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BYU study reveals statistical recipe for victory in the NBA

New research using professional basketball statistics shows the small forward is the make-or-break position in the NBA.

In the current issue of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis of Sports, Brigham Young University statisticians compare the value of 13 box score statistics across the five player positions to see how much each contributed to winning games. Peeling back the complexity of the game, the study shines the spotlight on small forwards who serve up assists to their teammates and protect the ball.

Of all the combinations of stats and positions, the study found assists by small forwards contribute the most to a team’s likelihood of victory. Conversely, turnovers by small forwards do the most harm to a team’s chances. Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers is a poster child for this breed of small forward, averaging more than six assists and less than three turnovers per 48 minutes played last season.

While the small forward’s importance in this analysis confirms what some experts already say about today’s game, the study included a few surprises about the value of a statistical advantage at specific player positions. The following conclusions about matchups assume there is no production drop-off in other statistical categories for all the positions.

Steals by centers: Teams benefit more in the point spread from an edge in steals at center than an equivalent edge at any other position.

Last season’s leader: Ben Wallace of the Chicago Bulls led the league’s centers with 2.0 steals per 48 minutes played.

Offensive rebounds by point guards: Teams benefit more in the point spread from an edge in offensive rebounds at the point guard spot than an equivalent edge at any other position.

Last season’s leader: Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets led the league’s point guards with 2.2 offensive rebounds per 48 minutes played.

Defensive rebounds by shooting guards: Teams benefit more in the point spread from an edge in defensive rebounding at the shooting guard position than an equivalent edge among post players.

Last season’s leader: Josh Childress of the Atlanta Hawks led the league’s shooting guards with 8.3 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes played.

“These results could be used by coaches to help exploit positional matchups in specific games,” said BYU professor Gil Fellingham.

At every position, the analysis showed that assists mean more to victory than field goals. This comes as validation to the philosophy of Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan. Last season the Jazz averaged 24.7 assists per game and reached the Western Conference finals.

“This suggests having a group of players play as a single unit increases the chances of winning a game,” Fellingham said.

Fellingham is co-author on the paper with fellow BYU statistics professor Shane Reese. The project began with former BYU student Garritt Page, who conducted the research for his master’s thesis. Page, now pursuing a Ph.D. at Iowa State University, is lead author on the study.

Writer: Irasema Romero


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