The Basketball Analytics Revolution Should Change Your Game

The Basketball Analytics Revolution Should Change Your Game

Why you should care

You’ve already tried buying those new shoes and working on that jump hook shot, but you need something more.

In the decade since Michael Lewis’ Moneyball was published, the sports analytics revolution has changed the way even casual fans — as well as Brad Pitt lovers — understand baseball (OPS+, anyone?). Now it’s changing basketball, too.

While the individual player aspects of baseball initially made it more easily quantifiable through statistical analysis, team sports, especially basketball, are the new frontier. The ex-players who have traditionally dominated NBA coaching and front-office positions are making room for stats geeks who are finding new ways for their teams to get an edge on the court. The franchises that are at the forefront of the analytics revolution — the Boston Celtics, the Houston Rockets, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs — have been some of the most successful over the last several years. And just last month, the NBA announced that all 29 NBA arenas will be installing cameras that will allow teams to track the exact location of the ball and every player on the court 25 times per second. Analysis of this data, which some teams have already been using, will continue to change the way hoops is played.

Sports analytics apply to all basketball, even pickup games down at the local YMCA.

But sports analytics pertain to more than just the NBA: The lessons apply to all basketball, even to pickup games down at the neighborhood park or the local YMCA. So with the 2013-14 NBA season just underway, here are four ways that the analytics revolution is affecting the pro game, and how it applies when you, too, are playing ball.

1) Shoot more threes

Aside from shots in the immediate basket area, analytics have shown that on a points-per-attempt basis three-pointers are the most valuable shot in the NBA. This may seem self-evident — three-pointers are worth 50 percent more than two-point shots. While the three-pointer was long viewed with great skepticism — Pat Riley called it “fool’s gold” — because shots from such a distance were too unreliable, stats have shown that a three-pointer is one of the best things that can happen on offense. Coaches and players have taken this to heart: In the past decade, three-point attempts per game have increased more than 34 percent leaguewide. In the NBA, however, not all three-pointers are created equal. The NBA three-point line is not an arc; rather, it is 21 inches closer to the basket in the corners. The shorter distances make the “corner three” the most valuable three-point shot. It’s the shot that smart offenses look for (and smart defenses look to stop).

Here’s where things get interesting for pickup games: Most courts have a high school three-point arc. Unlike in the NBA, these arcs are the same distance from the basket everywhere on the court, so the corner three isn’t any better than any other three. In addition, in many pickup games, shots from behind the three-point arc aren’t actually worth three points. Instead, baskets made from inside the arc are worth one point, and shots from outside the arc are worth two points. In these games, shots from beyond the arc are worth twice as much as shots from inside the arc rather than 50 percent more, as in the NBA.

And if you cannot shoot, please focus on defense and rebounding. Please.

As a result, if you can shoot at all, you should probably be shooting more shots from beyond the arc, especially if you’re playing “by ones and twos” — though keep in mind that long-distance shooters are less likely to get a rebound, so the better rebounder you are, the better you should be at shooting to justify leaving the basket area. (And if you cannot shoot, please focus on defense and rebounding. Please.)

Conversely, you may play in a pickup game where all shots, whether from inside or outside the three-point arc, are worth the same number of points. If so, follow the strategy for long two-point shots discussed below.

2) Shoot fewer long two-pointers

The farther a player gets from the basket, the less accurate his shot is. Three-pointers are a high value shot not because they are easier to make, but because they’re worth more when they go in. Yet any shot inside the arc is worth the same, whether you’re shooting a layup or you’re one step inside the three-point line. Advanced stats tell us that most NBA players should avoid long two-point shots (shots from beyond 15 feet but inside the three-point arc). Unless you’re really open, you should avoid long two-pointers, too.

3) Defense

In the NBA, a shooting foul is one of the worst things that a defense can do, as the points-per-attempt value of a free throw is very high. Yet in pickup, where there are no free throws, a foul on a high-value shot makes sense, though it may violate the gentleman’s agreement not to foul intentionally — and I don’t have to tell you what can happen when pickup basketball ceases to be gentlemanly.

Analytics also suggest that NBA players should play more aggressive help defense, even when it means moving away from the player they are covering. The lesson: In basketball, defense is not five players each defending a man; it’s about five players defending one ball. That rule applies to pickup basketball, too.

4) David vs. Goliath

Have you ever looked at the opposing team and realized you’re outmatched? Statistical analysis tells us that in such situations the underdog may be better off employing “David strategies”: tactics that are high variance, with higher potential risks and rewards, but which, if successful, can give an underdog an advantage (think of the New Orleans Saints’ onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV). David tactics are particularly useful in pickup games, which teams usually win by being the first to score between seven and 15 baskets, as opposed to the 48-minute NBA game. David strategies include shooting a high number of three-pointers, trying to create turnovers by gambling on defense, and running an informal full-court press.

Happy balling!

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