Advancing NBA Analytics by Looking Back

To spoil the end, we'd say if you're at the MIT Sloan Analytics conference this week, you should reach out to Art Rondeau. He's @ArtRondeau on Twitter, and you can check out his site

The MIT Sloan Analytics conference is coming up, and many will hit Boston looking for the next big thing. Let's think big picture though and ask ourselves what the goal of analytics in sports is. It's to get a better product. Whether that means more wins, more tickets sold, etc., and while it's often tempting to find the new new thing, sometimes critical issues are left by the wayside.

Fans of the site will know that we've been championing the fantastic work of Art Rondeau for years. As a quick refresher. Art Rondeau was a shooting coach for Allan Houston on and off in the 1998-1999 and 1999-2000 NBA seasons -- or as Knicks fans might remember, the last time the team was good for more than one season in a decade. In the games Art coached Allan, his performance, particularly in regards to shooting efficiency skyrocketed -- see our case study on that here.

Fans of this site will know that when we analyze basketball, we sometimes simplify it, perhaps more than other "advanced analytics" people would like into

  • Score efficiently
  • Keep the ball
  • Get the ball
  • Keep the opponent from shooting efficiently

The recent era of the NBA with the advent of teams like the Warriors and Rockets has seen a surge in scoring efficiency. The reality is these gains have come primarily from shot selection. Two big names in NBA analytics noted this in two excellent charts.

It's worth noting right before this shot selection change took place, Arturo Galletti submitted a paper to Sloan on why teams should change their shot selection. A case of "great minds think alike," I'm sure. So, we wholeheartedly agree that improved shot selection is a must in NBA strategy. That said, just improving shooting efficiency is another way to make gains, and here's where the NBA gets funny.

Two years ago, Art and I put a talk together for the Great Lakes Analytics Conference on free-throw shooting. Here's the key. In 1979-1980 the NBA introduced the three-point line. NBA league average that season from three was 28%! It is now up close to 36%. However, the NBA league average from the free-throw line was 76.4%. This season it's 77.1%. And it's worth noting this year is an "up year" for the decade. What's more, the NBA has seen the league average from the line at 77.1% as far back as 1974. Check out NBA league averages at basketball-reference here.

NBA league average from three was at its peak in 2008-2009. In short, teams are shooting smarter but not necessarily better, at least compared to what we've seen in the past. For some reason, improving players' shooting efficiency is not as easy of a problem as some might believe. It's doubtful NBA teams aren't trying. Most NBA teams have at least one shooting coaching. But the numbers bear out that efficiency in the NBA hasn't improved as much as we think it could. That's why we keep shouting out Art's work year after year. We believe there are many fun problems in analytics for NBA teams to examine. Sometimes though, going back to basics is needed, and we think more than a few teams could win a couple more games a season by just improving their shooting efficiency. Something Art Rondeau Art Rondeau will be at Sloan again this year, and people serious about advancing analytics would do well to talk to him.