The world is run by big data and analytics in more ways than you may realize. In 2013, day traders on Wall Street utilize lightning fast computing algorithms to make stock market transactions in the tiniest fractions of a second. The continued development of robotics and artificial intelligence has begun to define a post-modern epoch in cutting edge technology. And yet, many from within NBA inner circles still clamored for more comprehensive methods of obtaining and making sense of data to help make increasingly paramount front office decision in what has grown to be over a $5 billion industry.
Just under a year and a half ago, a new Atlanta Hawks General Manager was named and his background as part of one of the most forward thinking franchises represented what could be the dawn of a new age in Atlanta. Danny Ferry hasn’t been shy about bringing to Atlanta a change in how business is done. He strongly desired to overhaul the many aspects of this organization that left the team without a path to the top. This meant a new way of evaluating players, coaches, fans, and every other facet of the Atlanta Hawks umbrella. And just now, some of the results have begun to manifest themselves. Ferry has been very open about his method of attack. His comments on analytics in this new age of top level of basketball are profound and many. Just a few:
Well over the last year and a half since I’ve been here we’ve started to implement more of an area that uses statistical data probably more than has been in the past…The analytics part is an important part of [the NBA] now and you’re at a big disadvantage if you don’t use it…Analytics is a great tool, but it’s not a decision maker. At the end of the day, you have to make decisions that you feel good about and you feel right for what you’re trying to build and what you’re trying to do. But it’s a great checks-and-balance to make sure you’re not missing something. Or, if it does challenge you, OK, why? It makes you ask the right questions. I think that’s how we’ll use it going forward and I feel like it’s a valuable tool.
We will build an analytics program. It’s something that can be a good tool. It doesn’t make the decisions for you, but it can challenge you and make you look at different things. And there’s people doing things out there now that can challenge you and be a very good tool in an important way, that didn’t exist ten years ago. There’s two ways to look at the analytics: at a micro level — on your team, and how you play — and a macro level — on how you build your team, the direction you’re gonna go for the season, and the next three seasons. Those are areas we want to build in. A good analytics person would tell you not to cede your decision-making to statistics alone. Because there’s flaws to it: sample sizes. And the game is more static than baseball, for example. In baseball, it’s this pitcher that’s right-handed against this batter that’s left-handed, and it’s really just a one-on-one game. With five different guys on the court, it’s much more complex.
These comments are very revealing, and yet details and inner workings of this analytics program remain unbeknownst to metric-craving, numbers nerds like me, but with the NBA setting up SportVU cameras in all 30 arenas for this season, the average fan can ingest a sniff of the what organizations can now quantify. I’ve already mentioned the impact of the new SportVU cameras and their roles in helping quantify many more aspects of the game of basketball here, so I’ll try not to rehash it.
First, let’s check up on the team’s progress through its first 10 games this season. It’s the 1/8th checkpoint in the season and the direction of every club in the Association has begun to become clearer. The Hawks sit at a respectable 6-4 mark, with only the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Miami Heat ahead in the Eastern Conference in winning percentage and pythagorean record.
It’s pretty easy to see where the source of Atlanta’s success has come from. Jeff Teague taking a major step forward, the continued quiet dominance of Al Horford, and the seamless insertion of Paul Millsap among other factors have the Hawks solidly in the fourth spot in the East, despite much trepidation regarding the immediate benefits of Atlanta’s offseason. I could point to commonplace metrics like a top 5 offensive efficiency to offer an explanation, but HEY LOOK SHINY NEW STATS. Let’s head to NBA.com’s stats page and delve in.
The Hawks, new and old, have fit into their roles well. Jeff Teague has become, dare I say, an elite point guard, now averaging over 19 points and 9 assists per game. Teague is in the top 5 in every imaginable assist category on the passing page of the NBA’s player tracking. His agility with the ball in his hand has allowed him to execute pick and rolls and use screens to explode to the hole with ease. Though his jump shooting is at a lower success rate than the past, it’s too early to worry. This could be the early signs of a true breakout year for the fifth year player.
With the drafting of international phenom Dennis Schröder, the Hawks figured to have made the backup point guard spot a strength, but in the early stages of the season, it hasn’t been the German blur who has fulfilled those expectations. Shelvin Mack was in a battle with former Hawks Royal Ivey for the last guard spot on the roster, but 10 games in he’s turned into more than a capable third stringer. He is third in the NBA’s points created by assist per 48 minutes metric at 34.9, meaning he like Teague has been able to find his teammates in their sweet spots to help this Hawks offense hum in the early going.
As a result, the Hawks are now 1st by a large margin in assist/turnover ratio, at 1.906, easily eclipsing the second place San Antonio Spurs at 1.676. The Hawks also rank in the top two in assists per possession and assists per made field goal, doing a tango with the Miami Heat for that title. It was hard to imagine this in the offseason from a team with a lot of new faces, including a new coaching staff who brought along a new offense.
The Hawks also have two elite catch and shooters, one a specialist and maybe the best currently in the game – Kyle Korver, and the other with wider range of offensive skills, Al Horford. Both are in the top 25 in the league in catch and shoot points and points per game. This helps demonstrate the importance of Teague’s improved point guard play; he is able to get the ball to these two, as well as Cartier Martin and DeMarre Carroll who are also among the league’s top 100 in catching and shooting, accurately and in space for efficient scoring. Carroll is a sub .300 career 3PG% shooter but has bumped it up to .333 this season so far, due to excellent ball movement and spacing.
Unfortunately, there’s an obvious small sample size caveat that comes with all this data. For example, the ascending list of field goal percentage at the rim as guarded by one player was littered with many diminutive wings and even guards, not true rim protecters. All though Al Horford ranks in the top 10 in blocks per game, the Hawks defense has been a slight worry. Atlanta has given up barely over 1 point per possesions, which ranks 13th coming into Monday night’s play.
Robust data acquisition is responsible for all these figures to help us get a clearer picture what happens on the court over a long period of time. Unfortunately, without an easy way to sort and compare team by team, quantifying and analyzing individual player performance is all there is for now. Still it’s clear the actions of Danny Ferry are beginning to pay off in on-court success. It’s early, but the signs are there for the Atlanta Hawks to rise above and beyond expectations in the short and long term.
*All stats courtesy of the NBA and TeamRanking