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Where the Heat and the Thunder Hit Their Shots (nytimes.com)
200 points by akharris 1571 days ago | hide | past | web | 66 comments | favorite

Not sure how many of you are basketball fans, but if you have even a cursory interest in the sport I suggest you check out this year's NBA finals. It is widely regarded as one of the most anticipated match-ups in many years. OKC's stars are all under the age of 24 which means they should dominate for years to come. We have literally watched these guys grow up before our eyes and they finally get their shot at the title this year.

LeBron James has been lambasted for leaving his hometown team to try to win a championship with the Heat which has evaded him so far. The Heat are the most hated team in the league. By contrast, the Thunder is led by the league's leading scorer Kevin Durant who's appears to be one of the most humble superstars in the league. It's the ultimate good guys vs. bad guys matchup. LeBron, likely fueled by all the criticisms about his ability to perform in the clutch and his will to win, appears to be on a mission to prove everybody wrong and finally win his first championship. To put it in perspective, facing elimination in game 5 versus the Celtics, LeBron put on one of the best playoff performances in history scoring nearly half his team's points (http://www.nba.com/games/20120607/MIABOS/gameinfo.html).

The series will be on ABC so you don't need cable to watch it. Catch at least one game.

It's worth pointing out that Erik Spolestra and Scott Brooks are also two brilliant tacticians.


1. Kevin Garnett of the Celtics had been troubling the Miami Heat's inside game during the Eastern Conference Finals (partially due to the absence of Chris Bosh). Bosh is fully healthy for Game 7, and he has a great jumper for a big man, so Spolestra plants him in the corner during the crucial 4th quarter of Game 7. Bosh hits three 3-pointers, forcing KG out of the paint to cover him. This is perfect for the Heat's isolation offense, as it rotates 6'7" Paul Pierce into the paint. Lebron/Wade spend the rest of the game driving on Pierce, while Bosh and KG hang out in the corner. Game over.

2. Serge Ibaka is an excellent shooter given his playing style (big shot-blocking men often shoot poorly unless your name is "Kevin Garnett" or, to a lesser extent, "Tim Duncan.") Brooks knows he shoots well, and runs both Ibaka and Perkins for extended minutes during Game 4 of the West Finals against the Spurs. The Spurs only have an aging Tim Duncan defending the paint, and his focus on Perkins means Ibaka makes all 11 of his shots, many in that troublesome midrange area. The Thunder take Game 4 before taking two more to advance.

This series will be incredible. Two teams equally matched in skill and coaching acumen. Can't wait.

Every day it blows my mind how much of a tactical/strategic game basketball is. You provide some great examples! It's often hard to see as an outsider. "Why is he shooting 3's? He shoots 25% from beyond the arc!" ...well, he may be trying to draw his defender out so that he can penetrate easier. "Why is he complaining to the ref about that obvious non foul?" ...well, maybe he is priming the ref for the next posession, where he is planning on going to the rim and expects to get fouled. I would love to hear more tactial examples, those are awesome!

I'll second the request for good books/articles on the tactical/strategic portion of basketball (also gridiron and soccer)

If you really want to dive in deep, this could be a fun place to start since it covers the upcoming finals:


It's done by a redditor, Mens_Rea who has written up tons of stuff:


It's worth finding a writeup of a non-Thunder/Heat team since they play fairly similar styles.

Zonal Marking (zonalmarking.net) is excellent for soccer. Lots of attention given to formation and player positioning.

Another good resource for soccer, less in-depth but a good survey of the history of soccer tactics, is "Inverting the Pyramid" by Jonathan Wilson.

Check out smartfootball.com

It's even got a bit of "who's the real villain", due to the manner in which the Sonics/Thunder left Seattle. While those who weren't Sonics fans tend to enjoy the way the Thunder play and the humility of KD, a lot of Sonics fans who watched the Clay Bennett saga and read the leaked e-mails are quite bitter. It was similar in heart-wrenching status in Seattle to "The Decision" in Cleveland.

Something tells me that the bitterness from Sonics fans will be around for a while.

When the Thunder advanced to the finals, a Washington-state newspaper ran the headline "Sonics advance to Finals, oh wait // Oklahoma City steals team, and steals game from San Antonio": http://deadspin.com/5916713/pacific-northwest-newspaper-head...

I agree that this is going to be a very competitive series. The match-ups seem to favor OKC a bit since I think they can spread the floor better and create good shots for their KD and Westbrook. But James and Wade are very experienced and savvy players and their athleticism (along with Miami's excellent defensive play) gives Miami a strong chance to win.

You can be sure we'll be watching. Our new office is just 3 blocks from the arena in OKC and we can't wait!

Growing up in Seattle, it was hard not to downvote you.

> The Heat are the most hated team in the league.

I'd say Heat and Thunder are tied for most hated team.

I'd say you're probably wrong on that. The Thunder are hated by Sonic fans for the most part. The Heat are generally disliked in a way that the Yankees, Duke basketball, and the Patriots/Cowboys are. Heck, the Lakers or Celtics might even be above the Thunder on the list of most hated teams in the NBA.

I'm a die hard NBA fan and have never heard of anyone hating the Thunder.

Why do people hate the Thunder?

I can see the argument that some Seattle fans would resent that the team left, but I think their anger would be directed toward the owners involved or David Stern - not the team itself.

For Seattle fans, it's not merely that the team left, it's how they left. Some of Clay Bennett's e-mails got leaked, and they make it clear that while he was publicly promising to try to keep the team in Seattle (which was a condition of the original sale) he was privately saying he'd move the team to OKC ASAP. As long as Clay Bennett is involved with the Thunder, the majority of Sonics fans are going to be against them.

Also remember that of current Thunder players, only Nick Collison was on the team before Clay Bennett arrived. Kevin Durant played one year in Seattle but it was already common knowledge that the team was going to leave, so fans didn't really take to him much. All of the other rotation players were added after the move. So there aren't any beloved players left on the team to mitigate the anger coming out of Seattle.

It's similar to LeBron being thought of as a villain. It's not that he left Cleveland, it's how he left Cleveland. To a lot of fans in both cities, it felt like their guy/team lied about wanting to stay, left under dubious circumstances, and disrespected the fans and the city on the way out.

The Sonics don't have any beloved players still in the league, but Gary Payton outspokenly refused to have his number retired by the Thunder.

I quit watching the NBA entirely when the Sonics left, and I won't watch again until the Sonics are back.

To me, the Thunder have no right to exist and no right to win anything. Any success for them is nothing but an insult to Sonics fans.

Wholeheartedly disagree.

The Lakers may be up there with the Heat for most hated team, but I think OKC is very well liked (outside of Seattle).

But even people who dislike the Thunder have a lot of respect for Durant

People who know basketball have lots of respect for Lebron too. His game is unparalleled right now!

I have never heard any hate directed towards OKC not including whatever drama is haunting them from their Seattle exodus.

They are probably the universally admired team in the nba.

The source of this is: http://courtvisionanalytics.com/

Kirk Goldsberry does these. He's been doing this for a while. The NYT may have developed the library that they're using here (I'm not sure), but the idea and the data visualization concept are his.

Goldsberry was great at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference[1]. The charts really highlight a player's strengths and weaknesses. A quick look at Ray Allen's chart (in Goldsberry's conference paper) shows how much better he is when he goes to his right. Kobe really needs to cut down on those 12-15' baseline jumpers that he seems to favor.

When I look at the graphics from the NYT article, the player whose chart really sticks out is James Harden. His efficiency this year is amazing and a lot of it has to do with shot selection. Most of his shots are 3-pointers or within 8' which are considered the two highest value shots on the court. Some team with a Moneyball style general manager (somewhat common in the NBA from my understanding) will pay him handsomely yet probably still not what his contribution merits.

[1] http://www.sloansportsconference.com/?p=6132

Edit: trivial edit for small error

I enjoy looking for the same sort of shot pattern team-by-team, rather than just player-by-player. For example, during the parts of the year the Nuggets were playing well, the vast majority of their shots were either from within 5 feet of the rim or from outside the arc (like, they'd have 10 or fewer shots not from those areas, out of 80+ total shots). When they were playing poorly, some games they'd take 30 midrange jumpers.

I wonder how much the quality of the shots he takes are a function of his teammates and their offensive sets. Would be really interesting if shot quality could be completely decoupled from the environment.

Yeah, its not the simple - you can't just take a look at the data and tell the players, "take these shots, not these shots." Generally, you get a sense of where you're most effective and where you're not, but either the offense doesn't set you up that way all the time, the defense is doing too good of a job, and the shot clock is running out.

Bottom line, IMO its really helpful to look at these (I love data visualization) but you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of oversimplifying.

How are the statistics from which these visualizations are generated captured? Does the NBA have equipment on the court or in the arena to track players and the ball (something like how professional tennis is monitored)? Is it manual, with a person recording their own observations about player/ball placement? Post-game video analysis?

Not the NBA, but some teams use a system called SportVU[0] that do auto player&ball tracking.

I used to work on the system, so I can answer (some) questions about it.

[0] http://www.sportvu.com/basketball.asp

How does it work?

Short version: Using a number(six) of dedicated video cameras around the venue and (a lot of) image processing.

There is a nice article in wired about it(include a picture of one of the cameras and the view from another) http://www.wired.com/playbook/2011/04/nba-data-revolution/al...

How is the system calibrated? Are the cameras at fixed angles or mounted to a base that measures their angles?

The angles are important, but also the position relatively to the court(which is different in every venue).

The calibration is done by matching(automatically or manually) known world points to pixels from the cameras. (This is a very common practice in image-processing systems)

Teams can install these cameras in their own arenas. Are they allowed to install it when their team plays in opposing arenas? Do they have to negotiate with various team owners for this?

Unfortunately - they can't. There is a continues effort(by the company own the tech, and by the teams that are currently using it) to make it a standart in the league. At least in the previous season there was a sharing agreement between the teams that use the system(all the teams get all the data).

The NBA manually records where the shots are taken, and if it is made or not by the stat person.

I knew a guy in college who got to do this for the Sixers one year. He got to sit relatively court-side and just had to keep an key on the game and write down everything. He used pen and pad, but I would imagine that capturing that data is a lot easier today.

I was looking at espn's feed of the game the other night and they seem to have a lot of details about the game as the game is being played. things like "player missed 13 foot jump shot" and a graphic of a ball bouncing off of the rim and where it was shot from. Id imagine that they have a system like court stenographers so that they can quickly record info and send it to their servers.

I thought these might be D3/SVG visualizations, but it looks like a custom chart library developed by NYT themselves, with drawing done in a Canvas element.

I think a browser might choke on this many visualizations in SVG but I'm not sure. I've seen libraries take all sorts of approaches, but I'm leaning towards Canvas for really fluid and precise graphics.

Edit: I'm baffled why someone would downvote this.

Looking at chart2.js - canvas if the browser supports it with a fallback to flash.

I looked at the team graph and thought it wasn't going to be very informative, but was surprised to see some of the very distinctive player patterns (e.g. Battier).

The graphics are brilliant. Is the image -> graph effect part of some library I haven't heard of?

Shane Battier is one of the smartest players in the NBA, and you can see it in action by looking at his shot chart.

There's a massive (old) article on Battier - http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/magazine/15Battier-t.html?...

Apparently, he's such a good team player (picking good positions, herding opponents into weak positions, doing things which are bad for his stats but good for the team) that he can almost shut down Kobe. OK, Kobe still scores a lot when he's guarded by Battier, but only because Kobe always gets the ball.

He'll memorize every one of those heat maps (along with every other dataset his coach can get him), and use that knowledge to mess up his opponent's attacks.

Great article!

"Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths."

Please forgive me for bringing up something not directly related to this particular series, but economics professor Dave Berri ran some linear regressions on the box score stats of basketball games, and claims he can accurately measure how much wins per season each player is responsible for. (e.g. Team A won 40 games last season, player 1 produced 15 wins, player 2 produced another 10, player 3 produced another 8, and the remaining wins divide among the other players). He has a (sort of official) blog: http://wagesofwins.com/ I'm bringing this up because I think this may be of interest to the HN community. I, for one, was fascinated with his claims and their implications, hope this will interest some of you :-)

I saw this posted earlier under a different title. The word "stunning" was in there referring to the use of images. Just interested in why you changed it and if there was any observable improvement in views/votes from the change.

Anyone else think the granularity is a bit too high on these? Neat concept, but I have to wonder if they wouldn't be a lot easier to interpret with about half the point density.

Is there a publicly available data source for basketball stats like this? Curious where these datasets come from...

No publicly available that I've seen. Most companies use STATS inc


Who did you end up using for the data?

For those of you wanting to dive deeper into the data, try basketball-reference.com's PlayIndex+: http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/plus/shooting...

Do yourself a favor before watching the NBA finals -- check out this 5 minutes preview of the finals: http://www.bballbreakdown.com/2012-nba-finals-preview-heat-v...

Best analysis I've seen yet.

This is pretty awesome. I love solid data, but it seems to me that this might be too much data and too few substantial takeaways...but the graphs are still fun to look at.

Incredible visualization. Seriously one of the best I've seen all year.

I like how it shows where a player is comfortable and good (red clusters), and where a player is just comfortable (light green clusters).

Does any one know where to get access to the raw data? Does the NBA provide them "upon request" or did the author compile them manually?

As best I can tell it does not include free throw attempts. If that is correct, the data and therefore the visualization is seriously incomplete and misleading.

No... it isn't. In fact, including free throws, which are a completely different scenario than regular shots, would be misleading and furthermore, not any more complete. Free throws and shots are very different: free throws are taken with time and preparation, from a fixed location and no defender. Shots are taken on the clock, with whatever defense the opposition can put together, no preparation of the shot--they are much more fluid and require a different (albeit related) skill set.

This graph tells me whether a guy prefers to post up on the right side or the left side... high post or low post... shoot mid-range jumpers or drop back to the three point line.

A colored dot at the free throw line would tell me where he shoots his free throws from, but I already know that.

A player's free throw ability does not need any real visualization. It comes down to number of attempts, and percentage made. Adding them would skew these visualizations and wouldn't tell you anything you couldn't easily figure out by looking at a player's stats.

Hhmm. I was assuming the purpose of such a visualization was to understand the offense, which can't be done without including free throws. Perhaps it serves some other purpose, like employing "front-end developers".

Visualizing the ratio points from the line vs the rest of the floor could be interesting, but it doesn't say much about how they run their offense.

As others noted, free throws occur at the same place every time and would seriously skew the chart - especially for lowpost/longrange players like James Harden.

Maybe a step closer would be showing where a player was fouled that led to shots from the line.

I was assuming the purpose of such a visualization was to understand the offense, which can't be done without including free throws.

This is an accurate assertion -- teams like the Heat live and die by their free throw attempts -- but the article isn't looking at offense. It examines how well players shoot around the court (as the title states).

Realistically, heatmaps with free throws will just have orange-to-dark red circles at the free throw line. That's boring.

Very cool. Now all you need is bunch of robot-basketball players with this data plugged in, and those guys' asses are kicked to high heaven, lol!!

Please no random sports fan chit-chat here. This is Hacker News folks. We have lots of other mainstream places for that sort of thing. Thank you.

For those of you watching the game tonight there is a live fan chat running from 9pm at - http://www.LiveBasketballChat.com/go/17762

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