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On Thursday, 60 of basketball’s most talented prospects will realize a lifelong dream when the NBA conducts its annual draft. Karl-Anthony Towns, the Kentucky University center, has been heavily rumored to be the number one pick, but after that, it’s a bit up in the air. Among the potential picks: Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Kristaps Porzingis, a versatile 7 foot 1, 19-year-old Latvian who’s as lean as he is skilled. Regardless of who ends up where, this high-potential group will be entering a league that’s undergone a major transformation in the past few years. And it’s a revolution that’s indisputably linked to the NBA’s growing, but controversial, reliance on data to measure a team’s likelihood of winning—a phenomenon vaguely defined as “analytics.”

Once, the dominant way of judging how well a player or team would perform was the “eye-test”—the organic, gut-instinct impression that came simply from watching a game unfold. But that time has been replaced by an era in which coaches and their backroom staff pore over formulas and figures—how many mid-range jump shots a team uses versus attempts near the hoop, or how many three-point shots versus two-pointers—to predict the most effective methods for winning. While some doubt the importance of the shift, there are still coaches and legends of the sport who reject the practice of analytics and are leery of how number-crunching will fundamentally change the sport.

“People say that analytics are taking the fun out of it, I think the NBA is in a better position now than it’s ever been.”
Last week’s NBA Finals may have offered the naysayers the strongest evidence yet that analytics does, in fact work, that it’s become an entrenched part of basketball today, and that it will remain so for some time. The most-watched Finals since the age of Michael Jordan ended with victory for the Golden State Warriors over the Cleveland Cavaliers—both of which are teams that have heavily incorporated data analysis into how they play the game. The playoffs were yet another clear indicator that if teams want to win, they’d do best to ignore the likes of detractors such as Charles Barkley, who infamously went on a rant against the approach in January on Inside The NBA. (“Smart guys wanted to fit in so they made up a term called ‘analytics.’”)

There’s proof of the benefits of more advanced analysis beyond the success of the Warriors and Cavaliers. The Houston Rockets—led by general manager and analytics buff Daryl Morey—are renowned for their use of data. The team rarely shoots long-range two-point jumpshots, as they believe it to be one of the worst strategies in basketball. And their reasoning makes sense: The shots are too far away from the rim to be rendered a high-probability scoring opportunity, yet not far enough—as in behind the three-point line—for the risk to be rewarded with an extra point. This ideology, backed up by mountains of data, is a prime example of analytics at work. The Rockets were successful despite an injury-plagued season losing in the Western Conference finals to the Warriors. They also set the all-time record for made three-pointers in a season, with 894 this year.

While the movement to employ more sophisticated metrics has been in motion for some time, the turning point could perhaps be pegged as 2013—the year the NBA installed player-tracking systems in all 29 of its arenas. This was a watershed moment for the league: Every micro-movement on the court could now be tracked, quantified, and eventually archived. No longer could a player “hide” his deficiencies on the court. Coaches, their assistants, and the data-crunching backroom staff now had far more knowledge about players’ tendencies, and how certain groups of players work together than ever before. This has lead to a re-imagining of what matters in basketball and thus, a shift in the paradigm of player evaluation.
Take for instance “volume scorers,” or players who traditionally take a lot of shots and score a lot of points, but don’t add much value in terms of defense, rebounding, or assists, among other things. In the past, such single-minded players escaped media scrutiny by putting up impressive raw-scoring numbers, even though they were sub-par in other facets of the game. Today, those types of players are maligned for their lack of overall impact. Even stars like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have been criticized for their excessive shooting. This current shift isn’t simply due to some yearning for more team-oriented, inclusive strategies. Instead, the nouveau-NBA has moved toward “efficiency” being the dominant theme. No longer is it about raw totals as much as it’s about weighing the impact of each action. This has in turn affected how teams score.

This January, for the first time ever the NBA saw more three-point shot attempts than free throws in a single month.

Free Throws Versus Three-Point shots, by Month Since 1997

Harkening back to the Houston Rockets’s ethos, there’s been a league-wide shift from the two-point to the three-point shot over the years. And it’s a change that’s had tangible consequences for those who deny its reality. At the beginning of this recently completed season, the Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott, said that he would be eliminating a reliance on three pointers from the Lakers’ strategy. It was a move rightly condemned at the time as archaic—perhaps proven by the fact that the Lakers went on to finish this campaign with the worst record in franchise history. Of course, season-ending injuries to Kobe Bryant and rookie Julius Randle played a role in their dismal season, but completely divorcing their performance from that anti-three ideology would be granting Scott far too much of a pass. On the flip side, the 2015 Championship-winning Warriors were the league’s best three-point shooting team during the regular season. It’s almost impossible to disregard the success and importance of the three-point shot today: The last five teams remaining in the recently completed Playoffs were the five best three-point shooting teams during the regular season.

Read the full story at Atlantic: (Link: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/nba-data-analytics/396776/ )

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