Derek Thompson has a great Atlantic piece about how the Moneyball-ization of everything has changed culture and sports. The thesis is that analytics push homogenization. I write about data stuff so I should have something thoughtful to say about that but instead I want to veer outside my normal lane and register a basketball take: analytics made the NBA way better.
When universal smarts lead to universal strategies, it can lead to a more homogenous product. Take the NBA. When every basketball team wakes up to the calculation that three points is 50 percent more than two points, you get a league-wide blitz of three-point shooting to take advantage of the discrepancy. Before the 2011–12 season, the league as a whole had never averaged more than 20 three-point-shot attempts per game. This year, no team is attempting fewer than 25 threes per game; four teams are attempting more than 40.
This trend is chronicled in the excellent, chart-filled book Sprawlball which also tends to see it negatively.
But when I started watching the NBA in the ’90s it was way less interesting. It was the just-barely post-Jordan era and every wing just did a lot of iso- 1-on-1 Jordan-imitation stuff. Centers did the post-up equivalent. There was not that much ball movement.
The discovery that 3-point shots were extremely valuable changed all that. When I started watching again a few years back after well over a decade away from the sport I was shocked by how much ball movement there was. The 3-pointer suddenly meant that getting a mediocre player a good shot from outside could be more valuable than just letting your best player go 1-on-1.
Yes, there’s some homogenization in that all teams shoot 3’s. Yes, the mid-range game has faded. And yes there’s a lot of pick-and-roll. But there’s still a good amount of diversity in the skillsets that set those 3’s up. Luka, Giannis, Jokic, and Morant are wildly different players. All of them anchor an offense that involves supporting players shooting 3’s. But the way they set them up is extremely varied and the end result is movement and passing and switching and double-teaming and just lots more excitement (and beauty) than the ’90s NBA.
Anyway, the overall Moneyball take seems right. But basketball got a lot better thanks to analytics.