A Partial Defense of Huge: Putting the NBA’s Video Box Scores in Perspective

Photo by Valerie on Flickr

Photo by Valerie on Flickr

There’s an oft-cited but poorly provenanced assertion about music journalism that says writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It seems most often attributed to Elvis Costello, but whether it was him or somebody else, you could probably substitute “writing” and “music” with “blogging” and “basketball.” There is, after all, a tremendous quantity of commentary and analysis being done about the sport, and it’s not clear how much of it matters or impacts what’s actually going on on the court. My guess is very little, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of architectural dancing.

For example, when Grantland’s Zach Lowe put out the word last night that the NBA would be making video clips of field goal attempts, steals, assists and other stats available from boxscores on NBA.com, I said it was:

That’s right: Huge. Maybe I was overstating it. It’s not huge for me because I’ve had access to the media portion of NBA.com for over a year now, where video clips like this have long been available. And even before that — when I was just running my own blog — Myles Brown tipped me off to mySynergySports, the commercial version of the powerful tool that teams use to track possessions in the NBA. With it, you could view entire games broken down by play type, or just look at one play type, or see all of a given player’s blocks or free throw attempts.

My mouth may have literally watered. The opportunity to line up all of a team’s pick and rolls or transition plays was amazing, and it was an opportunity to cut through the noise of the game as played. Suddenly, patterns revealed themselves, wrinkles appeared when you could see a guy cut one way in a play once, then the other way later in the game. You could see the options. With a tool that allows you to isolate a player and a repeated action, it was possible to see a guy get hot or go cold, or gain a better understanding of the context for shot attempts. Instead of looking at cold numbers in a spreadsheet or even hot zones on a court diagram, you were getting discrete chunks of visual information.

It was wonderful. I still use NBA.com’s video clips after almost every Wolves game when I’m working on recaps and it’s a great way to delve into ideas or explore things you’re not quite certain about. But last night, Daniel Roberts of Fortune reminded me that I’m just one sliver of one very small sliver of people who watch the NBA:

He’s right. For the average fan, it’s probably not huge. I figure the average fan watches basketball in an average way, taking in a reasonably average number of games in a given year and not the 60 or so Wolves games I watch, plus the dozens and dozens of other games I see all or part of on League Pass. They probably have some extreme opinions about a couple of players or teams and then generally average opinions of everyone else, and they’re probably happy with that. And that’s totally okay. Not everyone wants to pore over every Ricky Rubio 3-pointer or Thaddeus Young field goal attempt from 8 ft and in.

But I think it’s great that the NBA is lowering the bar of entry for the couple hundred who do. I had to pay to get this through Synergy, and had to work my way up to being a credentialed NBA writer to get it via the media site. But the NBA making this stuff publicly available (along with the SportVU data they added to the site earlier in the year) means that anyone — be they aspiring writers or just fans who want to go deeper — have access to tools that can help them know more. That can’t be a bad thing.

It also drives home an important point about writing about anything: Although there’s an important component of breaking stories and getting scoops to mainstream sports journalism, the broad community of sports writing is most useful not for seeing what is hidden, but for seeing what you can’t see yet. There’s always going to be a footrace to be the first to report a trade or to break news of an injury or surgery, but the real learning about the game comes from people doing tireless, often thankless work to watch all those video clips and to put what they find together into something that shows us a new way of seeing. This work is done by people who are inspired by the most mundane elements of the game, who thrill to the structure of the Spurs’ offense or the exacting construction of the Bulls’ defense. They’re the ones who jump up and down when they recognize the craftsmanship in a set because they’ve watched it hundreds of times in little windows on the laptops.

They are, fundamentally, dancing about architecture. And it’s beautiful.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, Rolling Stone, A Wolf Among Wolves, The Cauldron, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.

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  • MN Mat

    I am one of the nerdy fans who loves to go in-depth when watching/reading basketball. I love seeing a nuanced play/sequence happen while understanding in real-time what happened to allow the events that took place. NBA making some SportVU data public excited me to no end and this video box score is just as exciting. I feel like the more I understand about the game, the more I can enjoy it.

  • zenartiste

    Showing “us” a new way of seeing is absolutely the value any sports commentator brings. This applies to the popularity of “Ball Four by Jim Bouton” in baseball, to the announcing of John Madden in football, and to the insight of Al McGuire in college basketball.

    Nice article. I see thinks differently because of it.