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The NBA Data Scientist

March 23, 2020 | Articles, Blog | 27 Comments

The NBA Data Scientist


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.

Philadelphia 76ers vs Detroit Pistons Full Game Highlights | March 11, 2019-20 NBA Season


By your delaware valley honda dealers for dwayne casey who’s team right very well in the absence of mv This is wood he can shoot a little bit and he buries the three chris He was miles from this guy This guy could shoot a little bit of the year at the little caesars arena in detroit Indeed it was fouled by maker. Just a bad night overall. Oh boy, wasn’t it? That’s maker we mentioned Oh, he also shows you signs of life there got insulted by the way joel was playing him shot that one by the way So don’t count the field goal Pilot buries the threes for the piston Two three zone for the pistons And beat out high to break it then Delivering two for the detroit pistons a rookie from alabama. Just his fourth game of his nba career six nine two thirty shot Paris against christian wood Three of huge importance because you look at the detroit they’ve already put up ten three-pointers expected Al horford hitting the sixers second three of the game it captain 8-0 sixer run as Good defense by perks off the ball against galloway who is always looking to get hit with a three-year contract a lot of Speculation because of that contract situation that he’d be moved before Averaging nearly 10 again Working it against tobias harris that was a pretty move by the 19 year old shiku doomed booyah athletic and long and skilled Uh nicely done by following him good things usually happen when you’re there to back your teammate up and fievel took it away from the veteran night and slams for Detroit if they can hurry it up Jordan mcrae close the first quarter Scott coming out against the zone sixers need to keep it hot here now embiid in deep against He was originally selected by the sixers in the second round back 2018 only to be traded Shortly thereafter. Well, we hope he doesn’t develop his conscience tonight Rolling in and slamming for two and a foul In the face of poor kyrie, thomas one more at the line as the pistons now have it out of the timeout Tray setting up wood promptly And be blocked by His way a tough two from langston galloway kyrie, thomas comes up with a turnover galloway for three Got to stop the ball right first rule transition defense find it stop the ball Josh richardson second-year player, he’s down on the floor warming up before the game. He’s been dealing with knee issues as Fucking dropped I got no complaints Pulling the trigger on that but he swung it down fiber with wood and pursued forget it See what christian wood does to his defense anchors it changes shots I’ll tell you what Eight boards and six assists That’s maker for three and down it goes Maker between both paris and embiid snell will give it a whirl against embiid and he got it Sixers still leading by nine portforward another three. Yes And b for three got it making a statement before the Averaging just under five Loft for wood caught embiid out of the game tobias not an especially good shooting night his fourth twelve guys wood was slammed for two he’s able to get there just didn’t make the time get The first round of bad news news who are in milwaukee’s bracket the bucks for the best record of the Embiid missing with a left hand Scoring with a right levin’s for embiid and his return after sitting out five the left shoulder sprain Boy mp tony had that lobby there reversed using the rig And make her there to deny shake milk And running the floor galloway who lays the champion that year university of connecticut Milton the law friend b nicely on his macro Another And one thing he emphasized guys that when he does come back he will be stronger because he’ll have a lot more time to lift That would leave seven games left for the regular season. And of course, that’s just a Re-evaluation date that’s not uh, you’re back in uniform cutting it close wishing the best Yes, and as you said earlier because now as mcrae gets richardson missing the three Milton that’s for three Tony snow Harris with a shot clock running down missing the three Nicely done again at the robinson who deposits two wins tonight 22-3 Mcrae slamming for trying to impress brett brown trying to develop some consistency as a unit Beating horford to the punch and slamming Big one coming up saturday against indiana Wood you can count it at a foul team in china But he is in the nba now to stay for a while there’s clook moz for three And he buried it first of the sixers 15 straight at home a season high 29-2 at home The nba’s best hallmark their win percentage here of .93 the third best in franchise history and being with 30 and