All About the Touch
At about 12:30 PM today, the NBA released a limited amount of the SportVU data that every advanced statistic junkie was craving
. Most fans of the sports were imagining the possibilities while trying to get their hands on the data for themselves since they have known about it’s existence. That day came much sooner than we all expected, but now it is more about what the data exactly entails.
While there are going to be broad primers about the entire buffet of information SportVU provides, there was one thing that caught my eye more than any others. The “Touches” tab. This tab isn’t one filled with end-result data, like results from a player driving to the hoop, or how many assist opportunities a player has to take advantage of each game. Instead, it focuses on what happens the entire offensive possession. Spend enough time on this particular group of data, and you can even find out which player has had the highest percentage of their touches be in the back-court — out of players who have touched the ball at least 20 times so far, Arinze Onauku’s 19 back-court touches out of his 25 total touches is good for 76%, slightly beating out Solomon Jones‘ 75.75%.
Now this is all fine and dandy, but what are some more practical uses for that? Sure, maybe Jrue Holiday should show Onauku a little bit more love from time-to-time feeding him the ball once or twice more, but no Pelicans fan is really going to get too upset if that doesn’t happen, right? What can we grab from this?
Well, take a look at touches per game. It isn’t much of a surprise to see that Chris Paul leads the category with 107, he is after all the best point guard in the league. However, Derrick Favors is surprisingly second and who would have thought Josh McRoberts would be thirteenth. This takes Synergy, and adds a completely new step to it. Synergy’s data is more based along the lines of what happens at the end of plays. A possession in Synergy is when a player’s tenure with the ball ends in a shot, turnover, or foul drawn. No passing. Here we get just how much a player dictates the game in between those touches. Who sets up the offense? Just because the possession of the ball didn’t end in an assist or a Synergy-defined “possession” doesn’t mean that you have no impact in the flow of the game. There are many aspects of the process that lead into the result, and if Derrick Favors can be an effective focal point with the offense moving around him, that is valuable.
How about time of possession? Seems like a funky stat in the NBA, as it is typically seen in football because keeping the other team’s offense off the field is at times valuable, but breaking down Damian Lillard having the ball eight whole minutes in his first game can answer important questions on how important he is to Portland’s offense. Look into the fact that Dame had zero turnovers that night in 42 minutes of play. Zero turnovers while having the ball for an entire eight minutes is an amazing way to revolutionize how we look at turnovers. Where turnover percentages fail at capturing, turnovers per possession time can shed light. Even further along, you can delve into pace. Having a player who can have control of the ball can dictate pace. A team that wants to slow down on offense and beat teams in the half court can view a player having a high time of possession as a positive, while other coaches can possibly demand a guy to pass quicker to engage in a swifter pace.
Not cool enough? Well how about location touches and what they mean? Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies is a great example here. Much is made of how Gasol creates in the high block, yet we were far from having any definition from the amount he really did create from there. The SportVU data can help accomplish that. Gasol had 15 field goal attempts and two turnovers in the opener against the Spurs. However, he also had nine close touches — a touch inside twelve feet where it wasn’t designated as a post play — and twenty-one elbow touches. Out of the nine close touches, Gasol likely could have came off a pick-and-roll and finished at the rim with ease. Gasol had seven shots at or around the rim in the opener, so those nine touches surely contributed to that. As for his 21 elbow touches? Well depending on how he got his fourth shot just inside the elbow, Gasol only had three or four attempts around those locations. Hopefully taking the next step can become assist per elbow touch, shot per elbow touch, or turnover per elbow touch. But for now, we can safely assume that in the first game Marc got the ball at the elbow often, and created much around him for the Grizzlies.
Now, with all this being said, most teams have played only one game with the few exceptions that have two. The outputs of the data is meaningless. Gasol could never get another elbow touch again, and Damian Lillard might start shooting the ball the moment he gets it. What is important is all the potential doors that analyzing this data could open, once the set becomes more full. Those video breakdowns of the way a certain player operates in the high-post can now be accompanied by an all telling number of how often that guy gets the ball in that situation. We can also figure out who is the biggest catch-and-shoot specialist with the not-yet-mentioned point per touch. In the end, this is just data, but the data applied with preconceived notions that viewing the games can give us is closer to truly defining what happens on the basketball court.