What Analytics Have Taught Us About Basketball

3 min


Sports are constantly changing. There are always new insights into the games, and sports leagues are constantly influenced by a wide variety of concerns, from injuries to game length. One of the biggest changes to come to sports in the last 50 years is the use of analytics. The NBA has gone all-in on analytics, and as a result, the game will never be the same.

Rise of the 3-Point Shot

The most easily visible change to how the game is now played is the increase in the number of three-point attempts that teams are making. The NBA employs a lot of advanced technology in order to gather and analyze the necessary data to assess teams and players and make informed decisions. However, the shift towards the increase in three-point shots was the result of simple math.

The data showed that even with the decreased likelihood of making a three-point shot versus a two-point shot, the reward of an extra point outweighed the risk. The number of three-point attempts per game has steadily been increasing for the last two decades. Hand in hand with that increase has been the increased value that has been placed upon players with good numbers on three-point attempts.

Players who show an ability to consistently sink deep baskets have seen their place in the NBA rise. In a corresponding move, players who lack this ability are seeing their playing time diminishing, especially if they lack other skills that are now being more highly valued, like efficient passing to get the ball around to players in the best position to make a shot.

Defensive Matchups

Another skill set that is being reevaluated is a player’s defensive ability. In the past, players were rated more simply regarding their defensive prowess. You ranked somewhere on the scale between an incredible defender and a terrible defender. The specifics of defensive ability were generally overlooked.

Now defensive ability is being measured in a wide variety of situations. The vast majority of players are no longer simply regarded as good or bad when it comes to defense. Instead, they are evaluated on how well they defend on different parts of the court and against different types of players. A player might be a great defender around the basket but dreadful on the perimeter, or vice versa.

Organizations use basketball stat tracking software to evaluate how players perform in various schemes. Teams are attempting to use this data to their advantage on both sides of the ball. 

When on offense, the effort is made to get defenders out of position. Getting matchups against defenders in areas of the court where their defense is lacking is a great way to increase your chances for a high-scoring game.

On defense, players try to stick to their comfort zones, and the offensive players they match up against the best.

Take a Break

Another significant change to the game has taken place off the court. Teams have gathered significant data relating to the decline in performance and increased risk of injury for fatigued players. Teams are closely monitoring the levels of fatigue that their players are dealing with, using a wide range of diagnostic tools.

The increased focus on player health has led to coaches giving players more rest days during the season. The rise in rest days for players has resulted in a bit of controversy. Fans have become upset about going to games and not getting to see their favorite players play.

While it is a tough situation and the league is much more player-focused compared to the NFL, MLB, MLS, and (to a lesser extent) the NHL, there is a lot of hypocrisy involved. Fans are upset about players getting rest time during meaningless or at least far less consequential regular-season games. However, if they don’t rest and underperform in the playoffs due to fatigue, they have a problem with that as well.

Players are going to get tired, and to a degree, fans need to put aside their own feelings of disappointment over missing a player or two during a regular-season game if they want their team to have postseason success. Fortunately, the league is taking steps to address the issue as well with a decrease in back-to-back games due to a more stretched-out regular-season schedule.

Continued Adaptation

These are just a few of the bigger and more noticeable changes that have taken place in the NBA due to analytics. However, there are hundreds of little adjustments that have been made as well. These can be much harder for a casual observer to detect but add up to big differences.

It is likely that as technology improves and new data sets are plundered, analytics’ role in guiding the league will continue to grow. The game could look as different from today in another 20 years, as it currently does from the way it looked 20 years ago.

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