Tag Archive for nba

Good GM, Bad GM: Late Bloomers and Draft Prowess

I don’t expect to receive an answer to this question since I know there only three of you out there reading my blog, but I’m going to ask it anyway.

Let’s say you’re evaluating an NBA GM’s drafting/scouting ability. Should he get credit for picks who ultimately turned into solid players, but did so only after leaving the team that drafted them? Take, for example, Kris Humphries. I know you think he’s overpaid, but don’t forget that after his two seasons with the Jazz, everyone believed he was a total bust. He notched just 0.1 total Win Shares during his first two seasons in the NBA. But fast forward a few seasons and Humphries has tallied a totally respectable 10.7 Win Shares while averaging a double-double over his past two seasons with the Nets. So should Kevin O’Connor get credit for drafting Humphries, a serviceable NBA starter, even though the Utah Jazz never benefited directly from that pick?

This is vaguely similar to questions digital marketers face around multi-touch attribution. If a user arrives at your site by clicking a paid search link in Google but does not purchase, and then a month later arrives at your site by typing your address into his browser and this time he does purchase, should that original paid search click-through get credit? If so, how much? It’s a little different because most NBA players would have been drafted eventually anyway; if Kevin O’Connor hadn’t picked Humphries, someone else would have, and we’d be wondering whether that person deserves credit.

I can see arguments both ways. A GM who picks a player who only pans out later in his career might have correctly read the player’s potential, and we should reward that GM for his vision. But a GM’s job is to deliver concrete wins to his team via the draft, and a late bloomer does not help his cause. In case anyone is out there reading, leave me a comment: what do you think?

Pickup Basketball Purism

I tweeted about this last night, but 140 characters just wasn’t enough for me to state my case regarding the scoring in pickup basketball. (I only tackle the really important issues on this blog.)

pickup basketballI love pickup basketball. In fact, the widespread availability of pickup basketball is one of the best reasons to live in Utah. Not only do we have YMCA-like fitness centers in every town, but on any given weeknight or weekday morning there is an 87.9% chance that there are four churches where guys are playing ball within a one-mile radius of any given location along the Wasatch Front. I love that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 6:00 AM I drive for two minutes and I’m at basketball. Same thing on Thursday nights. Oh, and sometimes I play during lunch at work. (Despite all of this, I’m pretty terrible.)

What I don’t love is keeping score by 1s and 2s. You know, what would normally be a two-point field goal in high school, college, NBA, or really any organized form of basketball becomes a one-pointer, and a three-pointer counts for two.

Here’s my argument:

  1. Basketball—real basketball—has what I consider to be a fairly simple scoring system. If it were, say, pickup figure skating, or even pickup tennis, I could see wanting to simplify the score-keeping. But honestly, how hard is it to credit each team with two points for any basket inside the three-point line, and three points for any basket outside it? Am I missing something here?
  2. More importantly, counting by 1s and 2s fundamentally changes the game. By making a three-pointer worth twice as much as a two, instead of 1.5x, you’re possibly incenting people to play outside; you’re giving them a good reason to play bad (i.e., not very fun) basketball. When a three is a three and a two is a two, the upside of jacking up a bunch of threes probably doesn’t outweigh the upside of good ball movement and working for a decent shot inside. But when you’re counting by 1s and 2s, suddenly it might make more sense to play three or four guys around the arc and hoist up three point tries all game. Three-pointer after three-pointer is great for the shooter(s) when he’s hitting. . . and completely annoying for everyone else. Everyone hates the guy who brings the ball up the floor and then calls his own number by pulling up for a three. I’m not saying people consciously decide to play differently when counting by 1s and 2s, but the possibility is there (and it doesn’t need to be; see point #1).
  3. Along these same lines, remember, there are no free throws in pickup basketball, so even if you’re counting by 2s and 3s in a pickup game, the incentive to shoot a lot of threes is already higher than it is in organized basketball. Let’s say I’m an NBA player who shoots 50% generally from inside the three-point arc and 40% outside of it. Some fans look at this and say, 40% * 10 three-point tries = 12 points and 50% * 10 two-point tries is = 10 points, so shouldn’t you always take the three? The answer is no, primarily because this faulty analysis ignores the fact that in organized basketball you are far more likely to get fouled and produce valuable free throws when shooting inside the three-point line (driving to the basket or helping to create shots for teammates), so your two-point tries are more valuable than they seem on the face of it. The possibility of creating free throws does not exist in pickup basketball, whether you’re counting by 1s and 2s or whether you’re counting by 2s and 3s, so you’re already more incentivized to play outside than you normally would be; why make things even worse by increasing the value of a three-pointer unnecessarily?

As you can tell, I’ve given this some thought. And maybe that’s because I’m too much of a purist; the NBA and college ball have been playing with 2s and 3s since the early 1980s, and the ABA had it even earlier. It just seems silly to change something that works so well.

So now I am counting on you, all three of my blog readers (hi mom!), to tell me what I’m missing. Who invented counting by 1s and 2s and why did they do it? Do you have a preference and why? Did I miss something important?

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!

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?

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