James Harden and Data Visualization

August 14, 2013
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On October 28, 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded star sixth-man James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The move was not entirely expected, as the team was unable to work out a long-term extension with Harden. Fans were disappointed, as this trade broke up the young core of the Western Conference champions. (Harden was looking for a max contract and the Thunder had two max players signed long-term already.*)

On October 28, 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded star sixth-man James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The move was not entirely expected, as the team was unable to work out a long-term extension with Harden. Fans were disappointed, as this trade broke up the young core of the Western Conference champions. (Harden was looking for a max contract and the Thunder had two max players signed long-term already.*)

While the move itself wasn’t entirely unexpected, the data behind the move was even more surprising.

Data-Based Thinking

Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey comes from the Moneyball school of sports management. That is, all else equal, it’s better to make decisions based upon data than gut instinct. To this end, Morey had long coveted Harden, an incredibly efficient player.

As the following chart from HotShotCharts demonstrates, Harden naturally navigates to places on the floor that lend themselves to high expected values. (Click on the image to expand it).

Harden

You can noodle for days on the HSC site, looking at visual data from different teams, players, and arenas. For his part, Harden generally takes shorter three-pointers and layups. (See the red dots above.) He avoids long two-pointers because they have lower expected values. Note the low shot counts inside the arc but outside of the paint.

What’s more, field goal percentage (FGA) is a better gauge of player effectiveness. Players like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Carmelo Anthony score a bunch of points, but they typically take far too many shots. (Even I would score ten points per game if you gave me enough shots, I’m not very good at hoops.)

Simon Says

Data is permeating every facet of business and, I’d argue, life. While not a complete substitute for common sense, we are seeing dataviz tools crystallize differences among companies, products, and even NBA players.

Relying exclusively on old standbys like Microsoft Excel leaves money on the table. Why not look at different ways to view your data? You may well be surprised at what you find.

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What say you?

* The Thunder offered Harden $55.5 million over four years–$4.5 million less than the max deal Harden coveted and will get from the Rockets, sources told ESPN The Magazine.