Welcome to Smarter Basketball

The rise of big data is pitting the old school against the new school as the NBA undergoes its analytics revolution.

Ronald Martinez / AP

On Thursday, 60 of basketball’s most talented prospects will realize a lifelong dream when the NBA conducts its annual draft. Karl-Anthony Towns, the Kentucky University center, has been heavily rumored to be the number one pick, but after that, it’s a bit up in the air. Among the potential picks: Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Kristaps Porzingis, a versatile 7 foot 1, 19-year-old Latvian who’s as lean as he is skilled. Regardless of who ends up where, this high-potential group will be entering a league that’s undergone a major transformation in the past few years. And it’s a revolution that’s indisputably linked to the NBA’s growing, but controversial, reliance on data to measure a team’s likelihood of winning—a phenomenon vaguely defined as “analytics.”

Once, the dominant way of judging how well a player or team would perform was the “eye-test”—the organic, gut-instinct impression that came simply from watching a game unfold. But that time has been replaced by an era in which coaches and their backroom staff pore over formulas and figures—how many mid-range jump shots a team uses versus attempts near the hoop, or how many three-point shots versus two-pointers—to predict the most effective methods for winning. While some doubt the importance of the shift, there are still coaches and legends of the sport who reject the practice of analytics and are leery of how number-crunching will fundamentally change the sport.

Last week’s NBA Finals may have offered the naysayers the strongest evidence yet that analytics does, in fact work, that it’s become an entrenched part of basketball today, and that it will remain so for some time. The most-watched Finals since the age of Michael Jordan ended with victory for the Golden State Warriors over the Cleveland Cavaliers—both of which are teams that have heavily incorporated data analysis into how they play the game. The playoffs were yet another clear indicator that if teams want to win, they’d do best to ignore the likes of detractors such as Charles Barkley, who infamously went on a rant against the approach in January on Inside The NBA. (“Smart guys wanted to fit in so they made up a term called ‘analytics.’”)

There’s proof of the benefits of more advanced analysis beyond the success of the Warriors and Cavaliers. The Houston Rockets—led by general manager and analytics buff Daryl Morey—are renowned for their use of data. The team rarely shoots long-range two-point jumpshots, as they believe it to be one of the worst strategies in basketball. And their reasoning makes sense: The shots are too far away from the rim to be rendered a high-probability scoring opportunity, yet not far enough—as in behind the three-point line—for the risk to be rewarded with an extra point. This ideology, backed up by mountains of data, is a prime example of analytics at work. The Rockets were successful despite an injury-plagued season losing in the Western Conference finals to the Warriors. They also set the all-time record for made three-pointers in a season, with 894 this year.

While the movement to employ more sophisticated metrics has been in motion for some time, the turning point could perhaps be pegged as 2013—the year the NBA installed player-tracking systems in all 29 of its arenas. This was a watershed moment for the league: Every micro-movement on the court could now be tracked, quantified, and eventually archived. No longer could a player “hide” his deficiencies on the court. Coaches, their assistants, and the data-crunching backroom staff now had far more knowledge about players’ tendencies, and how certain groups of players work together than ever before. This has lead to a re-imagining of what matters in basketball and thus, a shift in the paradigm of player evaluation.

Take for instance “volume scorers,” or players who traditionally take a lot of shots and score a lot of points, but don’t add much value in terms of defense, rebounding, or assists, among other things. In the past, such single-minded players escaped media scrutiny by putting up impressive raw-scoring numbers, even though they were sub-par in other facets of the game. Today, those types of players are maligned for their lack of overall impact. Even stars like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have been criticized for their excessive shooting. This current shift isn’t simply due to some yearning for more team-oriented, inclusive strategies. Instead, the nouveau-NBA has moved toward “efficiency” being the dominant theme. No longer is it about raw totals as much as it’s about weighing the impact of each action. This has in turn affected how teams score.

This January, for the first time ever the NBA saw more three-point shot attempts than free throws in a single month.

Free Throws Versus Three-Point shots, by Month Since 1997

Harkening back to the Houston Rockets’s ethos, there’s been a league-wide shift from the two-point to the three-point shot over the years. And it’s a change that’s had tangible consequences for those who deny its reality. At the beginning of this recently completed season, the Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott, said that he would be eliminating a reliance on three pointers from the Lakers’ strategy. It was a move rightly condemned at the time as archaic—perhaps proven by the fact that the Lakers went on to finish this campaign with the worst record in franchise history. Of course, season-ending injuries to Kobe Bryant and rookie Julius Randle played a role in their dismal season, but completely divorcing their performance from that anti-three ideology would be granting Scott far too much of a pass. On the flip side, the 2015 Championship-winning Warriors were the league’s best three-point shooting team during the regular season. It’s almost impossible to disregard the success and importance of the three-point shot today: The last five teams remaining in the recently completed Playoffs were the five best three-point shooting teams during the regular season.

Casual fans who got wrapped up in the Finals would have noticed the long-range shooting prowess of Stephen Curry, who in his short six-year-career has become arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history. Curry’s father, Dell Curry, an NBA veteran of 16 years, was a three-point expert himself. But Curry’s skills are less the product of fatherly advice or genetics, and more the outcome of a cultural shift. Curry, now 27, grew up in an era where the shot became regarded as a more-integral facet of a player’s repertoire—not a just an unnecessary luxury, but a prized skill.

The three-point shot, which more than anything else defines the shift to analytics in the NBA, has come a long way from its rocky origins. Initially introduced in the now-defunct competitor to the NBA, the ABA, in 1967, the three-pointer was finally adopted after the two leagues merged 12 years later, to the chagrin of many basketball purists who deemed it gimmicky. Since they were never trained to make the longer-distance, higher-reward shot, most players ignored the three-point line and continued to play the game the old way, clogging the paint in an attempt to get to the basket.

But, with time, the shot caught on. Eventually, three-point specialists abounded, and the game began to change. In 1982, Larry Bird led the league in three-point shooting with 90 shots made over the course of the 82-game season. This year, Curry beat his own record, racking up 286 three-point shots over the season and more than tripling Bird’s exploits. In fact, Curry actually dominates this list, a feat achieved all in the last few years.

Most Three-Point Shots Made in a Single Season

A graphic posted during ABC’s broadcast of the finals showed how far ahead of his peers Curry is. Curry has already made more three pointers during these Playoffs than the entire NBA did in 1980.

Curry would finish the Playoffs with 98 made 3-pointers, the most ever in a single Playoff season and 30 ahead of second place Reggie Miller. (ABC)

Beyond giving rise to the three-pointer, analytics has also caused the casual fan to rethink and give long-overdue attention to the defensive side of the sport. Though people have always understood defense as important, it’s typically existed in the shadows of offense, which is easier to market and more exciting for the average viewer. This change to a heavier emphasis on defense has been relatively recent, but as Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry told me, “Basketball is looking for the next challenge, and it’s obviously defense. Thanks to emerging data we can be smarter in terms of how we characterize overall basketball.”

A recent piece by Goldsberry offered groundbreaking evidence, based on a study he completed along with two Harvard Ph.D. students Andrew Miller and Alexander Franks, showing that for decades, defensive analysis has been largely anecdotal at best. While the statistical revolution on the offensive side has been a natural progression, on the oft-ignored defensive side of the ball it’s been an afterthought, until now. “Defense is literally half the game,” said Goldsberry, who added that players should be paid based on their ability to do both. “Unfortunately for the past dozens of years we’ve seen a huge imbalance in basketball towards the offensive end and part of it is because it’s hard to track defense.”

Now that we can quantify what had previously been intangible, players like Channing Frye and the recently retired Shane Battier are receiving praise for their versatility—something that wouldn’t have happened before analytics. It’s also why guys like the Warriors’ Draymond Green, who are adaptable and effective, are now so highly sought after throughout the league.

So after considering all this, why are so many—mostly older—NBA figures like Barkley still so opposed to the arrival of the data-driven NBA? For one, many played, and succeeded, at a time when analytics was in its infancy and most critical thinking around a player's impact on the court revolved around simpler, more straightforward metrics. As Stephen Shea, a professor who teaches analytics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, told me, “It’s not shocking at all to see individuals who are highly successful in the NBA want to hold onto their way of doing things.” Indeed, Barkley’s era with—replete with its slower pace and emphasis on the individual over the team—has come and gone. Today’s NBA has evolved, partly due to rule changes that facilitate scoring, as well as a more organic maturing of strategy.

That said, whatever danger analytics might pose exists on a sliding scale. The worry is two-fold: that proponents of analytics often appear blindly devoted to proving their data’s legitimacy, and that a league-wide dependence on analytics could render the sport somewhat robotic.

For example, Sam Hinkie, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, has been heavily criticized for taking a cynical approach to the sport. Hinkie’s main goal is to avoid “NBA purgatory” (essentially that middle ground between bad and the best.) If your team isn’t great enough to challenge for a championship each season, and is merely average, that’s the worst position to be in. For Hinkie, it’s far better to be last place and get a top draft pick (the NBA rewards the worst teams each season with the chance to select the best prospects the following year). Thus, Hinkie has purposely lost games the past few seasons in order to stockpile good young talent. Of course, his approach is hardly foolproof, since banking on potential is a somewhat rocky foundation, and many critics are convinced that he’s too smart for his own good.

On the court, the concern is what happens when everything is so scrupulously evaluated to the point that the best outcome is always predetermined. What happens when every team is employing the same strategies deemed to be the most effective? Does it take all the unpredictability—the magic—out of the sport?

Likely not. Basketball—like most team sports—is a fluid entity that melds and ultimately changes with the times. The three-pointer obsession the league currently has will eventually give way to something else, as defenses adjust and adapt accordingly. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe pointed out recently, the ubiquity of the three-point shot has inadvertently re-opened space for the post-up game, a prominent strategy in the ‘90s that’s rarely used today.

Goldsberry, like many other fans, only sees analytics improving basketball. “People say that analytics are taking the fun out of it, I think the NBA is in a better position now than it’s ever been,” Goldsberry said. “The league is more analytic ... and I think more aesthetically pleasing, than ever before.”