Bouncing puck: Passing, not shooting, is the key to scoring on the ice and the hardcourt

At 37-8, the once-middling Atlanta Hawks have the second-best record in the NBA. If they beat Brooklyn tonight, they’ll match last season’s win total with more than two months to go in the regular season. Did anyone see this coming? Yes, last year’s Hawks snuck into the playoffs and nearly knocked off the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. And observers should have noted the significant number of games the Hawks’ top players missed due to injuries last season; a healthy team couldn’t help but be better. But this much better? The most important difference seems to be a new coach, former Greg Popovich understudy Mike Budenholzer, who knows how to utilize the players he has, and a group of players that is on board with and executing their brand of team-oriented basketball.

Indeed, as numerous writers have observed,* Atlanta is scoring more by passing more. They have the fourth-best field-goal percentage, and of those field goals they make, more than sixty percent of the two-pointers and nearly ninety-three percent of the threes are assisted. Both of those rates lead the NBA. Behind them: the equally high-flying Warriors, the only team with a better record (36-7).

The principle that passing, rather than isolation play, is the best way to generate good shooting in the NBA also seems to apply in the NHL, where new research indicates that teams generally score at a higher rate on assisted shots as compared to unassisted shots. When further breaking down the assisted shooting percentage into shots generated by one pass and shots generated by two passes, the difference between assisted and unassisted shooting percentage can be extreme. One example is the Florida Panthers, with an unassisted shooting percentage of about 5.5% and a two-pass assisted shooting percentage of nearly thirteen percent.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that similar strategies would be similarly effective in generally similar sports (five active players per team engaged in free-flowing gameplay). With camera-driven player-tracking technology recently implemented in the NBA and on its way to the NHL, perhaps the rudimentary analogy set forth above can serve as a call for inter-sport collaboration between basketball and hockey analysts.

* Blogger code for, “I can’t find the article I previously read that made my precise point, so get ready for me to wave my hands over the raw data and hope you’ll buy the general premise.”

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NFL Week 16: At last, a true “must-win” game

The NFC South’s playoff representative probably will finish the regular season with a 6-10 record, unless Carolina defies the odds and makes it in at 6-9-1. And while NFL analysts often are too ready to call a game a “must-win” game (week 4?), with two regular-season games left, the NFC South has gifted everyone a true must-win game, at least for one participant.

If the currently 5-9 Atlanta Falcons want to make it to the playoffs, they simply must beat the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday.

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New Orleans is just a win better than Atlanta at this point, but the Falcons beat the Saints in a fun overtime game back in week 1, and the Saints, which are the hosts of this weekend’s rematch, are just 3-4 at home. Of course, the Falcons, which are sort of weirdly 4-0 in the division, are just 2-5 on the road, so who knows. If Atlanta is going to win, as it must to keep its seemingly improbable postseason hopes alive, one has to think that it will need both of its star receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, on the field on Sunday.

On the Road Again: A study of NHL rink variation

One of the important background dimensions to comparative baseball statistics is known as “park adjustments,” a set of corrective factors applied to account for the physical differences (e.g., outfield wall depth) between each park. Among American sports today, only Major League Baseball and NASCAR (and golf, I suppose) permit such structural variation between the competitive arenas themselves.

Professional hockey used to be in that group too. More than merely adjusting, adding, and subtracting lines on the ice to affect the flow of play, as the NHL continues to do (cf. the NBA three-point line), the rinks themselves used to be different sizes. League rules mandate a uniform rink size, but so-called “small rinks” persisted in the NHL as late as the 1980s and 1990s in Boston, Chicago, and Buffalo.

While hockey does not face the structural differences present in baseball, there still is a need to apply rink-by-rink statistical adjustments. That’s because the compiling of basic hockey statistics (e.g., shots, hits, turnovers) requires statisticians to make judgment calls to a more significant degree than in a discrete-event sport like baseball.

By way of limited background, the NHL collects basic gameplay statistics through a computer system known as the Real Time Scoring System (RTSS). A benefit of RTSS is that it aggregates and organizes data for analysis by teams, players, and fans. A vulnerability of RTSS is the subjectivity alluded to above that comes when human scorers track a fluid, dynamic sport like hockey.

While others have noted certain biases among the RTSS scorers at different rinks, a paper by Michael Schuckers and Brian Macdonald published earlier this month analyzes those discrepancies across a spread of core statistics and proposes a “Rink Effects” model that aims to do for subjective rink-to-rink differences in hockey scoring what park adjustments do for structural differences between baseball parks.    Continue reading

Tuesday Afternoon Inside Linebacker

tail3ALDLAND’s weekly football review returns after an infamous fall wedding weekend. Bear with us as we attempt to piece together the happenings of the last few days.

College Football

Pregame:

  • After the Game of the Century of the Season of the Week last week in College Station, everybody predicted a scheduling letdown this week. Sports predictions have become (always were?) completely useless and devoid of meaning, but once in a while, the wisdom of the crowd gets it right. Throwing out expired food? No, actually. A soft slate of week-four matchups? For the most part, yes.

The games — That 70s Show:

  • Clemson opened the week of play by getting punchy on Thursday night in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over North Carolina State. So far as I can tell, the Tigers have played only fellow Carolinians to this point in the season. A check of their schedule confirms this, and the trend will continue this weekend. (EDIT: Except for that little game against UGA in week one.) Clemson 26, North Carolina State 14.
  • A number of teams posted gaudy scores and spreads. Since they already had their fun, they’re all getting grouped in this one paragraph. Ohio State 76, FAMU 0. Louisville 72, FIU 0. Miami 77, Savannah State 7. Washington 56, Idaho State 0. Baylor 70, Louisiana-Monroe 7 (that one’s actually a little surprising). Florida State 54, Bethune-Cook 6. Wisconsin 41, Purdue 10. UCLA 59, New Mexico State 13. Texas A&M 42, SMU 13. And others.

Big Ole weekend rundown: The rest

I don’t know why I keep making it sound like this Nebraska-Michigan game is the most massive tilt ever. It should be fun, but still. The game between these two new conference-mates needs a name, like the Corn Bowl, but it isn’t quite deserving of that just yet. Maybe the Toddler Bowl will work for now. (“My extra hatred for you is only semi-rational and based on the fact that, nearly fifteen years ago, we had to share something that I wanted all for myself because I hate sharing!”) This game will capture my attention because I will be there watching it, but in case you aren’t similarly piqued, here are three other things for you to keep track of this weekend:

  1. Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee: While Michigan and Ohio State no longer have their annual meeting this week, the ‘Dores and Vols are keeping steady on. What will be different this year when these two meet in Knoxville? For one thing, Vandy will be the favored team. Vegas is giving them a point on the road in the SEC, which is really something. UT is 0-6 in the conference, but they’ve cooked up hope of winning this one the only way they could: by pretending star QB Tyler Bray can make it back from a hand injury to play in this game. Vandy isn’t much better on paper– just 2-5 in the conference– but they were two missed plays from being 4-3, and they’ve done better than Tennessee against all common opponents. Vanderbilt must win in Knoxville this week or in Winston-Salem next week to be bowl eligible. The Vols, meanwhile, must win this game and their next one (against Kentucky) to be bowl-eligible and avoid a losing season. They also have to win this game to avoid being brought face-to-face with the undeniable recognition that they’re really bad. They’re going to lose, though, and everyone who’s been paying attention will be both glad and unsurprised. (For what the win can mean for the Commodores, read Bobby O’Shea’s post today at Vanderbilt Sports Line.) 7:00 pm, ESPNU
  2. Carolina vs. Detroit: The Cam Newton Roadshow rolls through the Motor City this weekend, and the Lions’ defenders are licking their chops, which is good, because the Lions’ offenders (that doesn’t quite work, does it?) are licking their wounds. With impressive statistical output that has failed to translate into wins, Newton has been a sort of inverse Tebow this season, and I don’t see this game as the one where the Panthers really put things together. On the other hand, Detroit has been looking less and less stable, successful, and inspiring the closer they get to their Thanksgiving Day meeting with the Packers. The Thanksgiving game is simultaneously a point of intense pride and an albatross for Detroit, and I’m worried that, as more cracks begin to show in their new-look image and play this year, doubt creeps in with the capability of reverting to the old, bag-on-the-head team we’re used to. Hanson kicks the Lions to an uncomfortable win in this one. 1:00 pm, FOX
  3. NASCAR Championship: It’s too tough to encapsulate an entire season (the longest in all of professional sports) into a quick hit here, but when this Sunday’s race at Homestead is over, NASCAR will have its first champion not named Jimmie Johnson in five years. Instead, it’s down to two drivers: Tony Stewart, who won the championship in 2002 and 2005– the last year before #48 went on his dominant streak– and Carl Edwards, the back-flipper who’s never won it all. Edwards holds an extremely narrow lead of only three points heading into this final race, which should make things very exciting. 3:00 pm, ESPN

Enjoy!