Basketball and advanced statistics: Myths and utilities, by Andrés Monje

Basketball and advanced statistics: Myths and utilities, by Andrés Monje

Basketball and advanced statistics. This sport is still a simple game. The same marvel that Professor James Naismith invented in 1891. But as if human beings specialize in something, it is in complicating things, the sport of the basket has been no exception. Its essence remains exactly the same, to dunk the ball in the basket. We can just look at a lot more now. And, as restless minds that we are, we do just that.

Over the years and as the professionalism has been burning stages, the monitoring of this sport has used many factors to increase the level of detail and, consequently, the volume of analysis at all levels. The field of observation has grown exponentially and that means that there are many more foci to assess, giving a crucial weight in this to statistics.

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Because if something is revolutionizing the world of basketball, especially since the beginning of the century, it is precisely the level of statistical analysis . Now practically everything is analyzed. And with everything one refers to everything you can imagine. Anything that is capable of delivering a minimally useful message on a professional level will be studied. And if not also. Just in case.

This, like everything, has its positive and negative points. Among the former, the main one is that solid conclusions can now be drawn from virtually any detail on the court. It shows, it becomes more visible, what type of factors should be worked with more emphasis for a team or player. Among the latter, undoubtedly the most notable is that there is such an amount of data that filtering in an optimal way is still the differential factor. It is not easy to interpret and understand such a wild dose of numbers.

Without forgetting, of course, the one that continues (and will continue) to be the main element. That in the end the game is built from a random factor that represents at the same time its reason for being. That is, no matter how much we intuit that by probability something can happen, we will never be certain that it will. And there, precisely, lies a good part of the magic of basketball in particular and of sport in general. The unpredictability of what happens.

However, as the level of analysis has been unleashed, it is interesting, and in fact very useful, to know how to differentiate aspects of the game that can lead us to have a more realistic idea of what happens on a basketball court and, at the same time, instead, disprove some myths that originate simple statistics.

Some of the main points will be detailed below.

The pace of play

In English pace. It is a key detail to approximate everything else. The rhythm of two teams actively influences all the decisions they make and affects the way they interpret their offensive and defensive indices, understand their productivity. In this way, it will be very valuable to know how many possessions they use per game to judge with greater certainty. How many plays they develop during those 48 minutes (40 if we talk about FIBA basketball) that absorb us.

The rhythm factor cannot be isolated from what happens on the court for a simple reason. It acts as a context for the number of situations that take place. Just because something happens more often doesn't necessarily make it more productive. That something happens less does not make it less useful. Basketball is a game of possessions and to ignore the rhythm would completely skew all possible analysis.

Shooting percentages

The value of hitting the field, as we knew it, has gone down in history. Or it has evolved, as you prefer to assume. Now the effective percentage (eFG%) of those shots is valued, which considers at the same time the field and triple shots by means of a formula that already includes the extra value (one more point) of the shot of three.

For this? The reason is simple. This eFG more closely approximates the points produced per launch. That is, pure effectiveness. Because it is not the same to achieve a 4/10 in field goals being all the hits of two, than a 4/10 in field shots being all the hits of three. To get an idea, in the first case the effective percentage is 40%, in the second it is 60%. There is a lot of difference. And it is that a basket of two cannot be considered in the same way as a basket of three, something that does not differentiate the percentage of single shot. The percentages consider launch productivity and for this it is essential to adjust.

Likewise, there is an extension of this eGFR, even more detailed, called the true percentage (TS%) . This record includes, in addition to the two and three-point throws, the free throws. Why? There are offensive situations in which the player does not have a shot from the field because he is able to force two free throws. This formula reflects this and, therefore, rewards those players who are able to frequently visit the personnel line (and execute correctly).

Thus, these two indices take the analysis of collective and individual success further. They are able to get closer to how many points a team (or a player) generates for each throw. And from this we conclude two aspects linked to the usual analysis of simple statistics.

The first, that points are not the only criterion susceptible of analysis when seeing how much a player scores in a simple way , since it is not the same to score 30 points by shooting 30 times … than to score 25 by doing it 15. Those fifteen difference possessions are crucial . And the second, that the player with the best percentage does not have to be the best shooter , since the shot is influenced by different decisive factors such as distance or the type of defense.

Around the latter, it is common to see that the lists with the highest percentage of single shooting are plagued, in their leading positions, with inside players. In the end, closeness to the rim usually increases the percentage, but again having a higher percentage does not necessarily mean being a better shooter. It's hard to imagine DeAndre Jordan as a better shooter than Stephen Curry, even if his shooting percentage from the field is higher.

Another relevant aspect is the consideration of best attack and best defense, often linked only to the number of points scored. That fact is excessively simple, insufficient for today's game.

The myth of the best attack and the best defense, advanced statistics

Is it really the best attack that scores the most points? And the best defense the one that receives less points? Welcome to Efficiency . Here comes one of the most important changes of scenery. There are many situations in which it is insisted that a team has the best attack because it is the one that scores the most points per game, or at the same time the best defense because it is the one that receives the least.

And this is not exactly true. Why? To explain it, it is convenient to say hello to the rhythm again, a factor presented above. We will take defense as an example. Estimating how good a defense really is should not focus on how many points a team receives per game, as pace is a factor that decisively affects that number. Yes, decisively.

That is, let's imagine that Team A's rival has 110 possessions per game and scores 110 points on it. And on the other hand imagine that the rival of a Team B uses 90 possessions and scores 105 points. It is clear that Team B receives fewer points, but it is also appreciated that they concede more points per possession. That is, their Defensive Efficiency is worse.

As the level of possessions employed varies from game to game, in looking at defensive performance it is essential to understand that productivity is the priority. How many points are scored / allowed per possession.

This Efficiency (created by Dean Oliver) is a more complex formula, which considers many elements to end up solving how many points a team scores (or receives) for every 100 possessions, with that 100 being a common factor. The usefulness of this can be seen in that logically if a team plays at a very high rate, it may score or receive more points, but that does not necessarily mean that it makes it a better team attacking or defending.

Offensive productivity depends on how many points a team is able to generate for each possession they have. And at the same time, the defense shows how many points a team receives for each possession they are attacked. It is the truest way to see how good (or bad) an attack is. Or a defense.

Context always matters. To reduce that one attack is better than another without considering the rhythm in that analysis is to blatantly ignore that basketball is, in the end, a game of possessions and productivity.

The rebound

It bears a certain relation to what is stated in Efficiency. Here the rhythm does not intervene but instead the total rebound possibilities appear. Graphically, it is not the same for a team to capture 30 rebounds over 90, than to catch 30 rebounds over 45. “In the end it is to catch the same rebounds”, some may think. And so it is, but the difference exists in that in the first case the rival captures 60 and in the second only 15. And that is not the same. That is where the difference is discovered.

How do you know how effective a team is in the always important rebounding factor? Well, evaluating what percentage of catches he gets in each hoop. For example, when a team defends their defensive rebound will be looked at. How? If there are 30 rebound options on that rim and the team captures 20 of them, your defensive rebound percentage (DRB%) will be 66.7%. And therefore the opponent's offensive rebound percentage (ORB%) will be 33.3%.

This is also analyzed for individual cases. That is to say, the fact that one player captures 10 rebounds and another 8 does not mean that the former is necessarily a better rebounder . More factors such as the minutes that both may be on the court or the rebounds to which they have had a choice have an influence. The rebound percentage – which in turn has special categories – seeks to clarify how many captures out of the total a team or player captures. That is, its actual effectiveness.


As with Efficiency, the volume of losses must be associated with the rhythm. It must carry a context by the hand. They do not suppose 10 losses in a game the same if you use 90 possessions that 110, basically because in the first case the effect is much more harmful, the volume is substantially greater. Likewise, to assess their real impact, losses are linked to how many points the rival generates from them. Not all turnovers generate the same punishment.

The level of lost balls is valued according to 100 possessions, to establish a percentage that adjusts as closely as possible to the reliability of a team with the ball. The pace of play, therefore, is once again a crucial factor in considering this aspect.

The volume of losses is an aspect considered essential when competing. Dean Oliver included it within the basic 'four factors' of basketball, designed to highlight decisive elements to achieve victory. Thus, controlling launch (eFG), rebound, losses and free throws , always considered by volume and not by simple data, are those four priority elements for coaching staff. All of them in different proportions.

Offensive use, advanced statistics.

On individual territory, usage (USG%) represents the volume of possessions that a player 'spends' within a team. Spending means all those that end with his throw (either from the field or from the personnel line) or the loss of the ball. That is, the use determines what degree of offensive weight a player covers when executing his team's possessions.

This index therefore discovers those players who have more offensive situations than the total. Always considering the level of completion, not so much to generate options for colleagues. In the latter case, there are also indices that consider the impact of a profile on the baskets achieved by your team (such as the percentage of assists over the total, for example).


All these concepts can be observed in multiple pages that follow American basketball. Starting in fact with the NBA official, an extraordinary database, followed by other reference ones such as 'Basketball Reference' and reaching many others more specialized in specific aspects of the game.

Today a huge amount of advanced statistics is handled. The statements are simply the tip of the iceberg, the most basic and essential when it comes to approaching basketball in the most real way possible, considering the data that is extracted from it.

In a way they help put a magnifying glass on the number and really see what it means. That is, their function is to give a context to many figures (points, rebounds, losses) that, when measured by themselves, can lead to confusion.

This type of analysis has, of course, to be used with some sense. Its usefulness is undeniable but it is also insufficient to reach all corners of the game, essentially the field of sensation, key to fully enjoying the experience.

On the other hand, what in the United States takes the form of fever, with maximum application in the competitive super elite, is still nothing more than a tickle in Europe. The great FIBA basketball competitions remain anchored in classical statistics, practically ignoring all advanced numerical analysis and, therefore, remaining oblivious to their monstrous utility and impact. The phenomenon in Europe is just an embryo. One that, for its own sake, shouldn't take long to develop.

To give up doing it would be to accept, impassively, to remain permanently behind in a sport that never stopped evolving.

This is advanced statistics.

Originally posted 03-15-2015

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