come from a college town; Boston generally couldn’t care less about college basketball, and they love their Celtics.) I do enjoy the NBA and there are times when I stop and think how much I love that flavor of basketball, but if I were stuck on a desert island with one brand of ball, I’ll take college and love it. As long as I can take some buffalo wings with me to the island.

Now it’s your turn. Are you an NBA person, or a college basketball person? What draws you to one or the other?

For more on this: