The Nets’ Concerning Position on Analytics
Analytics are a hot topic in basketball right now, as a storm of different events has brought the analytics vs. “eye-test” debate to the foreground once again. A couple of weeks ago, Charles Barkley expressed his disapproval for analytics in a now famous rant both against both the use of advanced metrics in the NBA, and the types of people who use analytics. Since Barkley’s diatribe a couple other things of note have kept analytics as hot topic. At the NBA’s Trade Deadline noted analytic junkie Sam Hinkie once again traded away some of the Sixers more valuable assets in Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels, drawing the ire of many of the non-numbers fans (and some numbers guys) of the NBA.
Now as the analytic community prepares for its yearly gathering at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this weekend a storm of articles have appeared with some sort of spin on analytics and sports. Among this flurry was a great article by ESPN writers Kevin Pelton, Kevin Seifert, Craig Custance, and Ben Baumer that debuted on ESPN’s homepage ranking how devoted each franchise in the four major sports are to analytics. For the NBA, Pelton separated teams into one of five groups: All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics, or Non-Believers. Among the NBA’s 30 teams Pelton only graded three franchises as “Non-Believers,” the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks, and the Brooklyn Nets. There are very real debates to be had about the use of analytics, but as smarter people than myself have argued, there is no debate that analytics have some usefulness at an NBA level. For example, it’s probably not a coincidence that the Knicks, Lakers, and Nets are all struggling this year. This piece is not intended to be a debate on the merits of using analytics, but instead on how the Nets apparent lack of interest in analytics is hurting them.
There are two principle components to a teams integration of analytics, on-court strategy, and off-court team building. As Pelton outlined in the ESPN article, the Nets have hired Glenn DuPaul to be their Director of Analytics, but GM Billy King himself is not very interested in the analytic side of things. Just looking at Billy King’s history as Nets GM it is easy to see he doesn’t approach his decision making from a number-based point of view. Most prominently, the Nets have either given away, or agreed to pick swaps with all of their future first rounders until 2019. Analytics don’t strictly advocate that you shouldn’t give up first rounders, (Daryl Morey’s Houston teams have traded them before) but by giving up the Nets rights to their own pick through 2019 they have lost a great deal of future flexibility, something that is highly valued by the analytics community. Additionally, what King has traded those picks for have largely been overpaid veterans, who are all good players, but not good enough players to make the Nets contenders. Billy King has made very little effort to gain assets as a GM, and his moves off the court are a big reason why the Nets have one of the bleakest futures in all of the NBA.
The Nets on-court product also reflects weaknesses that use of analytics could at least slightly improve. Coach Hollins of the Nets is known as an analytics skeptic, and it is reflected in the teams shot selection. The great stats website Nylon Calculus has a stat called Expected Effective Field Goal Percentage (EEFG%) to measure what a team’s effective field goal percentage is expected to be based on that teams shot selection. This stat is agnostic of player talent on that specific team, purely measuring a teams EEFG% based on shot distance and location. The Nets shoot a below average amount of threes, free throws, and shots at the rim along with an above average amount of mid-range shots so it is unsurprising that the Nets rank 25th in the NBA in EEFG%.
Analytic types are often pestered for not applying context, such as when shot selection is a by product of personnel, and for some teams it might make more sense to shoot more mid-range shots. This may be the case for the Nets as Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Jarrett Jack are all players who rely on the mid-range shot and isolation plays for their scoring. Due to the Nets personnel it is not reasonable to expect them to suddenly turn into Rockets East and forego the mid-range, many of their players rely on the mid-range game, and the Nets aren’t a great three-point shooting team. Nonetheless, if Coach Hollins were to design the offense to generate more three point looks instead of mid-range ones and discourage players from settling for long twos so frequently it would certainly be a boon to the Nets offense.
The Nets placement as a non-believer is disturbing, but did not come as a shock to anyone. The Nets poor performance on the court this year, and lack of flexibility going forward can both be partially attributed to the Nets conservative stance on analytics. There is hope though. In Pelton’s article he mentions that the ownership is more analytically inclined and it’s just Billy King who disregards them. Hopefully sometime soon the Nets ownership can either encourage King to try and take a slightly more analytical approach, or look for someone else to run the team. The Nets do not need to be the Sixers or Rockets, but integrating analytics into both the management and coaching will be vital for the Nets future.