This summer I spent a lot of time with NCAA Division I basketball statistics. As a student researcher at Davidson, I examined at least a hundred statistics tracked across the division, from the height and experience of the players to the team free throw and turnover percentages, each potentially linked to the success of a team. My goal was to find the strongest correlations and use them to predict the outcomes of games. Many of the statistics most strongly correlated with winning games, like offensive and defensive efficiency (points and points against per 100 possessions), felt more descriptive than predictive. I became curious about what sub-statistics contributed to efficiency that could be more easily isolated and coached. What statistics would an analytics minded team focus on to see the greatest increase in their win percentage?
In recent years there have been basketball teams (not many) that have staked out their claims to be “the analytics team.” For prime examples look to Belmont in Division I or the Houston Rockets in the NBA. Those teams, and others that are vocal about using analytics, are the teams that think they can’t win on skill alone. The first thing an analytics minded team focuses on is taking more three point shots. The theory behind this approach is pretty solid: three point shots have a lower probability of success but a higher payoff, creating more variability in a team’s scoring outcomes. In a simplified example, lets have Belmont scoring between 60 and 70 points per game going up against North Carolina, which scores 77 to 90 points per game. If Belmont gets no better with their shooting percentage but takes a higher proportion of their shots from behind the three point line, they have the potential to see a wider range of scoring outcomes, say between 50 and 80 points instead of between 60 and 70. Belmont’s chances of winning improve because they now have some small chance of a scoring outcome higher than some of the scoring outcomes North Carolina produces. For every one percentage point that underdog teams increase the proportion of their shots devoted to threes, their winning percentages increase by an average of 2.2 percentage points, according to a Peter Keating article in ESPN Magazine last May. They may take some bigger loses, but they make up for it by eking out some unlikely wins.
If I were coaching an underdog basketball team (or a top basketball team), I would definitely push the threes. One pair of three-pointers equals three two-pointers. Simple. Assuming the opponent is shooting twos, my team’s shooting percentage on threes has to be only 66 percent of whatever they’re hitting. An opponent shooting 50 percent for two can be matched by a 33 percent conversion rate on threes. But I don’t think my team’s success will hinge on shooting percentage or distribution. A basketball team wins a game by scoring the most points, which come from shooting baskets, but getting an edge in shooting percentage is tough to possibly unattainable in DI. In the average NCAA Division I basketball contest last year, the shooting percentages for the two teams were separated by just 3.2 percentage points. Assuming the two teams have an equal number of possessions, the “better” team can expect just a couple extra baskets per game, five or six points in a 70 possession game. When I ran logistic regressions on team stats to predict the outcomes of NCAA basketball games I was somewhat surprised to find that the most impactful statistics (largest regression coefficients) were turnovers, steals, and rebounds, not shooting percentage. The team that creates the most opportunities (possessions) for themselves to score usually scores the most.
My (hypothetical) basketball team would need to understand that possessions are key. The average shooting percentage for a Division I team hovers around 50 percent, so each possession is worth at least one point (depending on the number of shots the team takes from three). If a team can raise their shooting percentage from 50 percent to 55 percent (a huge and likely unattainable success to most coaches), the change would translate to an extra three and a half baskets per game. Every percent point gain in shooting will translate to an extra point or two scored per game, the same result as simply pulling off one more steal. I would classify achieving steals as significantly more attainable than improving shooting percentage. There were 77 Division I teams who averaged over seven steals per game last season, with a benefit equivalent to improving their shooting percentages by at least 5 points. Teaching a team to not turn over the ball is hard. Effective ball handling and passing involves years of skill development, talent, and confidence. On the other hand, increased steals (in my opinion) just take a little nerve and boldness. I would teach my team to be gutsy, stick their hands out there, lunge for the ball. If my team went for a steal on every possession they would create opportunities for themselves and stun their opponents. It could be a new recipe for success.
An analyst’s dream is to find some underutilized path to success that will allow an underdog team to stun favorites. Teaching a team to emphasize stealing should produce measurable results in scoring efficiency and has the potential to upend the character and mentality of the team. A team that focuses on steals ingrains in its players the value of a possession. Every time a team allows their opponent to dribble down the court, pass and take shots, they are handing over possessions. My team would be relentless on defense, not allowing a single shot or pass or dribble to go uncontested. There is a perception that analytical approaches to sports undermine the value of athleticism by letting teams play smarter instead of harder. My analysis suggests that the smartest thing a team can do is play harder, recognizing the value of every second on the court and not giving any away to an opponent’s possession without a fight.