The NBA & Match Quality

The best NBA teams are the best investors. They understand where they get the most return on their investments and choose to go all-in.

From the 2013-14 season through the end of the 2017-18 season, the two most valuable areas to shoot from were within a few feet from the rim and right around the 3-point line.

A 3-point shot is worth 50% more than an 8 foot jumper despite the 8-footer going in less than 4% more often.
Total points divided by total shots = Points per shot.
Clearly, shots within the restricted area and the corner 3 are the best investments for an NBA offense.

Playing the law of percentages, NBA players would be foolish to shoot in less-efficient areas of the court. They choose to invest in areas that provide better returns than others.

An NBA game looks significantly different now than it did at the start of the 21st century.

As this message has made its way down from the quant office and into the hands of today’s players, they’ve changed their on-court behavior patterns. These changes can be understood with an idea from economists.

Match quality is the term economists use to describe how the work a person does matches who they are. I first learned of this idea in David Epstein’s latest book, Range, and I see its application in this discussion of the NBA.

Since the NBA introduced the 3-point line in 1979, players have gradually shifted their skill sets to get the best results in The Association. If you can get to the rim and drain three-pointers, you “match” the needs of your environment and will likely be compensated in accordance with that match.

Think about the legends of the game. Mikan, Chamberlain, Robertson, Alcindor (Abdul-Jabbar if you’re not a Bucks fan). They all earned their legendary status by dominating defenders with their back to the basket.

In contrast, today’s best players are a different breed. The best players in the game spend the majority of their time hovering around the court’s suburbs. Last year’s MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, added a 3-point shot to further his dominance. That wouldn’t have been a thought for the greats of yesteryear.

The game has changed. The game’s best match their skill sets to the demands of the game.

In a highly specialized industry (like the NBA), workers benefit from extremely high match quality. Each off-season, the league’s general managers make that known by paying a premium for a stretch five or a 3-and-D wing that would have been a role player two decades ago.

NBA players can improve match quality in two ways: 1) doing more of what will get them the best results or 2) improving their ability to score from in-demand spots on the floor. And a funny thing happens when you are able to do what the industry wants: your playing time and bank account tend to get bigger. Funny how that works.


All images in this post come from Kirk Goldsberry’s book, Sprawlball.