David R. Henderson  

Moneyball

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Update below

My wife had surgery yesterday and, with the anesthetic taking hours to wear off, had trouble reading. So I read her my favorite front-page story from a recent Wall Street Journal, a story about her and my favorite team--the Golden State Warriors--and favorite player--Stephen Curry. It's Ben Cohen, "Remaking Basketball the Warriors' Way," Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2016.

For some reason, I can't access the WSJ on line as I normally can, probably because I sent in my renewal a few days late. So I can't copy and paste. Instead, I'll laboriously type in my favorite few paragraphs and add a couple of facts.

But there is another tale to be told about the Warriors. It involves a group of executives with limited experience, led by a Silicon Valley financier, that bought a floundering franchise in 2010 and set out to fix it by raising a single question: What would happen if you built a basketball team by ignoring every orthodoxy of building a basketball team?

The process took many twists and turns, and there were times when it nearly failed. But the dominance the Warriors have displayed this season can be traced back to one of the most unusual ideas embraced by the data-loving executives: the notion that the NBA's 3-point line was a market inefficiency hiding in plain sight.

This season the Warriors have sunk 1,025 3-pointers, by far the most in NBA history. Not only has Mr. Curry taken more threes than any other player, he is making them at a rate of 45.6%, higher than the NBA average for all shots. He has shattered his own record for most 3-pointers in a season by 34%. Moreover, distance seems to have no significant effect on his accuracy. Mr. Curry is a better shooter from 30 to 40 feet than the average NBA player is from 3 to 4.


The data dive yielded many insights, but the Warriors eventually zeroed in on the 3-point line. NBA players made roughly the same percentage of shots from 23 feet as they did from 24. Because the 3-point line ran between them, the values of those two shots were radically different. Shot attempts from 23 feet had an average value of 0.76 points [DRH note: implying a percentage make of 38%], while 24-footers were worth 1.09 [implying a percentage make of 36%.]

This, the Warriors concluded was an opportunity. By moving back just a few inches before shooting, a basketball player could improve his rate of return by 43%.


The author, Ben Cohen, goes on to write: "Mr. Lacob wasn't the only team owner in sports to delve into statistics--baseball has been doing it for years." Interesting that he doesn't mention that the person most responsible for it in baseball, Billy Beane, started it approximately 300 yards away with the Oakland A's.

Cohen also goes on to talk about the acquisition of another 3-point sniper, Klay Thompson. Having the "Splash Brothers" made it very hard for other teams to defend and opened up lanes and opportunities near the basket. Cohen mentions that the Warriors refused to give up Klay in a trade for Kevin Love. My wife and I were so nervous about that at the time: the Warriors simply didn't work without Klay. The article shows that Lacob and the others thought the same way. Whew!

Cohen doesn't quite get it wrong but in discussing the trade of Monta Ellis in 2012, he doesn't mention whom the Warriors got in return. At the time my wife and I thought it was a huge mistake because Andrew Bogut came with an injury that took months to heal. Later in the piece, Cohen makes it sound as if the Warriors got Bogut just before the 2014-15 season.

Cohen then has a beautiful discussion of another audacious move the Warriors made after observing Steph make a 3-pointer off one foot. They realized that he was good from almost anywhere:

The team realized that any possession that ended with a 3-point attempt by Mr. Curry was worthwhile--and that they would never discourage him from taking one. In this, the season of Mr. Curry's unleashing, the Warriors are shooting 17% more threes than a season ago. Mr. Curry is attempting more than 11 a game. No NBA team had ever had a player attempt more than nine. Last season he hit 286 threes. This season he is on pace for about 400.

What amazes fans even more is the location of those shots. NBA players shoot an average of 28% from 27 feet or beyond. Most players don't even take them unless the shot clock is running out. Mr. Curry has taken 253 such shots and made 47% of them.


Cohen leaves out one ingredient that accounts for the Warriors success: they are a team. They get along well. There are no show-boaters. They pass it around and give up good shots for great shots.

Update
In the comments section, Michael Byrnes writes:

the insight that shooting threes is worth more than long 2s is hardly unique to the Warriors. Just to name one other obvious example, shooting threes and minimizing long 2s was also a key to the construction of the Houston Rockets, who are obviously not anywhere near the success of Golden State.

He's right and I should have thought of that myself, given that I commissioned an article for the first Encyclopedia, published in 1993, that said just that. In his article "Sportometrics," Robert Tollison writes:
Moreover, the value of three-point shots must be traded off against two-point shots. Using data from the National Basketball Association, Kevin Grier and I found that coaches who are better at enforcing such an allocation of shots--better arbitrageurs--are more likely to win games and to have longer tenure as head coaches. Among the better coaches, we found, was Cotton Fitzsimmons, the former coach of the Phoenix Suns. He became head coach of the Kansas City Kings in 1977 and, in his first full season, led the Kings to forty-eight wins and a shooting efficiency rating of 66 percent, a very high statistic in the NBA.


Comments and Sharing






COMMENTS (10 to date)
Mark Barbieri writes:

When in need, you can always access the WSJ using the Google loophole. When you get to a locked article, copy the first sentence or two and paste it into a Google search box. When Google returns a link to the page, it will take you to an unlocked version.

Greg G writes:

David,

I hope your wife is recovering well.

I don't really buy giving quite this much credit to the economically thinking executives who crunched the numbers. I think it's the athletes are the real outliers - in the good way.

But regardless of that, they are a team for the ages and it's a great time to be a Warriors fan. They get a lot of credit in my book for doing what they've done in a year where there are several other extraordinarily good teams.

Jon Murphy writes:

Fascinating read. Thanks for sharing!

@Greg G

While you are right that the players are very important, I think the execs do deserve the credit given to them. In baseball, we see this kind of thinking all the time (Sabermetrics). When it works, it works well (like the Tampa Bay Rays or the 2013 Boston Red Sox), but if it fails, it fails bad (like the 2014-2015, and maybe 2016 Red Sox).

That said, to both yours and Prof. Henderson's point, I think the chemistry is the biggest thing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Mark Barbieri,
Thanks. That will be invaluable in the future.
@Greg G,
Thanks.

Tom Jackson writes:

Thanks for this. David's analysis fills in a couple of holes.

I noticed, too, that the piece didn't mention the Oakland A's. I live in Ohio, so I thought maybe my grasp of California geography was shaky, and the basketball team and baseball team weren't as close together as I thought.

When Minnesota couldn't get Golden State to bite, they graded Kevin Love to my local team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. I guess we'll see soon how that worked out.

Michael Byrnes writes:

I haven't read the full article, but the insight that shooting threes is worth more than long 2s is hardly unique to the Warriors. Just to name one other obvious example, shooting threes and minimizing long 2s was also a key to the construction of the Houston Rockets, who are obviously not anywhere near the success of Golden State.

And then, on the other hand, there are the San Antonio Spurs, who, while worse then the Warriors, are enjoying a historically great season themselves despite far less reliance on the three.

I think the Warriors owe a lot to their uniquely talented players - obviously Curry, but I would also say that Draymond Green, in his own way, is as unique a player in today's NBA as is Steph. How many 6'6" guys can do everything from defend centers, run their team's offense, and shoot from deep. Curry is a no doubt unanimous league MVP but Green is still a remarkable and unique contributor.

Heck of a team, to be sure.

James Hanley writes:

They are indeed a great team. I'd long ago given up watching pro basketball because it had become far too boring. But the Warriors are great fun to watch.

Jon Murphy writes:

I agree with James Hanley. I live on the East Coast, so their games start around 10 PM my time. I'll routinely stay up and watch them if they're on ESPN because they are that interesting. And I don't even like basketball that much!

MikeP writes:

Let me agree with James Hanley too. Watching the NBA before was strikingly boring, with individual players racing the clock to muscle their way to a poor shot. But watching Golden State is fun.

The Warriors' 3-point strategy not only makes their shots more efficient: it makes defenses recognize that their shots are more efficient and hence spreads the defense and opens the inside for passes and drives.

A side observation is that when the Warriors falter it's generally due to turnovers caused by passing the ball over the top -- exactly where they've drawn the defense because of their 3-point strategy.

Michael Byrnes writes:

I should add that what I think really sets the Warriors apart is not the 3-point strategy but their ability to recognize the unique talents they have and adjust their strategy to maximize this advantage.

Stephen Curry shooting 3s is an obvious example of this, but, to me, Draymond Green is an even better example. How many teams would have seen a 6'6" guy as someone who should start at power forward and play center for large stretches of every game? And then run a lot of the offense through him? I could almost imagine Draymond languishing as a backup small forward on more traditionally-minded teams. Early last year, Golden State decided to run with Draymond ahead of the better known (and good "traditional" power forward) David Lee.


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