How Statistics Have Affected the NBA Essay Example

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  • Published: 22 August 2020
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As a young child before elementary school every day, I would watch Entertainment and Sports Programming Network also known as ESPN. My favorite anchor Stuart Scott entertained me every morning as my dad would either be coming home or leaving for work. ESPN showed highlights of all the sports that happened yesterday that I missed either because I was put to bed or was in school and only had a flip phone. After the highlights ended and they showed who won the game they would show the statistics for each player and for each team. At that time my favorite team was the Boston Celtics and their best player was Kevin Garnett. He went to high school in Illinois and was named the Illinois basketball player of the year. He was mostly my favorite player because our birthdays are close together, his birthday is May 17th and mine is May 21st. 

The announcers always talked highly of him as a player and a defender. The announcer would always say “Once again Garnett doing the dirty work”.  This saying was how announcers told fans that the actions this player just did would not go on the stat sheet, but would help their team win the game. After the show, I always went onto my mom’s computer to look at his stats compared to his teammates and they would never be as good. Ever since I have been a kid I have been fascinated with how important stats are to basketball and how they have changed the nature of the National Basketball Association (NBA). This attraction to statistics as a child made me wonder how statistics have affected The National Basketball Association? 

After researching statistics in the NBA it showed that states have affected every section of the NBA since their beginning. In order to understand statistics in this essay, one must define statistics as figures that players produce while they are on the basketball court. These figures often resemble points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Points are when a player puts the ball in the basket, a rebound is when a player grabs a missed shot, an assist is when a player passes the ball to a teammate who then scores, a steal is when a player takes the ball away from a player on the opposing team, and a block is when an opponent shoots the and it is hot out of the air making it unable to go into the basket. These stats are known as “basic” statistics. This type of stats is barely mentioned by coaches and scouts due to its inability to show how good a player actually is compared to his peers. For this essay, the word stats refers to “advanced” statistics. 

Advanced statistics calculate a player's basic statistics over a certain amount of minutes or possessions played instead of just a raw number. This is due to the raw number’s inability to account for playing more than another player. Analysts often describe it by giving a person two options. Option one is a player who scores 30 points while playing 48 minutes or option 2 who scored 20 points in 15 minutes. Basic stats would show you that option scored more points, but advanced stats show you that option 2 scored the points more efficiently making him the better player. Due to statistics playing a role in all aspects of basketball from upper management to players on the court this essay will capture how statistics have affected scouting and coaching philosophies. These two overarching topics fit well because coaches can draft, trade, and sign players in free agency to fit their specified system. 

Drafting, trading, and signing are the three ways a coach can build a team around his philosophy. Drafting is when a team selects a college basketball to join their team the next year, trading is when they swap players with another team and signing is when a player who is not apart of a team decides to join their team for the upcoming season. Coaches look towards statistics to help them find players that fit their system.

The origin of coaches using statistics to find players that fit their philosophies started in baseball in the early 2000s. The man that started this revolution was Billy Beane at the time he was the general manager (GM), an executive in a sports team that looks over the players and financial aspects of the organization. Beane’s revolutionary ideas to use statistics become a best selling book and movie called “Moneyball”. Leigh Steinberg who has been a sports agent for baseball, basketball, and football players for the past 40 years was the has been the agent for Dusty Baker, John Starks, and Steve Young wrote an article detailing the begging of analytics in sports and how technology has changed the ability to obtain these statistics stated, “The 2003 book "Moneyball," by Michael Lewis, chronicled Beane’s use of sabermetrics to discover the secret to success in the oftentimes unfair and imperfect science of baseball player evaluation. 

This was the first known use of prioritization of statistics and data to make personnel decisions in professional sports”. Beane’s vision of using stats to create a team and find value in high school, college, and other professionals baseball players was radical. Beane went against not only his scout's experiences, but common assumptions of height, weight, speed, and other usual factors to determine the value of a player. Beane had to make these changes to the Oakland Athletics due to the Athletics own challenges as an organization. The goal of every team is to win a championship, but each team also needs to bring in revenue to be able to pay their players. 

The Athletics do not bring in the same amount of revenue each year as “big market” teams such as the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Socks, or the Chicago Cubs. A “big market” is a city that not only has a decently sized population, but the people are also passionate about sports. Oakland struggles to fill their baseball stadium due to a low population as well as low passion towards baseball, consequently, they are unable to bring in revenue anywhere near what other baseball teams. Beane recognized this problem and came up with a solution that involved using player statistics to create a winning team at a lower price. His system of using analytics was a success, the Athletics made the American League Playoffs, a system the major league baseball uses to find out which team is actually the best that season, numerous times while Beane was manager due to his revolutionary ways of scouting for value and talent in baseball.

Due to Beane’s success with the Athletic’s, many small market teams in all sports copied his idea. Two teams that took his idea in different directions are the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. NBA teams have found different ways to collect this data to use. An article about the technology behind statistics it stated, “NBA teams are now using a form of a technology called ‘Player Tracking,’ which evaluates the efficiency of a team by an analysis of player movement” (Steinberg). This revolutionary system called “Player Tracking” makes it possible for teams to record players actions on the basketball court allowing them to electronically obtain the statistics of each player. 

This technology gives teams valuable information on specific players statistics while playing. In particular, the statistics coaches often look at are Player Efficiency Rating (PER),  Offensive Win Shares (OWS), Defensive Win Shares (DWS), Win Shares (WS), and Value Over Replacement (VOR). PER is often viewed as the most important of any statistic because it is an equation that adds up the positive actions on a basketball court and subtracts all negative actions. Some positive actions include scoring, passing, and rebounding whereas committing a foul, turnover or just playing bad defense are negative actions. Once all of these actions are summed up they are divided by the number of minutes played by the specific player. The value that comes out is important because a player that plays more minutes is negatively affected by this creating an equal playing field for all players. This is why PER is used by all teams professional and collegiate to make decisions on who to pay and who to sign. 

Ryan Kenyon who has been taking stats for the Notre Dame Women’s College basketball team for two years said, “The PER give a coach a specific value for a player while they are on the floor.” The specific value allows coaches to know what players to try to get on the floor. Coaches need this information because players get fatigued while on the floor, so knowing a player’s PER allows a coach to substitute, a player replaces another player on the court, in the correct players to try and win the game.

The higher the PER usually the better the player, however, there are some cases where PER is not a good metric to scout a player. This is why there are other important statistics NBA scouts, coaches, and GMs use to evaluate future talent. These statistics are OWS, DWS, WS, and VOR  all of these statistics are used, but different NBA teams prioritize them differently. This is extremely evident by the way the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs. These two teams use and prioritize metrics in completely different ways to evaluate players. This differentiation in using matrices has created almost a divide in the NBA. Teams either deem offense or defense as more import of a statistical category. 

The Houston Rockets deem offense as a vital part of winning an NBA championship because of their coach Mike D’Antoni’s unique philosophy. Scott Davis who has been writing about basketball since 2014 for Business Insider has covered all aspects of basketball from free agency to different philosophies of coaches. Davis was writing about how Mike D’Antoni changed basketball with his style of offense and stated, “D'Antoni has emphasized up-tempo offenses that rely on a heavy dose of three-pointers while playing smaller lineups”. D’Antoni’s new ideas changed how he perceived statistics.

He no longer cared for “basic” stats that NBA scouts have been acquiring in the NBA combine for years. Joe Eismann has been a professor, researcher and sports scientist for 25 years. He has had specialized coaching and training towards basketball due to him being a conditioning coach. Eismann was explaining what the NBA combine was in his article and stated, “College basketball players are invited to participate in the multi-day protocol that includes: physical measurements, athletic tests, medical exams, interviews, shooting drills, small-sided drills (fast-breaks, weaves, three-on-three), and five-on-five drills and scrimmages in front of NBA coaches, general managers, and scouts”. 

D’Antonio does expend a lot of time and effort into the combine. He looks at metrics like OWS and VOR. OWS shows how much value one player adds to their team while on offense. Analysts created an equation to find a specific player's OWS value by dividing marginal offense (points produced times league points per possession times offensive possessions) by marginal points per win (league points per game times team pace divided by league pace). This equation would produce a number ranging between 15 for the best players and -10 for the worst. D’Antoni is known for drafting, trading or signing players with a high OWS. He did this recently in 2017 when he signed point guard Chris Paul who has an OWS of 9.02 for his career. A 9.02 career OWS is among some of the best all-time for point guards and one of the best right now in the NBA. 

Beyond showing how effective a player is at offense OWS displays a player’s ability to help their teammates. The equation uses points produced which totals points scored and points assisted with a few other factors one contributes while playing offense. A player with a high OWS in not only a good scorer but a valued member on the offensive end of the floor. D’Antoni’s philosophy is centered around players with a high OWS due to his team's willingness to shoot as soon as they find an open shot. This often leads to his teams scoring a lot of points, but his teams also give up a lot of points. D’Antoni trades defensive proficiency to obtain a better offensive. He believes that his high tempo offense will outscore the other team leading them to win more games. 

Due to this belief, he uses metrics that favor offensive efficiency to find players that would fit his unique system. D’Antoni’s belief of playing offense by taking a lot of shots especially three-pointers, a three-pointer is a shot worth three points instead of the regular two points, made true shooting percentage (TS%) much more valuable than it was before. This led D’Antonio to stop looking at field goal percentage (FG%), this is a measurement of a player's shots taken compared to shots made, and look at TS%. As stats have grown in popularity a website was created a website “Basketball Reference” to help explain sports to incoming fans as well giving in-depth statistics to the most passionate of fans. The main author of the website Sean Lahman has been around sports statistics his entire life and has been reporting for USA Today and was a part of the creation of many different sports statistical books. 

The definition of “Basketball Reference” for TS% is, “A measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws”. The reason why D’Antoni cares about TS% is that it is a better measurement of a player's efficiency.  A three-pointer is worth more than a two-pointer which makes it more valuable of a shot however it is riskier because players have to shoot from farther which leads to a lower percent chance for it to go in. TS% roughly multiplies their three-point percentage by 1.5 due to three being worth one and a half times more than a two. D’Antoni knows this and uses this percentage to find value in players that shoot three very often. This modern statistic that was created to find value in three-point shooters. D’Antoni finds efficient scorers for his system by using this advanced metric. 

Another advanced statistic created is Value Over Replacement (VOR) because of its ability to find players that are irreplaceable on a team. VOR is an equation to show how one player is better or worse a player who could replace them. VOR measures how many possessions, times the team has the ball on offense, a player generates over what is average for the NBA. Once two or more players have their VOR they can compare them against each other to see who is actually more valuable. Every NBA team uses VOR because more possessions equal more points and more points equal more wins, but beyond just possession, the nuance of VOR lends itself to be used in even more ways. 

VOR calculates possessions gained on offense and defense, so teams often look at specific stats within VOR to find value in players. A team that is bad at rebounding, grabbing a missed shot, may not look at only rebounds per game (RPG), the number of rebounds a player collects in one game, but the VOR of their rebounding specifically. VOR improves a team’s ability to make decisions on future players to draft, trade, or sign. VOR is used on draft day to help distinguish certain players as better than others. Ben Alamar the director of production Analytics for ESPN and has worked for NBA and NFL teams analytics stated, “The value of analytics is not all of the fancy math needed to turn the data into information, but rather the productive use of that new information in decision-making”. 

The smallest of decisions in sports can either win a championship or doom one's team to a decade of losing. Analytics provide an edge for any team who uses them correctly because there is no emotional connection to a player through stats. Coaches can compare players statistics to make decisions leaving out emotions and other parts of decision making that often lead to worse picks in the NBA. Scouts and analysts say decisions made based on emotion are ill-advised and lead to disaster as an organization. They believe this because every player being drafted has been scouted and been given values. These values show a players productivity, to them if someone goes against these stats they are going against logic. Analysts believe that with new advanced metrics teas will be able to have better selections when it comes to drafting.

The NBA obtains much of the statistics used at the NBA combine. If a collegiate player decides to go to the NBA they may be invited to the NBA combine. The NBA selects the best 60 college basketball players to attend. The combine is where scouts and NBA management test players' abilities to see how they compare with their peers. Some of the most important measurements at the combine are height, arm span, weight, 40-yard dash, and vertical. These stats are collected and used as data points to compare with players already in the NBA. Many teams use these statistics to try to find the next LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Derrick Rose. Teams use every possible resource to find these college or high school talents to boost their team. Mark Sleig a writer for the Washington Post who has written numerous articles on the NBA and the NBA draft. In an article about the draft, Sleig described to what extent teams go to find an advantage. 

The Sacramento Kings posted on a Reddit blog, a website that people can give their opinions on any topic to the world, asking for all analysts to help them figure out who to draft. The reason why every NBA team cares about the draft is the belief that they have a chance to find the next generational talent. In recent history, the team that has found the most success in the NBA draft is the San Antonio Spurs. Their coach Greg Popovich is unbelievable at finding talent that no one else sees in players. The Spurs have made the playoffs, at the end of the season the teams with the most wins play each other in a tournament to see who is the best team similar to the MLB, every season over the past 20 years and won the championship 5 times.

Due to their success, the Spurs often draft players at the end of the first and second round. Some examples of this talent are; Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and more recently Derrick White. The first three players named all have an extremely high likelihood of joining the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Basketball Hall of Fame is a place that enshrines the greatest basketball players ever so they can be remembered throughout history. Popovich is known for finding these talents at the end of the draft by looking at their defensive statistics.

Popovich’s system of finding young talent is completely opposite of coach D’Antoni. Popovich uses analytics that are more team-oriented such as Win Share (WS) and more importantly Defensive Win Shares (DWS). Popovich created a culture of putting the team first by drafting players he knows will fit his system. Baxter Holmes is a Senior sports analyst for ESPN and has written numerous articles about the NBA. Popovich was being questioned about his career as a head coach and responded with, "Food and wine. This is just a job" (qtd in Holmes). Popovich holds regular team dinners and connects with his players on a level that other coaches do not. It is not ordinary for a coach to hold dinner with the entire team let alone the organization. 

Popovich’s goal is to find a deeper connection with his players creating a family culture in the organization. Due to this familial culture that he has created, he tries to find players that are more team oriented while they were in college. One of the better stats at showing a player's helpfulness towards their team is DWS. This stat gives coaches and GMs a value that a specific player adds to their team throughout a year on defense. This stat is very similar to OWS except it replaces marginal offense with marginal defense. 

DWS allows Popovich and his staff to compare similarly skilled players by distinguishing them by defensive statistics. Popovich believes that DWS correlates to a team-first player due to the nature of playing defense. In order to play good team defense one must trust their teammates. If a player trusts their teammates it leads to a team becoming a more cohesive unit. In Popovich’s culture, he helps reinforce this trust, but for his system to work the players must be able to trust their teammates while they were in college. Popovich has often been able to find great players using DWS. In 2011 Kawhi Leonard was drafted and four years later he became Defensive Player of the Year which is an award that is given to the NBA best defensive player.

Not only has Popovich's culture led to his player's personal success it has also led to team success. His unique team culture has led to the Spurs winning five NBA championships since 1999. During this time he has drafted some of the best players in the NBA such as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and David Robinson. These players had a team-first mentality when they played in college or when they played in Europe. In an article describing coach Popovich’s culture, Holmes said, “The Spurs have forged a team culture that's the envy of the league”. 

Popovich’s culture of a team-first mentality is something that is very unique in the NBA due to the player often trying for personal glory over the team. This rare environment allows Popovich to look for defensive players when scouting for the draft. In 2017 they drafted a player named Derrick White as the 29th pick. He was a senior from Colorado and never played high-level college basketball until he transferred there as a senior. The previous three years he played at a Division 2 school in Colorado. Popovich’s general manager R. C. Buford saw White’s intelligent passing, decision making, and defensive ability. Buford used this information along with Derrick’s stats of 18.5 points per game, the number of points scored in a season divided by games played, 40% from the three-point line, the number of threes made divided by threes shot, and 5 assists per game at The University of Colorado. 

These stats along with his great PER and Defensive rating, defensive rating is a calculation of how many points a player would give up over 100 possessions, stood out among the players the Spurs had a chance to draft. Analysts did not see why Derrick White was selected 29th, due to his lack of playing high-level basketball. However, after this most recent season, everyone is viewing this selection as a steal for the Spurs. A steal is when a team selects a player late in the draft that turns out to be a superstar and much better than the players drafted before them. 

This season Derrick White has been way better than the 29th best player in his draft statistically speaking. He is viewed as a steal because of his statistics of a 14.8 PER and a Defensive rating of 110 compared to other players in his draft make him the fourth best player. His stats on defense is as good if not better than the second pick in the draft Lonzo Ball. Ball has a PER of 12.2 and a defensive rating of 107. The Spurs by looking for a defensive minded player in college find players that follow the culture of their team. By looking at the statistic that shows a player's defensive proficiency they are able to find players that will work well with Popovich’s ideals. 

The main statistic that separates players from one another that NBA teams use is Win Shares (WS).  WS is a measurement of a single player's value to the team success by adding up all offensive and defensive win shares. The entire NBA uses win shares because it creates a single value for a player from beginning to the end of the season. A player will have a higher WS helping his team win more games ultimately giving them a better chance to win a championship. This is why All NBA scouts use this stat to find the next best player in college basketball. Neil Paine, the creator of Five-Thirty-Eight, a website owned by ESPN wrote an article about the best WS for collegiate basketball players since 1996. 

Paine found, “On a per-40-minute basis, Williamson would have the most win shares of any Naismith winner since Andrew Bogut in 2005”. Zion Williamson is viewed as the best player in the 2019 NBA draft. Zion is 19 years old and 6’7’’ and weighs 275 pounds which would make him the second heaviest player in the NBA once he is drafted. His WS in this year in college is astronomical compared to other players. WS are important due to its ability to evaluate a player's importance to their team at the end of the season. WS in college often correlate to great players in the NBA so scouts heavily rely on this statistic to find players. However, Ws are not used to differentiate players on draft night. Coaches use all the information they are given to differentiate players for drafting. The stats that are more particular like OWS and DWS are used to differentiate players. Whereas, WS are used to find the initial group of players. A player with a great WS 18 might have an OWS of 20.5 and a DWS of -2.5. If a coach only looked at his WS they would think he was a great all-around player. 

In actuality, he is a great offensive player and a bad defensive player. A coach selecting players would need to know this because if he has a great offensive team he may not need that player and would look for a player that is better at defense. This is why coaches and GMs look at more specific stats to obtain players to make their team better.

Statistics are a part of my childhood just as Disney movies and toys are a part of other kids. Whenever my brother, father and I are talking sports I bring in statistics to the discussions. My brother's genetic response is to say, “Where did you get that stat from?” and before I have a chance to respond my dad says, “ESPN” and they start laughing. My brother and father are what statisticians call “old timers”. 

They argue that states do not account for their possible action off the court, personal life decisions, which could get them suspended or the possibility they are a bad teammate. I do see their point that states do not cover everything, but decisions based on one’s emotions do not often lead to a good outcome. My brother and father see stats as the enemy, they view them as a quick way evaluating a player. To me, stats simply make the decision easier.  If he is a bad teammate then his stats would reflect it. Without advanced stats, we would see inefficient and worse players being selected earlier in the draft due to inflated “basic” stats. 

Players that score 25 PPG in college may not actually be that good, they might have an extremely low PER and OWS due to their low efficiency to score 25 points. Analytics has created a new way to evaluate and provide values for players. These new metrics have benefitted basketball by allowing better decision making during and before the game allowing for better basketball to be played. Stats have not only affected all parts of basketball, but they have an effect on all parts of society making them impossible not to be used. Statistical analysis has allowed our society to advance in ways only statistics can show us just like in basketball.

 

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