How the NBA Hooked Nerds

The league’s data-heavy approach is driving stats lovers to its site.

NBA fans now have easy access to video of every dunk from every game.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Jan. 17, 2014, midnight

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?

Maybe not.

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.

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