A Numbers Game

How analytics have changed the game of basketball. By Joseph Macri and Elijah Green

Image generated by Dream Studio. Prompt: Basketball in hoop.

The game of basketball is in a constant state of flux. Coaches continually adapt their strategies to keep pace with the ever-increasing skill level of NBA and amateur players alike. So, how have they responded to the influx of immense talent into the sport? The answer lies in analytics.

Each year, the game becomes faster, and scoring more points has become the norm. Defence, once highly valued, has taken a back seat. In today’s era, even if you excel defensively, your playing time is at risk if you struggle to shoot effectively. Players who can put up thirty points on any given night, despite defensive limitations, often take precedence.

The mid-range jumper is fading fast

However, it’s not just elite defenders who have had to adjust.  The mid-range shot has become nearly extinct due to analytics telling us that the shot simply is not effective. DeMar DeRozan and Khris Middleton are two older players who have made a living off the mid-range jumper, with 25 and 27 percent of their respective points from this past season coming from inside the arc. As important to their teams as they have been throughout their careers, they are part of a dying breed. As analytics take center stage, coaches willingly concede open mid-range jumpers if it means covering three-point shooters.

“We aim to take the highest-percentage shot we believe in.” Coach Jay McNeilly, Head Coach, Seneca’s Men’s Basketball

Coach Jay McNeilly, head of Seneca’s men’s basketball team, has embraced the numbers game. He emphasizes analytics not only on offense but also in defensive strategies. “We aim to take the highest-percentage shot we believe in,” McNeilly explains. “Defensively, we focus on denying the lowest-percentage shot for the opposing team. While perfection in all analytics is impossible, we pick a few key areas and ensure our team buys into them.”

The three-point shot reigns supreme for Seneca Sting star

Tafarian Black dribbling past his defender in a Seneca Sting home game.

McNeilly prioritizes the three-pointer because the sport heavily favors this high-percentage play. His coaching philosophy resonates with the younger generation, including Seneca Sting star player Tafarian Black. Black acknowledges the shift in the game, driven by shooting statistics and efficiency numbers. “Coach emphasizes threes—no layups, no mid-range shots,” says Black. “He’d rather see me take an open three than attempt a pull-up mid-range shot.” Black, as well as many others, deem this “The Curry Effect”.

The “Curry Effect.”

“ At the time when I was a shorter guard Steph Curry was someone I idolized and seeing him completely changing the game. So you could have a situation where it’s a two on one and instead of getting a layup, you get a three. Instead of the olden days where you would look to take advantage and get to the rim… but nowadays you know you’re pulling up from three, and with someone like Steph, that’s a layup for him… The three ball is so important and Steph really started that.” Curry, drafted in 2009, leads the NBA in all-time three-pointers made and has influenced the game, unlike anyone before him.

The Graph above shows where on the court Curry has been making his field goals over the last ten years of his career. (excluding 2020 where he only played 5 games). But the incredible volume of three-point attempts influenced by Curry has not left any room for the two-point jumper. Take Curry’s team, The Golden State Warriors, the increase in points from three and decrease from the mid-range once Curry arrived and was playing in his prime is hard to ignore.

Not only has Curry led by example for his team, but for the next generation of ballers entering the league as well. The three-point revolution has even forced older legends of the game such as Lebron James to adopt this style of play in order to keep up with the pace of the league.

There is no denying the influence that analytics now have on the sport, shooters with range will continue to lead the way and the game will only get faster. Who knows what is next for this ever-evolving sport, could it be a four-point line? Nobody is quite certain about that just yet, but one thing that is for certain, you must adapt to the shooter’s game now, or get left warming the bench.

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