The NBA basketball season tipped off earlier this week, and with its return comes a number of supplementary aspects that have become staples of the culture, like NBA Twitter and ‘Inside the NBA’.
One of those “staples,” though, is treading a dangerous line between insight and excessiveness.
The supplement I reference is the use of analytics in basketball conversations and, on a greater scale, player-personnel decision making. Defined as information resulting from the systematic analysis of data and statistics, analytics play a major role in basketball and anywhere else where statistics are relevant (more on that second part later).
With that said, analytics in basketball are spiraling out of control.
Look no further than a recent debate on the efficiency of mid-range jumpers between NBA writer Matt Moore and NBA superstar Kevin Durant. After about thirty minutes of back and forth, Moore referred Durant to a simple, but also understandably confusing, axis data set. Durant spoke for the majority of the basketball community with his response:
“Who … wants to look at graphs while having a hoop convo?”
I omitted two words between “who” and “wants” from Durant’s actual response, but you can use your imagination. The first was “the,” just in case you’re struggling.
The interaction between the two prominent basketball figures illustrated a developing problem in the sport — analytics have become too advanced for basketball’s own good. For example, the Basketball Index, a website respected for providing unique data models, posted an analysis of how Utah Jazz small forward Bojan Bogdanovic ranked above the 93rd percentile in total three-point gravity last season.
First off, what is a total three-point gravity rating? Revisit that sentence, and add the same two words omitted from Durant’s earlier quote in between “what” and “is”.
While I’m sure the rating has some legitimacy, the harmful nature of the post was the fact that just one line after supposedly praising Bogdanovic as one of the league’s best shooters, the post claims that the odds of the Utah forward generating a positive return on investment is 0.04%.
Posts like that should spark a combination of anger and fear in fans of the sport for two reasons.
This trend of over analyzing to the point of bad decision-making seems primed to become commonplace in basketball, as it allows executives to operate in a safe numerical comfort zone rather than potentially risking their job by signing a player based off observation.
On the surface, the adopted practice maximizes efficiency and minimizes risk, but in reality, using numbers as the sole factor in making decisions leads to head-scratching moves and a lack of innovation. Just ask the music industry and its obsession with streaming numbers.
Rolling Stone reported that major record companies — Sony, Universal and Warner — are signing nearly two new artists per day in 2019 just to keep up with the demand of long-tail income from streaming services. Long-tail income is defined by Investopedia as a period when sales for less common products can return a profit due to reduced marketing and distribution costs.
In other words, it’s the demand for more songs with less support for said songs.
Music companies signing two new artists per day seems fine initially, as it is logically assumed that more artists equals more opportunity. However, with so many new artists coming in like clockwork, new talents are actually receiving less of an opportunity than they would have had they remained independent or stuck with a small label.
Major artist manager Ian Montone summarized the problem best: “I’ve been in label meetings when they’ve literally said, ‘Sorry, the song’s not working.’ The song’s been out literally a day — what are you talking about? ‘Nope, we’ve read the numbers — we’re going to move on.’”
Analytics have become so ingrained in the music industry that even top executives have begun to recognize that quantitatively measuring artists is reaching sad extremes.
Jody Gerson, the CEO and chair of Universal Music Publishing Group and the person responsible for signing artists such as Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Khalid and Post Malone, has actually spoken out against music labels spreading their bets across a number of artists rather than investing long-term in an artist’s development.
“One big difference today is that the industry has bought into this idea that we have to keep on feeding distribution and the [streaming] platforms,” Gerson said in an interview with Music Business USA Magazine. “But there is only so much music that can be brilliant.”
As someone whose career is directly linked to data points such as number of clicks, bounce rate and unique visitors, I understand the power of analytics. When used correctly as a means of finding trends to see what works and what falls flat, analytics can be game-changing. However, when advanced analytics aren’t backed by advanced observation, bad decisions are made — like giving up on an artist after one song flopped or thinking one of the best shooters in the league is somehow worth less than his peers.
Taj Mayfield is a sophomore writing about the connections between music and sports. His column, “808s & Fast Breaks,” runs every other Friday.