The NBA Data Scientist

Articles


If you’re a basketball fan, you know your team’s
big stars, head coach, maybe even the rookie bench warmers. But you probably know very little about the Ph.D. mathematicians
like this woman. Her job is to crunch
the numbers of the game. We’re all in sort of an arm’s
race to acquire information. And she’s turning basketball into a hard, cold science. My name is Ivana Seric
and I’m a data scientist. For many years, Philly was a tough place to be a basketball fan. But having reached the top eight in the playoffs for a
second season in a row, the 76ers right now are in a renaissance. Embiid fakes, Embiid down the lane. Just across the river is where the team’s been hard at work and it’s where I went to
go meet Ivana in April. This 125,000 square foot facility comes with all the features you’d expect from an NBA training complex. It also features the
office of people like Ivana who support the team behind the scenes. My job involves analyzing the data that we have from NBA games. My focus is mostly on
the coaching strategy. Coaches have a lot of intuition. They know the game, they know the players, but we try to complete
their picture of the players with data, which is hopefully unbiased. Ivana is part of the Sixers 10-person analytics team. The work of these statisticians
has already forced a profound change in
the game of basketball. Teams are taking more three point shots. Embiid for three. Even though we make
them at lower percentage than the shots closer to the basket, but they’re worth more points and the trade off actually pays off. Take a look at this clip from the ’80’s. See how all the players are
bunched up right by the hoop? Compare that with today. More and more of the action is taking place at the three point line. Of course, it’s not just basketball that’s been reshaped by analytics. Businesses of all kinds are
tracking a ton of information they never tracked before
thanks to new sensors, improvements in computing power, implementing cost and data storage. Data scientists are the people making sense of that information with a combination of statistics
and computer programming. The profession’s expanded
rapidly in recent years and comes with an average
salary of $130,000 a year. Much of the data Ivana
works with comes from technology the NBA adopted in 2013. Every NBA arena has cameras
that record the games and then from those cameras, they can extract player locations on a court. These cameras record 25 frames per second, so for each basketball game, there’s a million of throes of data. And that allows Ivana to analyze plays that were previously difficult to track. For example, take the pick and roll. It’s one of the most
important plays in basketball. It involves one player
setting up a human shield to help a teammate shake off an opponent. So we can look at each player, how much they run pick and rolls and how good they are at that and then we can select a player and see how often he’s going to pass
out of the pick and roll, how often he’s going to shoot. And how would that help you develop a strategy for the coaches? So we could, for example this player, he’s going to pass pretty frequently. We can say this to the coaches and they’re going to decide on the defensive strategy for the player. But this makes Ivana’s job look simpler than it actually is because she spends a lot of her time coding to extract the
information she needs. And I tried really hard
to get her to talk about what exactly she looks for. And there’s some stuff that you do that’s beyond just these interfaces that you showed me today, right? Yep. Can you tell me more about that? Um, not really. So that’s like a trade secret? Yes. NBA’s a very competitive league, so whatever can give us that
advantage, we try to keep it. When advising the coaches
with her analysis, Ivana has a decided advantage
over many of her peers. I started playing when
I was seven years old and I just loved it from the first day. I think ’cause the game is so dynamic and there’s so many different skills. It’s what I wanted to do since I was seven years old, really. I wanted to be a professional
basketball player. Yeah. At 19, Ivana moved from
her home in Croatia to New Jersey to go to college
on a basketball scholarship. And while she was a star
player on her Division I team, she was also an exceptional math student. Much of her life has been like that, balancing her love of basketball
with her love of math. I always thought I’m going to have to choose between the two. I went to graduate school and that’s when I really thought that,
okay, I’m really choosing one or the other this time. So I thought I really chose just math. The plan was to become a
researcher or a professor. Then, three years into
pursuing her Ph.D. in math, she heard that NBA teams
were starting to hire data scientists, but only 26%
of data scientists are women and Ivana didn’t like her odds. When I saw the job posting, I didn’t think I would
actually get the job. I thought because being a woman in such a male dominated field, they would never really consider
me or give me a fair shot. But this prediction
turned out to be wrong. She’s got both the technical
and basketball backgrounds, which is sort of the ideal mix. Her ability to capture
these complex insights and then share them
with players or coaches, with executives in a way
that makes sense to us is super valuable and
frankly, not that common. The next evening, I attended my very first NBA game. It was the last game of the regular season before the playoffs and
my chance to catch up with the ultimate
beneficiary of Ivana’s work, the Sixers head coach, Brett Brown. The team has had a great season so far. What role do you think analytics
has played in that success? I think it’s played a significant role in our success and many, many others. The NBA playoffs are going to
start in three or four days and immediately, we’ll get
an analytical assessment on the strengths or
weaknesses of an opponent. You can assess play
calls, good or bad ones, ones you should do more,
ones you should avoid. Really, I think it’s
going to continue to grow and play a significant role
in the design of organizations and coaching staff’s beliefs. That night, even though
none of the starting players played in the game, the Sixers
ended up crushing the Bulls. A month later, the
Sixers ended up advancing to the conference
semi-finals and suffered a tough defeat at the hands
of the Toronto Raptors. Is this the tie breaker? Ivana and her colleagues will keep looking for
ways to help their team do better in the seasons ahead. But the Sixers victories on the court won’t be the only way she’s
measuring her success. It’s really exciting to be able to show young girls that they
can actually have careers, but it also feels like
a big responsibility because if I don’t do well, it’s going to seem like a woman cannot do this job, because there are not so many of us. It’s a big part of what
motivates me every day to be able to show young girls that they can succeed in
STEM fields and in sports.

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