5 Myths Popped by NBA's New Tracking Data

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistDecember 13, 2013

5 Myths Popped by NBA's New Tracking Data

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    There are certain myths perpetuated by a large segment of NBA enthusiasts, be they analysts or fans. One nice thing about the new NBA tracking data is that many of these myths can be put to the test.

    Most basketball debates have centered on “eye test” versus “stats.” In some ways, the new tracking data, provided by SportsVU, puts together the best of both worlds.

    The data, and how it is obtained, is explained by the NBA’s website:

    Using six cameras installed in the catwalks of every NBA arena, SportVU software tracks the movements of every player on the court and the basketball 25 times per second. The data collected provides a plethora of innovative statistics based around speed, distance, player separation and ball possession. Some examples include: how fast a player moves, how far he traveled during a game, how many touches of the ball he had, how many passes he threw, how many rebounding chances he had and much more.

    They are “eyes” because they are six cameras that are constantly watching everything that happens. Many of the things that we’d look for with the eye test are monitored and tracked by the cameras—and tracked far more carefully than we’d be able to if we were watching the game in person.

    However, they also record these things as specific events. We refer to recording specific events as stats.

    Ergo, these cameras are a kind of “statistical eyes” that can resolve many heated basketball debates.

    Is Carmelo Anthony really a ball hog? Is Kevin Love really the best rebounder in the league? Do “pure” point guards run a more efficient offense than “scoring” point guards? The answers to all those questions are here.

     For each of the following controversies, we will consider:

    • The Debate: Both sides of the argument.
    • The Test: Analysis on how the new data can prove or disprove the argument.
    • The Conclusion: Summarizing the data and what it means.

    As a small note, this is not a ranking, so read nothing into the order.

     

    Because of the scope of this project, the data was collected over a two-day period, December 11 and 12, 2013. Analysis regarding each date is specific to only that date. All the data, unless otherwise stated, is from NBA.com/STATS.

Myth: Pure Point Guards Are More Efficient Than Scoring Point Guards

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The Debate

    One of the biggest controversies over recent years has been that so-called “pure” point guards might not score as much, but because of their pass-first mentality, they involve their teams and have a greater impact on their team’s scoring.

    Therefore, the narrative is that “scoring” point guards amass points but do so at the expense of their teammates. Detractors point to the often inferior field-goal percentage of such players and posit that by passing the ball to more efficient teammates, such point guards could increase team efficiency.

    The proponents of the scoring point guards argue that even if they have an inferior field-goal percentage, the increased defensive attention that they draw opens up shots for teammates, which correspondingly increases their teammates' field-goal percentages. 

    That means that the overall offense is actually helped by the scoring point guards' aggressiveness.

     

    The Test

    The more accurate way of describing a scoring point guard would be a “driving” point guard. The new breed of point guard attacks the lane, driving to the rim. As he penetrates, he can either score the ball or find a shooter to knock down an open shot.

    The new data keeps track of what happens when a player drives the ball. That includes his shooting percentage on drives, how many drives he has, how many points he scores and how many total points his team scores (i.e., both the point guard and his teammates combined).

    Elsewhere, based on Synergy data, we can determine the overall average points per play for each team. Using the tracking data, we can determine whether the average drive by a point guard exceeds that and by how much.

    Note: To avoid a possible confusion here, remember we are discussing plays and not possessions. Points per possession are higher than points per play because a possession can have more than one play.

    The test is this: If the average of points per drive is significantly lower than the team’s overall points per play, then we can conclude that driving point guards have a negative impact on efficiency. If it is significantly higher, we can surmise that they have a positive impact. If it is relatively close, then it doesn’t really matter.

    From there, we can determine whether scoring point guards have a positive or negative impact on the team. 

     

    The Conclusion

    Here is a table showing the 15 point guards who drive at least six times per game and how they and their teams perform when they do so.

    Player

    FG% on Drives

    Drives Per Game

    Team Points per Drive

    Team Points per Play

    Percent Difference

    Ramon Sessions (CHA)

    48.60%

    6.7

    1.30

    0.85

    35.0%

    Derrick Rose (CHI)

    44.20%

    6.4

    1.28

    0.86

    34.1%

    Ty Lawson (DEN)

    50.00%

    11.1

    1.23

    0.92

    25.8%

    Isaiah Thomas (SAC)

    48.30%

    7.1

    1.21

    0.91

    26.2%

    Mike Conley (MEM)

    55.60%

    7.9

    1.15

    0.89

    21.9%

    Eric Bledsoe (PHX)

    60.40%

    7.1

    1.20

    0.94

    20.9%

    Kyrie Irving (CLE)

    38.70%

    7.7

    1.10

    0.86

    23.7%

    Jeremy Lin (HOU)

    65.40%

    8.6

    1.23

    0.97

    23.1%

    Tony Parker (SAS)

    58.70%

    9.7

    1.16

    0.98

    16.8%

    Jrue Holiday (NOP)

    47.40%

    7.7

    1.12

    0.92

    17.9%

    Jeff Teague (ATL)

    41.00%

    9.1

    1.10

    0.93

    15.4%

    Brandon Jennings (DET)

    32.40%

    7.5

    1.09

    0.89

    14.7%

    Ricky Rubio (MIN)

    37.00%

    6.8

    1.09

    0.91

    16.8%

    Damian Lillard (POR)

    35.50%

    7.9

    1.09

    0.97

    9.4%

    Russell Westbrook (OKC)

    29.50%

    7.2

    0.99

    0.96

    2.4%

    Of the guards on the list, Russell Westbrook is the only one who doesn’t seem to have a massive positive impact. He is coming back from a torn MCL and has the leading scorer in the NBA on his team, so there are mitigating factors to consider. Yet even he doesn’t hurt his team.

    Furthermore, players who have a poor shooting percentage on drives still have a positive impact. In fact, there seems to be little, if any, correlation between a player’s field-goal percentage and his impact on the offense. Players such as Rose and Sessions, who shoot below 50 percent on their drives, have a massive effect on their team’s offense.

    Meanwhile, Jeremy Lin, who shoots 65.4 percent on drives, has only the seventh biggest impact on his team. While it's still a positive impact, this suggests that passing out of the drives matters far more than scoring out of drives. 

    This myth is deemed popped. Scoring point guards are determined to have a positive impact on their teams.

    It should be noted that this says nothing negative about the pure point guards like Chris Paul. It just proves that more than one type of point guard play can help a team.

Myth: The Rebound Champions Aren’t Necessarily the Best Rebounders

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    The Debate

    Some argue that defensive rebounds are a meaningless stat, and they would prefer to measure offensive rebounds. Those are the rebounds that players have to fight for, whereas a lot of defensive rebounds are uncontested.

    Of course when someone is fighting for an offensive rebound, someone else is fighting for a defensive rebound, but why let logic get in the way of rhetoric?

    Others say rebounds are rebounds. 

    Personally, my thought is this: I’m 5’8” and 180 lb with a 14” vertical. If I can get the board, it shouldn’t be recorded as an NBA stat. But that's just me. 

    Am I right? How do you differentiate between cheap rebounds and real rebounds, and how do you determine who the “real” rebounding champions are?

     

    The Test

    One of my favorite things about the new tracking methodology is that it records all kinds of new rebound data, such as rebounding opportunities, which are defined as: “The number of times player was within the vicinity (3.5 ft) of a rebound.”

    It also “measures the number of rebounds a player recovers compared to the number of rebounding chances available as well as whether or not the rebound was contested by an opponent or deferred to a teammate.”

    In other words, it measures when players get rebounds that other players were trying to get, even if those other players were their own teammates.

    The one thing it doesn’t specifically measure, but can be derived from what it does, is the percentage of contested rebounds won.

    The data does, however, lay out the breadcrumbs that can help us get there. The data lists rebound chances per game and uncontested rebounds per game. Assuming that players are able to collect the vast majority of uncontested rebounds (admittedly, there may be a statistically insignificant number of uncontested rebounds that are not collected by a player), we can also determine the number of contested opportunities.

    From there, it's an easy step to determining who wins the highest percentage of contested rebounds, and then we can figure out who the best rebounders really are.

     

    The Conclusion

    Player

    REB per game

    Contested REB per game

    Contested Chances per Game

    Contested REB Win Percentage

    Andre Drummond (DET)

    12.7

    5.7

    10.7

    53.3%

    DeAndre Jordan (LAC)

    13

    5.4

    10.5

    51.4%

    Kevin Garnett (BKN)

    7.6

    2.7

    5.6

    48.2%

    Anthony Davis (NOP)

    10.2

    4.7

    10.2

    46.1%

    Jordan Hill (LAL)

    8.4

    4.1

    9

    45.6%

    Carmelo Anthony (NYK)

    9.6

    3.2

    7.1

    45.1%

    Omer Asik (HOU)

    6.8

    3.1

    6.9

    44.9%

    Patrick Patterson (SAC)

    5.8

    2.5

    5.6

    44.6%

    Blake Griffin (LAC)

    10.4

    4.1

    9.3

    44.1%

    Kevin Love (MIN)

    13.8

    5.6

    12.8

    43.8%

    Tim Duncan (SAS)

    8.3

    3.4

    7.8

    43.6%

    Dwight Howard (HOU)

    13.3

    4.4

    10.2

    43.1%

    John Henson (MIL)

    7.6

    3.3

    7.8

    42.3%

    Andray Blatche (BKN)

    5.9

    2.4

    5.7

    42.1%

    DeMarcus Cousins (SAC)

    10.7

    3.6

    8.6

    41.9%

    Kevin Durant (OKC)

    8.2

    2

    4.8

    41.7%

    Andrew Bogut (GSW)

    9.6

    3.5

    8.4

    41.7%

    Al Horford (ATL)

    8.1

    3

    7.4

    40.5%

    Steven Adams (OKC)

    4.8

    2.7

    6.7

    40.3%

    Timofey Mozgov (DEN)

    6.1

    3.1

    7.7

    40.3%

    Derrick Favors (UTA)

    9.4

    4

    10

    40.0%

    Based on this, it is easy to determine that Andre Drummond is the best rebounder in the league. He hauls in 53.1 percent of his chances. Only one other player, DeAndre Jordan, tops 50 percent.

    On that note, Blake Griffin joins Jordan in the top 10, making them the lone teammate tandem in that tier. This is even more phenomenal when you consider how often they are likely both in the vicinity of the rebound and therefore contesting with each other.

    We can also tell by looking at the total rebounds per game that they have little resemblance to the percent of rebounds fought for and won. This suggests that total rebounds have more to do with what team you play for than how good of a rebounder you are. 

    As such, we deem this myth to be proved true.

Myth: Carmelo Anthony Is the Biggest Ball Hog in the NBA

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Debate

    One of the biggest debates every year is whether Carmelo Anthony (or fill in your favorite/least favorite volume scorer) is a ball hog versus whether he's needed to create points for an otherwise anemic offensive team.

    For the purpose of this conversation, let’s put volume scorers in one camp and ball hogs in another. Volume scorers score a lot and shoot a lot out of necessity, because they just don’t have other scorers on their team. Mid-2000s Kobe Bryant is an example of this.

    Then there are ball hogs, who will force up a bad shot rather than pass it to an open teammate. Based on that definition, it should be easy enough to determine what a ball hog is. Players with the highest ratio of missed shots per assist would be the most likely to force up bad shots instead of dishing the ball to a teammate with a better one.

    Based on that criterion, Anthony, at a ratio of 3.5, would be the 12th biggest ball hog of all time among perimeter players.  

    However, the problem is that kind of analysis doesn’t distinguish between a ball hog and a volume scorer. A player could theoretically pass it out, and his teammate just misses the shot. That’s not his fault. Assists don't really tell us how much a player passes, just how often a player he passes to scores. 

     

    The Test

    Fortunately for us, the new tracking data holds the answer. The data not only tracks passing but also tracks touches and how many points a player scores when he touches the ball.

    We can ascertain the true ball hogs by judging three things: frequency of touches, frequency of passes and efficiency of scoring.

    First, in order to be a true ball hog, you need to touch the ball with a certain degree of frequency, which we’ll arbitrarily make 50, because it’s a nice, round number and also amazingly gives us another nice round number for a pool of exactly 100 players.

    Now we need to look at two things: points per touch and passes per touch. It is going to be almost impossible to score highly in both of these categories, as you either have to pass or shoot. You can’t do both in one possession. Doing one automatically lowers the other. 

    However, if someone rarely passes and frequently shoots bad shots, he can do poorly in both, and those who do poorly in both are ball hogs.

    Here's the list of offenders. 

     

    The Conclusion

    Player

    Passes per game

    Touches per game

    PTS Per Touch

    Percent of Touches Passed

    Ball Hog Score

    Rudy Gay (TOR)

    33.4

    57.9

    0.34

    57.7%

    0.92

    Bradley Beal (WAS)

    36

    59.9

    0.34

    60.1%

    0.94

    DeMarcus Cousins (SAC)

    35.1

    60.7

    0.37

    57.8%

    0.95

    DeMar DeRozan (TOR)

    33.2

    57.4

    0.38

    57.8%

    0.96

    Luol Deng (CHI)

    34.2

    55.5

    0.35

    61.6%

    0.97

    Carmelo Anthony (NYK)

    41.1

    68.3

    0.37

    60.2%

    0.97

    LaMarcus Aldridge (POR)

    41.8

    67.1

    0.35

    62.3%

    0.97

    Kevin Durant (OKC)

    39.5

    67.3

    0.43

    58.7%

    1.02

    Kevin Martin (MIN)

    30.9

    52.5

    0.43

    58.9%

    1.02

    Ryan Anderson (NOP)

    32.2

    52

    0.42

    61.9%

    1.04

    Of the 100 players who touch the ball 50 times, Anthony is the seventh most reluctant passer, giving the ball up to his teammates just 60.2 percent of the time. He is also the sixth most inefficient scorer of the 10.

    So while he might have some ball-hog tendencies, he’s not as bad as you might think. He's more of a volume scorer with bacon cologne. 

    Three players in the NBA, however, have hellaciously hogistic habits: Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan. How about dem apples?

    These players pass less than 58 percent of the time that they touch the ball and score .38 or fewer points per touch.

    And of those three, Gay is the worst of the lot in both areas, passing on just 57.7 percent of his touches and scoring just .34 points per touch. That makes him the easy choice for NBA’s biggest ball hog.

    In fact, using more traditional advanced stats, Gay could be argued to be on pace for having the biggest ball-hog season ever. Of the 152 players with a usage rate more than 30 percent, none has ever had a lower player efficiency rating and lower field-goal percentage than Gay presently owns.

    We deem this myth mostly popped. While Anthony does have some hoggy tendencies, he’s far from the worst. Those honors go to Gay, with his past and present teammates chasing him for the title.

Kinda Myth: Tom Thibodeau’s System Causes the Chicago Bulls’ Injury Issues

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    The Debate

    The Chicago Bulls have been beset with injuries since Tom Thibodeau became head coach. Key rotation players have missed a total of 398 games in the 250 games that Thibodeau has coached, based on calculations from Basketball Reference's game logs.

    They run a demanding style of defense that demands constant movement. The myth is that the exacting system causes the injuries, because part of the system is extra distance. Proponents of this argument say that it’s not just the minutes—it’s the demand of those minutes on the players.

    Others agree that some injuries, such as Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis, are impacted by heavy miles and minutes, but it's more a case of an unbelievably extended stretch of bad luck. Sometimes, frustrated people try to assign blame just so they can have someone or something to curse, even if no one is at fault. 

     

    The Test

    If it’s heavy mileage that is causing the injuries, then it should be the case that the Bulls have more mileage than any other team or at least more than most. Furthermore, if other teams have higher mileage, and mileage causes injuries, those teams should also have injury issues.

    The tracking data does track the number of miles and the “speed” that each player logs on the court. By adding together the distances run and minutes played by each player, we can determine how many total miles each team runs per game and how “exacting” the various systems are, as determined by the average speed.

     

    The Conclusion

    Here are the findings, listed by distance run per team.

    Rank

    Team

    Distance

    (Miles per Game)

    Speed

    (Miles per Hour)

    1

    Philadelphia 76ers

    17.90

    4.34

    2

    San Antonio Spurs

    17.52

    4.35

    3

    Cleveland Cavaliers

    17.37

    4.26

    4

    New Orleans Pelicans

    17.22

    4.22

    5

    Los Angeles Lakers

    17.10

    4.25

    6

    Washington Wizards

    17.08

    4.14

    7

    Portland Trail Blazers

    17.03

    4.22

    8

    Chicago Bulls

    17.01

    4.16

    9

    Utah Jazz

    16.97

    4.18

    10

    Orlando Magic

    16.95

    4.17

    11

    Sacramento Kings

    16.91

    4.19

    12

    Toronto Raptors

    16.89

    4.14

    13

    Charlotte Bobcats

    16.88

    4.20

    14

    Houston Rockets

    16.88

    4.14

    15

    Oklahoma City Thunder

    16.84

    4.13

    16

    Atlanta Hawks

    16.80

    4.19

    17

    Golden State Warriors

    16.80

    4.13

    18

    Los Angeles Clippers

    16.71

    4.13

    19

    Memphis Grizzlies

    16.68

    4.11

    20

    Dallas Mavericks

    16.66

    4.16

    21

    Denver Nuggets

    16.64

    4.14

    22

    Minnesota Timberwolves

    16.63

    4.12

    23

    Milwaukee Bucks

    16.61

    4.06

    24

    Phoenix Suns

    16.55

    4.09

    25

    Miami Heat

    16.51

    4.10

    26

    Detroit Pistons

    16.51

    4.08

    27

    Boston Celtics

    16.41

    4.06

    28

    Brooklyn Nets

    16.26

    4.01

    29

    Indiana Pacers

    16.14

    3.99

    30

    New York Knicks

    15.93

    3.95

    The Bulls are only eighth in terms of total distance. For the most part, the teams above them are not being destroyed by injuries. The Trail Blazers once were, but they aren’t now. They don't run the same system they did when they were getting hurt either. (In fact, it was much slower then than now). 

    You could argue (fairly) that the Spurs, who run the second-most miles, are aided by extra rest. The rest of the teams have no such claim, however.

    Nor are the Bulls’ specific players being overly taxed. Only one, Luol Deng, is in the top 50 in miles per game. In that instance, though, there may be some evidence.

    Jimmy Butler was injured, and in the seven games that Deng played without Butler, he averaged 42.4 minutes per game. Prior to that, he averaged 35.9 minutes. Based on his average rate of speed, that means he went from running just 2.5 miles (equivalent to around 20th in the league) to 3.0 miles per game (equivalent to most in the league).

    Then it got worse, and he played through an injury in the last two games before he sat. In those two, he averaged 48.7 minutes and 3.4 miles. It’s fair to say that Thibodeau leaning so hard on Deng exacerbated his injury.

    This myth is considered half true. Some of the injuries are an issue of Thibodeau’s coaching style, but there is insufficient evidence to support that he is the primary cause. 

Sorta Myth: Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony Are NBA's Best All-Around Scorers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Debate

    When I was growing up, determining the best scorer in the NBA was an easy thing. It was the guy who won the scoring title, duh.

    Then we started looking at field-goal percentage in the mid-1980s, and that complicated things. More recently, we’ve added things like effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage and shot charts.  

    Then the debate grew into different types of shots. What about a mid-range, a jab step, a step back, catch-and-shoot, shot creating and so on. All these revolve around the argument: Can a player score in multiple ways?

    If he drives to the rim, can you trap him and shut him down? If you sag off and give him the jumper, will he take advantage? Can he back you down and post you up if you play him physically? Can he create shots, both with and without the ball?

    The best scorer is the one who scores a lot but can also score in different ways. That way, you can’t shut him down with a specific kind of defense or defender.

    Currently, the conversation usually revolves around two players: Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

     

    The Test

    The test here is simple. The tracking data breaks points into four categories and explains them accordingly:

    • Drive Points come from any "touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.”
    • Close Shot Points are defined as "points scored by a player on any play that starts within 12 feet of the basket, excluding drives."
    • Catch and Shoot Points come off any "jump shot outside of 10 feet where a player possessed the ball for 2 seconds or less and took no dribbles.”
    • Pull Up Shots are defined as any "jump shot outside 10 feet where a player took 1 or more dribbles before shooting.”

    So, whichever player shows the most diversity in the four types of scoring is the most complete scorer. The specific moves are somewhat moot. Whether it was a step back or a jab step hardly matters. What matters is if a player was able to create space and get points off a shot he created, regardless of how pretty the move was that created the space.

    There are no style points in the NBA, only the kinds of points that come from buckets and free throws.

     

    The Conclusion

    Of the top 50 scorers in the NBA, only four averaged two points in each of the four areas. Only 39 even averaged two points in three of the four areas, with Kevin Durant falling into that range.

    If we broaden the standard to 1.8 in each category though, we can include Durant as a fifth player.

    Here are the five players and how many points they score in each category.

    Player

    PTS per game

    Drives PTS per game

    Close Shots PTS per game

    Catch and Shoot PTS per game

    Pull Up Shots PTS per game

    Kevin Durant (OKC)

    28.4

    5

    1.8

    4

    7

    Carmelo Anthony (NYK)

    25.6

    2.2

    2.8

    4

    6.7

    LeBron James (MIA)

    25

    4.1

    3.2

    3.4

    3.6

    Rudy Gay (TOR)

    19.5

    4.2

    2

    2.8

    6.8

    Luol Deng (CHI)

    19.4

    2

    2.6

    3.5

    3.6

    The top three are not at all surprising. The fourth might have you a bit surprised, but hey, quantity makes up for quality, right? But the last may have you saying, “Dang! Deng!”

    Clearly, Deng and Gay aren’t in the conversation, but they fit the criteria, so they’re listed.

    LeBron James, though, separates himself from the rest. Not only is he one of only four players scoring at least two points from all four areas, he’s scoring at least 3.2 points from all four areas.

    If you want a greater perspective on this, only five players (Durant, Gay, Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Paul George) even score half of what James does in each of the four types of scoring.

    But point totals don't say anything about efficiency.  Let’s look at how each player shoots on each type of shot.

    Player

    Drives FG%

    Close Shots FG%

    Catch and Shoot eFG%

    Pull Up Shots eFG%

    Overall eFG%

    LeBron James (MIA)

    57.9%

    70.6%

    82.2%

    37.7%

    62.7%

    Kevin Durant (OKC)

    50.0%

    57.9%

    43.4%

    46.2%

    51.5%

    Luol Deng (CHI)

    45.8%

    69.6%

    36.6%

    48.4%

    48.3%

    Carmelo Anthony (NYK)

    46.4%

    69.4%

    50.6%

    37.2%

    46.8%

    Rudy Gay (TOR)

    32.9%

    63.6%

    49.0%

    43.6%

    42.4%

    James clearly is the most dominant here as well. He shoots the highest percentage among the five in three of the four different areas. And yes, that's 82.2 percent on catch-and-shoots. So much for "no jumper" arguments. 

    Based on the tracking, LeBron James has the strongest argument for most complete scorer. Anthony and Durant both have a case for second best, with neither taking a clear position over the other. Gay and Deng luck their way into the conversation but don’t belong here.

    The final say here is that this myth is half false. Durant and Anthony are two of the three most complete scorers in the NBA, but the title of most complete goes to LeBron James.