Who's the most clutch player in the NBA? It's the source of thousands of bar-stool and barbershop arguments. And it's the sort of subjective, hard-to-quantify question that will never really get resolved. Right?
Most basketball fans probably aren't the type to spend time voluntarily poring over a spreadsheet — but what if that spreadsheet could tell you that the Brooklyn Nets' Joe Johnson really is "Joe Jesus"? (You don't always feel his presence when you call on him, but he's always there when you really need him.)
You see, with his team trailing by three or fewer points and less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, Johnson is a remarkable 11 for 15 the past two years. Need a late three? Portland's Damian Lillard is 3 for 4 from long-range at the end of close games this season.
Or, say, you're wondering if Pacer Roy Hibbert is really the rim defender he's chalked up to be. You could look at his high block totals — or you could just as easily find that he's the No. 3 center in the NBA at limiting opponents' field goal percentage near the rim.
These are the sort of advanced statistics that fans are used to seeing once or twice during a broadcast, or maybe during the occasional SportsCenter feature. But now they're about as easy to find as a team's win-loss record.
The NBA didn't invent advanced stats, but it's the first pro league to truly embrace them. Visit stats.nba.com and you'll see true shooting percentage — which factors in three pointers and free throws — right along with traditional scoring figures.
Compare that with baseball, where terms like WHIP and WAR have divided the game's followers over the past few years. Visitors to the MLB's stats page find the league's leaders in batting average, home runs, and RBI — the same numbers that have dominated for nearly a century — with limited ability to sort game scenarios.
For baseball's stats believers, baseball-reference.com is the website of choice. Like the NBA's site, it provides nearly infinite sortable categories and factors in things like ballpark size. Media outlets like Grantland and Deadspin have made great use of numbers and charts to analyze the NFL (care to know how playing in the cold affects refs' tendency to call penalties?).
But the NBA doesn't want to lose its stats nerds to outside websites (although Kirk Goldsberry is certainly doing his part to bring them to Grantland). And what better way to keep them than by giving them access to volumes of information that team executives didn't even possess a few years ago?
The strategy seems to be working. Traffic to the league's stats page, says the NBA's John Acunto, is up 70 percent this year, while unique visits are up 75 percent. International viewers are driving a majority of the NBA's traffic; perhaps it's not a coincidence that SAP — whose HANA platform the NBA uses to crunch its numbers — is looking at European soccer as the next testing ground for its stat-tracking system.
Since last November, the NBA and SAP have quantified everything — almost literally everything — that happens during a basketball game. For example, thanks to six cameras in the rafters tracking his every move, the NBA can tell you that John Wall runs 2.5 miles during the course of the average game. Or that Patty Mills, at 4.8 mph, is the league's most-active player when he's on the court.
Want to know who scores the most points off pull-up jumpers? Well, you probably knew it was Stephen Curry, but now you can tell your friends his 10.4 pull-up points per game are nearly two higher than the next-closest scorer, Chris Paul. As for Paul, the 25.3 points scored off his assists per game are nearly five clear of the next-highest point guard. He even leads in "hockey assists" (a pass that sets up another pass that leads to a score).
Or what about rebounding? The most basic box score can tell you how many boards a player hauled in, but now you can see how many more were nearly within his grasp. Kevin Durant, known for his offensive prowess, is surprisingly also the best at grabbing missed shots that fall in his vicinity.
But even the most advanced of stats won't hook everyone. Fans — even the nerds — watch the game for its visual spectacle. And now the NBA's visuals are more accessible than perhaps any other sport. Click a box score on the NBA's stats page and you'll find video for nearly every category.
Want to watch all seven of J.J. Redick's three pointers from Tuesday? Easy: Just click the "7" on the stat sheet. Or perhaps you heard about Dwyane Wade's near-full-court alley-oop to LeBron James that night. Just click through Wade's assists or James's field goals and you'll find it in seconds. If rebounds really get you going, just find Kevin Love's Dec. 22 game against the Clippers and watch him haul down 19, one right after the other. You can even watch Dwight Howard miss 14 free throws, if that's your thing.
Sure, many fans will never embrace data, preferring to rely on "grit," "intangibles," or "the eyeball test." But for its increasing amounts of number-crunching fans, the NBA wants to provide more stats than they can possibly wrap their heads around — and keep them coming back to settle the latest argument with their friends.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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