The Linearization of Basketball

March 28th, 2014 | by Dan Clayton

Is our desire to analyze leading us to oversimplify a complex game?

Gordon Hayward could wind up in analytics jail for this midrange jumper. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Gordon Hayward could wind up in analytics jail for this midrange jumper. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

If a=b and b=c, then a=c.

That immutable truth your junior high math teacher taught you is unquestionable. It’s tidy. It’s neat. It’s linear. It’s easy to work with.

Basketball, on the other hand, is not easy to work with. Every moment of on-court action has so many variables in play at the same time, that a=b is hardly ever true in an absolute way, to say nothing of c or d or e or…

That doesn’t stop us from trying, though.

  • Defense means limiting your opponent. So-and-so held his positional counterpart to a low scoring night. Therefore, he had a good defensive outing. (Here we completely overlook all the times that So-and-so failed to slide over in front of a penetrating guard, or the missed rotations where someone else’s man scored because So-and-so didn’t do his job within the team structure. That’s not linear: neither the box score nor Synergy will tag that to So-and-so, and he’s off the hook.
  • Mid-range range jump shots have a lower percentage than close shots, and are only worth .667 what a three-point shot is worth. Therefore, they hurt your offense. (Problem is, they don’t: bad shots hurt your offense, but “bad” can mean a lot of different things.)
  • Offensive rebounding compromises your defensive abilities. (Again, not the case1. The value of that extra possession outweighs a hypothetically compromised transition D, and you force the other team to hang back and contend with you for the board.)

Why do we do jump to conclusions that way? Some of it is human nature. A lot of great writing2 has been done lately on the psychologically hard-wired need humans have to simplify information, even at the expense of validity. In other words, we’re searching so hard for answers that we’re looking right past them.

Analytics are good3… So is basketball knowledge

Basketball analysis is a field of thought that has taken off over the last decade, giving us dozens or even hundreds of ways to analyze trends. The overall impact of the movement is undoubtedly positive. We’re thinking about the game more carefully, we’ve got a new and more holistic way to think about player value, and we can quickly assess the outcomes associated with a variety of different decisions.

But at every step, we risking doing so in an overly simplistic way.

ESPN’s Chris Broussard spoke with two anonymous league executives about what could either be described as a growing emphasis on statistical analysis or a waning emphasis on basketball knowledge. The former isn’t a problem at all; the latter certainly is.

This conversation went all the predictable places4, but it also articulated some really interesting truths about just how un-simple this game really is.

The more defensive/cynical of the two executives talked about people for whom a lifetime of studying the game from all angles represents an education – a Basketball Ph.D., if you will. He sounds borderline xenophobic about these shifty newcomers with their fancy spreadsheets who “haven’t been taught, trained or educated by any basketball professors or gone to any basketball classes.”

The other executive who chimes in on the piece is far more balanced, stating clearly that the new methods for extracting data are a positive development.

But be careful, he cautions. “Looking at any subject from one vantage point limits your ability to be flexible and achieve maximum results.” He hastens to point out that analysis of numbers have been a part of league and team culture forever, and that statistical analysis should “absolutely” be a part of the process.

The piece is an absolute must-read for those interested in the relationship between people the “basketball people” and their new peers.

Basketball People

Like most people who haven’t played meaningful basketball since their teenage years, I get a bit defensive when I hear the term “basketball people.” It connotes that unless you can legitimize yourself with a Fleer trading card, you can’t dissect the game.

I categorically disagree. Seen through that lens, would we consider Erik Spoelstra a “basketball person”? Spo never played professionally outside of a short stint in Germany, but learned the game inside and out as a video coordinator. I would argue he has a better understanding of motion, adjustments, countermoves and decision points than a lot of people who have played for several years. In fact, I think analyzing the game is a completely separate skill from playing the game, or coaching the game, or writing about the game, and so forth. Being good at one of those skill sets doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to be good at another.

But in the same way, analyzing basketball and analyzing numbers are two skills that can either co-exist or not.

Let’s apply this to a corporate setting. Basketball teams are deemed successful or not based on winning & losing, corporations based on their financial results. So what would happen if a Board of Directors decide to remove all the executives from a company and turn the organization over to just the financial arm of the company?

You’d now have a bunch of accountants who understand one aspect of the company really well. They’d know what aspects of the company really help the bottom line and which parts don’t, and they could probably make the company very profitable in the short term. Over time, though, that might not be sustainable. They might not have the background on how different parts of the company interact. They might not know how to negotiate important deals, or take care of customers, or develop employees.5

They would have all of the answers to some of the questions.

Asking the right questions

Last month, Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy zinged a room full of statheads when he dismissed the value of tracking data that shows how far a player runs in a game. What can I do with that information as a coach?, he asked.

Thing is, Van Gundy was generally regarded as a very analytics-friendly coach, so let’s not push this aside as the cynic’s attempt to discredit the movement. His point is that something like miles covered is, at best, an interesting answer to a question nobody is asking.

Anayltics are only relevant if they answer questions that help players and teams get better. Otherwise, they’re just like the lifeguard who sees you drowning and stops to describe the water.

Jazz coach Ty Corbin similarly landed in stat geek prison when he famously said things like, “Not based on plus/minus!” in response to a question about playing time decisions, or more recently when he was asked about the value of threes and he retorted, “I like shots that go in.”

Van Gundy and Corbin might sound curmudgeony or, worse, behind the times. The fact is, they’re expressing what a lot of “basketball people” feel about some of the new data: that it’s not answering the right questions. What Corbin probably meant to say6 is that some of the things that make a shot qualitatively good or bad can’t be easily measured. As a directional tool for basketball decision-makers, analytics only help if they answer the right questions.

If I asked you who runs the pick & roll most effectively, you’d go consult Synergy and bring back an answer you felt relatively confident in. But some P&R possessions end with a player scoring off a cut, or an open shooter cashing in on the attention to the P&R, so the play gets logged that way. The question here (which team gets the most out of the P&R) doesn’t match the answer (which team gets the most specifically when the designated user of the possession was either the P&R screener or the handler). See how non-linear that is?7

Derrick Favors is another excellent example. For months we asked ourselves what was wrong with Favors’ defense because we looked at his D rating, his Synergy stats, his counterpart PER, etc. Then last week, he told us he’s still by far the #1 defender in the Jazz’s own proprietary system that rates defenders based on making the right decisions within the defensive system. Now we have to figure out the disconnect between doing the right things and the statistical outcomes represented in those other tools, but do you see how now we’re asking the right questions?

That’s why Van Gundy said, “There’s no substitute for watching film. Over and over and over… The analytics can be useful, but if you’re using that in place of watching the game, you’re making a big mistake.”8

Basketball is not linear

Statistical systems most valuable when they can tell us something directional. Analytics should be a powerful tool to describe trends, track progress, and reevaluate performance. But to capture every complex, layered, nuanced hypothetical within a basketball situation, you need a basketball brain, too.

If we spent half the time studying offensive & defensive systems on video that we spend resorting data and applying new filters, we’d understand much better what the numbers showed us.

(Of course, the inverse is also true: people who rely only on basketball pedigrees and don’t try to understand the relationship those actions have with outcomes are only seeing part of the picture.)

Saying “the Jazz are bad defensively” or “the Spurs’ offense is first-rate” doesn’t do much. Show me how the play developed, how the defense adjusted, how the Spurs recognized the moments of opportunity/choice. Show me the countermove, the reads, the whole flow.

Don’t tell me a player is bad at defending the screen. Show me how he’s bad, where he’s not blitzing hard enough, where he’s playing into the handler’s strengths. Then let’s watch the numbers and see how he improves over time.

A lot of people do that very well and are fluent both in X-and-O language and in terms of measurement. When you read a Zach Lowe piece (or even SCH’s own Ben Dowsett), you almost always see video or stills incorporated into the conversation. Yes, they’ll quantify the trends with numbers, but then they’ll show you what they mean.

They get what SVG gets: that basketball doesn’t always fit in a spreadsheet cell.

They get that a=b might be true, but there’s a lot more going on in every second of NBA basketball.


Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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  1. Ben Dowsett says:

    Very well done piece. In particular, my favorite section was the one regarding Spoelstra – I bring this example up to people ALL the time, guy played basically zero high level competitive basketball, but you’re crazy if you don’t have him as a top-5 NBA coach right now, especially from a strategy/adjustment standpoint. While of course a proximity to the game (particularly the NBA game in the case of NBA people) is relevant, I strongly resist the popular myth that someone who didn’t play professionally can’t fully understand the game.

    Consequently, I think some of those who DO fall under that category develop an irrational bias towards “analytics people.” This results in what I think is a misclassification that you touched on – that analytically-inclined folks focus only on the numbers, or only on one narrow line of thought. This is, in reality, the opposite of the truth – in my opinion, the best analysts – with Zach Lowe at or near the top, at least as far as media goes – define “analytics” as a BROADER cumulative view of the entire game that allows us to contextualize many parts of it far more effectively (I know this differs from a dictionary definition, and don’t think that matters). The use of real-life, on-court activity is vital, just as the proper application of useful metrics and analysis is vital; if either element were simply ignored, I feel that in today’s game, those ignoring would be at a quite significant disadvantage.

    What a last few days on SCH, eh?? Keep up the good work, everyone.

    • cw says:

      You guys are totally wrong about Spolestra’s basketball experience. He was a good high school player, went to Sonny Vaccaros camp and played with Alanzo Mourning, Shawn Kemp, and Bobby Hurley, got several college scholarship offers, went to Portland State, a division 1 school, was West Coast Confernece freshman of the year, was starting point guard for four years. He played two years in Germany and was offered another two year contract but hurt his back.

      There are other people in the NBA (more in the front offices) who didn’t play high level Bball, but Spolestra was not one of them/

      • Dan Clayton says:

        you actually just kind of made the point for us — because most people wouldn’t consider the WCC and a couple injury-riddled years in Germany as equivalent to a “basektball PhD,” and yet there is Spo, winning rings in part because he has the best talent in the league and in part because he has a surgical understanding of the game of basketball that he picked up in a video room.

        If you read the Broussard piece I linked to, Spo would absolutely fit into the category as defined by those executives: young coaches who have never played basketball at the highest level. That someone like Spo would have his basketball resume discarded and be regarded as an outsider… I agree, it’s ridiculous. But that’s what those execs are saying, because the WCC isn’t exactly the Harvard of hoops.

  2. Steve says:

    completely off subject but I noticed that James still hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut (the salary cap comment). Just goes to show that he still doesn’t get that the schlubs that make 20-40k a year are the ones that fund his salary. greedy ba$tard

    • Andy says:

      These are questions of definition. Many nba coaches/managers think high level experience means nba experience, which spo doesn’t have. There are great coaches like Carlisle, Vogel, and thibadau that don’t have nba experience. Clearly one needs lots of experience within the pro game to properly evaluate strategy andtoknowwhat statistics are relevant.

      The Lebron comment is just ignorant. Why would he not be frustrated when his value added to the nba is far greater than cabreras, yet the cap prevents him from earning it.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      Agree with Andy on both sections of his post. It’s proximity to, and in-depth knowledge of, the NBA game that’s most important. I think the NBA has been trending toward this realization for some time now, though certainly faster in some circles than others.

      Also, what a ridiculous and backwards comment about LeBron. Basically the exact opposite of what was written is true – LeBron generates value for the NBA on a level that no singular athlete has for a team sport in history, besides perhaps Jordan at his very peak. This is a commonly discussed subject, too; on an open market, there’s no question whatsoever he’d command $50 million/year or more easily. It has nothing to do with greed, and the idea that lesser players somehow fund his salary is so contrary to logic, I really wonder how someone could comfortably type it.

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