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
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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 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-ref­er­ 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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