Thursday, January 8, 2015

How basketball is played in the age of analytics

When Daryl Morey [general manager of the Houston Rockets], the mad scientist of analytics, landed Harden in the trade of the decade, he not only got the superstar he coveted, he also acquired the perfect instrument for his basketball laboratory. ...

By now, everyone knows that the Rockets’ offensive philosophy is built around 3s and paint shots; they avoid the midrange the same way Gwyneth Paltrow avoids Quiznos. As this chart shows, they invest heavily around the hoop and behind the 3-point line.

For Houston, even a below-average 3-pointer or paint shot is a better investment than a good shot in Kobe and Byron Scott’s hairy midrange neighborhood. As a result, the team scores a minuscule 6.2 percent of its points in the midrange, and is happy to sacrifice efficiency in its favorite spaces in favor of volume. While Bryant and Scott turn a blind eye toward the newfangled ways of the NBA, Morey and Harden bask in their glow.

A cursory glance at Houston’s shot chart seems to suggest that the Rockets are an inefficient jump-shooting team. That’s technically true, but it’s misleading. Being slightly “inefficient” within an extremely efficient area, it turns out, is better than being efficient inside an inefficient area. Thanks to their lopsided shot distribution, the Rockets remain among the NBA’s top 10 most efficient jump-shooting outfits. ...

The NBA has legislated this brave new hoops world into existence — promoting the worth of the 3-point shot and free throws over other forms of scoring.

For those of us who grew up watching Bird, Magic, and Jordan, there’s an increasing dissonance between what we perceive to be dominant basketball and what actually is dominant basketball. Sometimes the two are aligned, but they seem to be increasingly divergent — and perhaps the most tragic analytical realization is that the league’s rapidly growing 3-point economy has inherently downgraded some of the sport’s most aesthetically beautiful skill sets. You can’t be Bernard King or Alex English, bobbing and weaving into space on the elbow or along the baseline, anymore. Hell, it’s hard to even be LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Jefferson. The Chris Boshes and Serge Ibakas of the world, once forever camped out in the post, now stray beyond the arc. That unassuming curved line has forever changed the NBA. For every graying Garnett, Duncan, or Kobe, lugging their 2-point jumpers toward the exit, there’s an upstart Harden or Love hanging out behind the 3-point line.
--Kirk Goldsberry, Grantland, on the future of basketball