Basketball is most compelling, I think, when two opposing styles meet. For instance, a fast-breaking team that thrives on inspiration, comes up against a half-court offense that uses set plays. The eighties iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers comes to mind, as they were so free-wheeling that just about every opponent played with a contrary style. It was always must-watch TV.
In 2015, a number of NBA teams allow the parameters of probability—revealed to their front office through statistical analysis—lead their style. For example, the San Antonio Spurs have been playing an entertaining brand of basketball in recent years, using a strategy that centres on rapid ball movement, and that often culminates in three-pointers. This is by design because no team has attempted more corner threes than the Spurs, according to ESPN's Great Analytics Rankings.
More than a few stats junkies in the media appreciate this, especially because as far as basketball shots go, three-pointers have become a logical favorite. It's hardly surprising, given that they're worth more than any other. I'm sure if every free throw was suddenly worth one-and-a-half points, we'd soon see the folks at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference spinning on the floor like Homer Simpson.
While the Spurs' staff are said to pore over the numbers as diligently as analytics leaders like the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, you might not know it. I didn't. Not until I saw ESPN's list of NBA teams that are really into the numbers—especially the newer ones, which are often referred to as 'advanced stats'. The Spurs were in the top five, which to my mind, was a highly improbable placing, mainly because they play such beautiful basketball. What I mean to say is, since when is splendid passing borne from numbers on a page?
The Spurs' style sees the ball pushed to the hands of open teammates with such conviction that it seems as though all five players on the court have memorised the choreography, which is certainly different to playing probabilities. That's more about moving into a position based on the likelihood of an outcome. But won't the likelihoods change each trip down the court? (I suppose if you're intent on shooting threes all the time, maybe they don't).
Over in Houston, the Rockets have a more explicit fascination with the numerical side of basketball, and I say that because at least in the columns of media outlets, it's a far more popular story. Led by general manager Daryl Morey, and his calculator, the Rockets are also greatly concerned with probabilities. Morey recently said that the basketball data his team uses is granular but rich.
"If you want to look at style of play, i.e., how quickly the players move, how much they get up the floor, how often they are spaced, how often they are clumped—that kind of data can really glean the different styles of play in the NBA, both at the team level and at the individual level," Morey said in an interview with Northwestern University. "If you want to look at all the derivatives of movement in terms of position, velocity, acceleration, jerk—you can get all those things with the data that we now have."
These measures sound interesting and presumably show the organization trends that can be suitably addressed in any future contest, and against any opponent—even perhaps the Harlem Globetrotters. The trouble, however, is that no amount of study about trends is likely to ever stymie a club like the Spurs, who, despite their own penchant for analytics, really seem to hit spots on the floor and find spaces based on what's presented to them. That's what I think, at least. Yes, the Spurs apparently use numbers, but there's something different about their application of them. For them, the game appears to always return to instincts—a kind of improvised magic—which might look choreographed, but clearly involves quick thinking and athleticism as well. Of course, good basketball teams do some planning, and even some after-midnight analysis, but any former player or fanatic of the game knows that plans—or set plays, or indeed the study of tendencies, shouldn't be used frequently but situationally.
See, the concern one might have with an analytical focus to the game is that its proponents invest so much time and energy into the exercise that they rely on it too frequently. I think this was really at the heart of Charles Barkley's recent complaint—he didn't mean it like that stats people! Let's remember, Chuck was a great improvisational player: Why would someone with his skill level care about probabilities? Such players drop their head, plough forward and WILL score. Whatever the defense. No matter the consequences.
Houston is known to rely heavily on three-pointers too, as well as creating scoring chances close to the hoop. They like the combo of the two in their offense, actually. This strategy, and the success that's come from it, has even led Grantland editor Bill Simmons to suggest that NBA players who can't contribute to it are now outdated. For example, on his podcast he regularly laments the shooting limitations of Dallas Mavericks' point guard, Rajon Rondo, who can't shoot the three and has been resisting the dribble drive too. And yet, Rondo plays for a team and owner who are 'all in' on advanced stats. Go figure.
This brings us to the recent Spurs-Rockets contest in which San Antonio not only outplayed Houston but outsmarted them. (And no, I'm not referring to the sneaky good but contentious block by Tim Duncan in the final seconds). The truth is, Houston could print off all the data inside their laptops, tuck torn pages of it into the shorts of its stars for quick reference, and they'd still fail to keep up with the ball when whipped around by the Spurs—from the top of the key, down to the corner, into the low post, then back to the point, and over to the foul line extended.
But here's the thing—the Spurs shot the three terribly in this one, connecting on just 4 of 17. So there's no way they should have won, right? Especially with the Rockets hitting 9 of 21 from deep by comparison. I mean come on! That's 27 points to 12 in the three column—a significant advantage. But, you know, the Spurs have other methods, ways of adjusting, tinkering on the fly and playing the game as it unfolds.
The Rockets also used big man Dwight Howard for their interior play and, as such, dominated the shot chart with 'x's' inside the paint. This made up a great deal of their offense and proved to be potent. Meanwhile, the Spurs attack featured a number of long twos, which must have thrilled the Houston front office, who have practically led a campaign to rid the game of such disgusting habits. Well, San Antonio's shooters connected on these 'ill-advised' shots as if they'd been up watching Karl Malone clips all night. Then, Patty Mills chipped in a few timely threes, they shared the ball some more, and finally, there was no denying the value of their excellent team defense. The Spurs showed the Rockets the full repertoire in their 104-103 win.
What does this all mean, anyway? Does the Spurs' talent and depth simply outweigh the Rocket's analytical effort? Is it possible that the two positives of these numerically inclined clubs have created a negative for the Rockets? Or is it simply that physics, biology and yes, chemistry—subjects at which no team excels more than San Antonio—will always trump good math?
Don't ask me, I just like good basketball.