The Age Old Question of New Age Analytics

The NBA has undergone a massive evolution in the past few years. That evolution has come about as a result of newfound numerical analysis, a concept that has been adopted by every team, not to mention the multitude of media outlets that cover them. This analytics movement has helped individual players and their respective teams to take their games to new, unprecedented levels as efficiency has become the trend du jour. As a result, we have new, improved ways to evaluate nearly every single aspect of basketball.

While fans use analytics to evaluate their favorite players and teams and compare them to others, NBA franchises are able to use them to enhance their teams by getting out every bit of production possible from their rosters. At least, most teams do.

A major storyline for the Los Angeles Lakers, dating back to the last offseason, has been the use, or lack thereof, of analytics by the front office and coaching staff. Some of that has been evident merely through watching Laker games or listening to Byron Scott talk. Some of it has been a little more hidden. In February, ESPN posted a feature ranking 122 franchises (in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL) based on their use of analytics.

The Lakers were placed at 113.

To give you an idea of how bad that is, the Lakers are placed slightly above the Tennessee Titans, Miami Marlins, and NEW YORK JETS. The only two NBA teams ranked lower than LAL, according to ESPN, are the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. (The state of New York really hates numbers.)

Obviously an arbitrary ranking by a media giant does not necessarily give a perfect measurement of the Lakers’ analytics department. Nevertheless, being put in the company of perennial losers in the sports world is a worrying sight. In the same vain, using analytics does not guarantee success (the Philadelphia 76ers are ranked third among NBA teams by ESPN) but nearly all contending teams have put significant investment in using analytics. With news that LaMarcus Aldridge was reportedly underwhelmed by the “basketball portion” of LAL’s free agency pitch, the need for analytics may have become even more pronounced.

If the ESPN rankings do not sway you in believing that the Lakers are the stubborn grandfather of the NBA, perhaps the following stats will. Everyone remembers Byron Scott declaring – soon after he was hired by the team – that threes do not win championships. That quote was perhaps overblown as Scott was likely claiming that a team cannot ride solely on the back of its shooting ability to become an NBA champion. Nevertheless, it was an alarming thing to say considering the fact that the last ten champions at that time were either number one or number two in three pointers attempted during the playoffs. That is a correlation that simply cannot be ignored and one that makes a strong case for the analytics crowd.

That was all talk, however. There’s no way that Scott actually prevented the Lakers from taking better shots right? Well, the 2014-15 Lakers ranked 18th in three point percentage, shooting at 34.4% – not great by any means, but decent enough to make most coaches consider using that shooting as a bigger part of the offense. Instead, Byron Scott’s team shot 18.9 three pointers per game, putting them at 25th in the league in attempts. Meanwhile, the team shot the fifth worst percentage from two-point land at 46.3% while shooting more of them than all but two teams.

Simple math reveals that the expected points scored on each Lakers three-point attempt was 1.032 while the expected points for every attempted two pointer was 0.926. You do not need a state of the art analytics department to tell you which shot was more valuable for LA, despite only taking up 22% of all shot attempts for the team.

It may be unfair to blame all of that on Scott. The players themselves have a hand in that (i.e. Kobe Bryant and Jordan Hill taking midrange shot after midrange shot) and as mentioned above, a below-average analytics department probably did not do much to sway Scott’s old-school and outdated mentality. However, Scott and his offense undeniably has a huge role in this, and even as the Lakers slowly shift toward the new age of basketball, he seems to be maintaining his stubborn disdain for threes. The following quote is from a recent interview conducted by Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:

Q. What would it look like if you guys tried to play that way?

A. We’re not going to play that type of style. We’re going to take 3-point shots that are given to us on a consistent basis. We’re not going to just come down and be launching 3-pointers. We have Lou who can make them, Jordan who can make them, Swaggy who can make them. Jabari (Brown). We have a number of guys – Ryan (Kelly) – who can make them on a consistent basis, but it’s not going to be the focal point of our offense.

This shows the same type of mentality that has pushed the Lakers further and further away from this new age of basketball. Scott admits that the team has a decent number of players who can shoot three-pointers at an average level or better, yet he maintains that he will not gear his offense toward creating those shots. That is the same stubbornness that turned Jeremy Lin into a standstill shooter, rather than placing him in pick and rolls, the one part of his game that is above-average.

While all of this is disparaging, there is some room for hope. The Lakers recently released some information about upgrading their analytics department. Most significantly, Los Angeles promoted Clay Moser to assistant coach and director of basketball strategy where he will serve mainly as a liaison between the coaching staff and the team’s analytics department. Why there was previously no connection between the two entities is beyond me, as there is no use to an analytics department if the coaches do not get the information that they can provide. Nevertheless, this is a promising sign for the Lakers, and may lead to the team finally emerging from underneath the rock they have collectively been living under.

Analytics does not guarantee success, clearly, and it is not the only road to get there. However, it is a great tool to get the best out of every player on a roster. Some people consider analytics as simply stating that 3>2 and that the only method of consistently winning games in today’s NBA is to fire up a ton of three-pointers. While the former part of that statement is true (I can math) the latter does not necessarily have to be. The greatest benefit to all of the technology and data collected by the NBA and its franchises is the ability to determine the best on-court situation for every player. If Kobe is a better shooter in the midrange, then the offense should be optimized to get him shots in that position. If Jordan Clarkson is a terror on the fastbreak, then he should have the ball in his hands after every defensive stop. If D’Angelo Russell is already elite in the pick and roll as a passer, then for the love of God, let him run pick and rolls. (Also, make sure Nick Young never plays anywhere near dolphins.)

Analytics should be about optimizing a team’s strategy to fit its personnel and to give it the best chance to win. In the past five years as more and more teams have made the leap into the NBA’s modern era, the Lakers have been left behind, wondering why they have mainly been a running joke in the league. As the team gathers young talent and starts its push into contention once again, the front office, analytics department, and coaching staff need to work together to create a roster and strategy that works well together and optimizes the team’s chances at winning. It’s time to join the modern NBA.


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