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An NBA Statistics Treatise

Humans are naturally confident creatures, and nowhere does this confidence spill over into borderline lunacy more plainly than in the certainty we place on our memories. The average person is vastly overconfident about the capabilities of their memory, particularly their short-term memory; research suggests that we can only remember five to nine individual pieces of short-term information at one time, and more recent studies even suggest the number is likely on the lower end of that estimation.

Want some proof? Here’s a popular short-term memory experiment. Get a timer, and time yourself looking at the list of words found below for exactly two minutes. Then reset your timer, close your computer or phone and give yourself another two minutes to write down as many words from the list as you can.

If you got over 10, you’re either lying or a pretty special case. The average storage capacity for short-term memory items is seven plus or minus two items, per researcher George A. Miller, even for tests like this where the exam was immediate and circumstances were generally favorable for the memory.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to both short-term and long-term memory. Several incredibly strong forces work against memory on a regular basis, from emotional attachments and biases to simple realities about the way the chemical parts of the brain change over time.

Did you know that in a 2015 study, over 70 percent of people were able to be convinced, using specific interview techniques, that they had committed a crime that had actually never happened? That’s right, nearly three out of four people admitted to a crime they didn’t commit after nothing more than a few simple techniques applied by interviewers.

The world of sports offers several great examples of the problems with human memory. The use of stats is chief among them – and in particular, the number of folks who still claim a staunch opposition to them.

Sports stats are, in their simplest form, a shorthand for all the relevant things that happened in a given game. Some of them are more descriptive and useful shorthands than others: True Shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage tell us more about shooter quality than standard field goal percentage because they incorporate the separate value of events like free throws and three-pointers, for instance. On some level, though, every stat you see is a compressed, aggregated way of describing something that happened on the court.

“I don’t need that stuff, though,” says that friend we all have, pompously dismissing the very notion that their brain might need an assist from time to time. “I’ve watched basketball for (insert number of years), that tells me everything I need to know.”

The problem is, there’s incontrovertible evidence that it doesn’t.

For starters, look at the facts about short-term memory we just went over. If the brain struggles to even reach 10 individual items that can be accurately stored by the short-term memory, how on earth could it be expected to properly store – and easily recall – the thousands upon thousands of important data points that define the game of basketball?

We’re not just talking about short-term memory here, either. The psychological term “transience” describes an effect that takes place during the storage phase for long-term memories. During transience, memories deteriorate from their original specific qualities into more general memories. That seems pretty relevant when talking about the kind of specific events that define basketball, doesn’t it?

All this is without discussing maybe the biggest threat to accurate memory, one that’s almost universally present in sports: Bias, and the emotion that comes from it.

We all have our biases, many of the subconscious nature that our brains hide from us. In a published study guide, a group of Harvard professors described the way, at times, “what people remember from their pasts says less about what actually happened than about what they think, feel, or believe now.” Other research has shown that the emotional intensity of events significantly impacts the strength of memories – things we show a strong emotional reaction to are more likely to be prioritized by the brain when creating memory.

Sports are, of course, emotional by nature for nearly all their observers, even many of the ostensibly less biased ones. Combine that with the limits of our short-term memories, the weakening of many long-term memories over time and the tendencies our memories have to outright trick us, and you can see why simply trusting them to be accurate about all the factors it takes to properly evaluate basketball is a fool’s errand.

That’s where statistics come in: As a way to catalogue what we see and counter the forces that distort what we remember. And while they certainly aren’t perfect, they’re a hell of a lot more objective than our memories.

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Stats are also easy to access, but not everyone knows that – or how to properly take advantage.

The world of web-based NBA statistics databases requires some time to learn how to navigate, and many of the best metrics and methods out there don’t exactly come with beginner’s manuals. A simple lack of knowledge about where to find basic, relatable ways to digest statistics is undoubtedly a big contributor to the hesitance many feel about attaching importance to them, especially when it comes to big algorithms and probabilistic models with intimidating acronyms for names.

This piece is meant as one small attempt to bridge part of that gap. What follows is a collection of many of the best publicly available online resources for NBA statistics, models, tools and other minutiae.

We’ve attempted to provide a relatively comprehensive look at the features of each site, without being overbearing to the point of absurdity. With apologies to many individuals who post fantastic numerical work on a variety of personal sites or blogs, we’ve stuck to many of the more comprehensive sites currently out there. A few additional notes:

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Table of Contents:

Stats.NBA.com

Basketball-Reference.com

CleaningTheGlass.com

NBAWowy.com

Inpredictable.com

ESPN.com NBA Stats

FiveThirtyEight.com

NBAMath.com

NBAMiner.com

RealGM.com

Honorable Mentions

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Stats.NBA.com (@nbastats)

Overview:

One of the most indispensable statistical resources available online, the league’s official stat site is rivaled in pure scope only by basketball-reference.com. It contains numerous excellent stats that can’t be found anywhere else, including SportVU and Synergy Sports data. Its video and filtering capabilities are second to none, and completely unique in many areas.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

Basketball-Reference.com (@bball_ref)

Overview:

The primary competition for the league site and perhaps the most-visited NBA stats site on the web, basketball-reference.com is an incredibly deep wealth of data. It lacks the filterability and video links of NBA.com along with certain proprietary stats like SportVU, but also contains several unique tools that can’t be found on the league site. Many also report that it’s far more user-friendly than the league site, an important factor for beginners, and does a better job of explaining the stats it houses. These two are the juggernauts of public NBA stats online.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

CleaningTheGlass.com (@cleantheglass)

Overview:

The most recent to launch of any site in this database, Cleaning the Glass is the brainchild of Ben Falk, former VP of Basketball Strategy with the 76ers and Analytics Manager with the Blazers. It began as a public site featuring Ben’s articles and certain other features, and has morphed into a low-priced, subscription-based service that includes in-depth articles, a discussion board and, most importantly for this database, a detailed stats housing site. The stats, which are pulled using play-by-play data primarily, aim to provide more context and functional usability than others on the web. They’re organized in more organic ways based on how modern thinkers understand the NBA game, and great effort is taken to ensure that users understand both the process behind the stats and the areas in which they’re useful. While CTG technically isn’t “public” due to its subscription basis, it’s a very manageable yearly cost and is sure to be a staple of high-level analysis moving forward. It’s well worth a few bucks a month.

Features (not linked due to paywall feature of site):

Notes and Cautions:

NBAwowy.com (@nbawowy)

Overview:

NBAwowy.com took the stats world by storm a few years ago when it was first introduced, representing a completely new tool. The ability to plug in players either on or off the court for a given team, then view player and team stats during those minutes, is incredibly valuable. The league site has caught up to certain parts of this, as we note further down, but many of the stats on nbawowy are fully unique and virtually impossible to find anywhere else. *Important note: As of the beginning of the season, nbawowy founder Evan Zamir is encouraging users to use the league site whenever possible rather than nbawowy. The volume of use may limit functionality, and Zamir has always lost money on the site while operating it completely on his own. 

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

Inpredictable.com (@inpredict)

Overview:

Inpredictable.com is a clear candidate for most under-appreciated stats site on the NBA web. It’s known by most analytics writers and some hardcore fans, but not enough people overall spend time on it. From win probability data to excellent per possession stats that can’t be found elsewhere, inpredictable is wholly unique. It’s also quick to update and very good about transparency with stats and metrics.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

ESPN.com NBA Stats (@espn)

Overview:

Full, honest disclosure: Given the size of the site, the reader base and the resources available, ESPN’s NBA stats are almost offensively bad and limited. Their base stats hold nothing you can’t find much more easily on bballref or the league site, and their only saving grace is found in a few specific advanced stats that ESPN people (current or former) either pioneered or housed there. Frankly, ESPN’s NBA stats are a real disappointment for a worldwide leader. For this article, the only features we will list for ESPN will be those that are at least somewhat unique.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

FiveThirtyEight.com (@FiveThirtyEight)

Overview:

Nate Silver’s brainchild is about far more than just the NBA, and in fact far more than just sports – and yet, what amounts to a few side projects for NBA stats nearly rival the combined efforts of their entire parent site, ESPN. FiveThirtyEight is generally focused on the predictive element when it comes to NBA stats, from season projections to playoff odds and related elements. While you’re there, obviously don’t forget to stop in for excellent data-driven content.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

NBAMath.com (@NBA_Math)

Overview:

Relatively new on the scene over the last couple years, NBAMath is a site based around a few unique metrics meant to assess broad player value. It has a few really cool tools that aren’t found anywhere else, and is maintained by strong statistical minds. The site does a good job of showing its work, and also has a viable blog pumping out good content even through the slower summer months.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

NBAMiner.com (@NBA_Miner)

Overview:

NBAMiner is one of several sites that are great for little minutiae that you often can’t find in too many other places. Some of their data is relatively straightforward, but other parts are very unique and perfect for NBA trivia. Their Twitter account has been mostly quiet for the summer, but has sent a few responses indicating their stats should continue to update for the 2017-18 season.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

RealGM.com (@RealGM)

Overview:

In many ways, RealGM.com’s NBA stats site – despite lacking the resources or overall scope – is exactly what you’d expect from a giant like ESPN. There’s nothing too crazy, but the time has been taken to post a few more relevant filters and basic areas that the general NBA fan wants to know. RealGM isn’t the first stop for most deep research projects, but it has great basic information in several important areas plus a few unique pages.

Features:

Notes and Cautions:

Honorable Mentions

A few sites that absolutely deserve mention here, but didn’t quite make our final list:

 

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