NBA coaches might not believe it the way some players fire so many shots, but a new study by a theoretical physicist from the University of Minnesota says NBA shooters might be too conservative.
The findings, revealed on Wednesday in the online journal PLoS ONE by author Brian Skinner, said optimized scoring efficiency could produce 4.5 more points a game and more than 10 extra wins in a typical season.
“Strategic decisions in basketball have long been made based on the intuition of the coach or players,” Skinner said. “But as advanced quantitative analyses are increasingly applied to the game, it’s becoming clear that many of the conventional, intuitive ideas for basketball strategy are misguided or sub-optimal.”
The study found that only high-quality shots should be taken early in a possession, with the quality level sliding downward as the 24-second shot clock ticks down, although Skinner said NBA players might be overly reluctant to shoot the ball early in a possession and thereby miss out on high-quality chances.
His data came from games in four NBA seasons, from the 2006-2007 season through the 2009-2010 campaigns.
A key factor in deciding how likely a shot is to be made before a player should take it, Skinner said, is how many more potential shot opportunities remain in a possession.
Skinner found the expected number of points made on any possession averages out to 0.86, while an optimized shooting strategy could boost that to 0.91, a boost that could be expected to boost a team’s victory total more than 10 games.
“One natural way to interpret the discrepancy between the observed and theoretical optimized shooting behavior of NBA teams is as a sign of overconfident behavior,” Skinner said. “NBA players may be unwilling to settle for only moderately high-quality shot opportunities early in the shot clock, believing even better opportunities will arise later.”
While saying individual ball handlers’ decisionmaking processes are the critical factor, Skinner said the study is a solid first step to adapting optimal shot strategies to such changing offensive features as a change in tempo, turnover rate or shooting accuracy.
“More broadly, the question of optimal behavior in sports continues to provide an interesting, novel and highly applicable playground for mathematics and statistical mechanics,” he said.