Methodological Review of Basketball Models – Part 1

by André Vizzoni


The series beginning here will be my first foray into topics beyond my model for predicting sports results. Specifically, I plan to undertake a methodological review of a few well-known basketball models which have been influential in the analytics community. The review will examine the “how” and “why” of those models, and may level criticism at parts of them. As there are a number of subjects that must be broached prior to the review proper, this introductory post will be shorter than its successors.

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A Prediction Model for Sports Match Results

by André Vizzoni


In this post, I will introduce a prediction model that was the product of a research project that spanned four years (winning a few awards) and was the final project for my degree in Statistics. For those interested in the final project, here it is – though I warn everyone in advance that it is in Portuguese. The objective of this post, then, is to translate the most central parts of that project to English while, at the same time, talking about applications of the model to basketball data, since the original project used soccer data.

First, I will give an intuitive explanation of the model, with no equations or mathematical concepts introduced. Next will come the methodology section, where there will be a lot more maths and formal definitions. As such, people who are interested only on the intuitive definitions might wish to skip the methodology section). The idea behind this structuring of the post is for it to be understandable, both by laypeople and by people well versed in statistics. Finally, in the discussion section there will be a few summary comments, as well as a preview of things to come on this site.

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Matchup-Based Defense

Defense is the unsolvable puzzle in NBA analytics. No matter how advanced the advanced stats get, defensive metrics continue to crash against the same conundrums. Better data often leads to better models, and recent years have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of defensive data available for analysis. Tracking data, opponent shooting data, play-by-play data, and more have all played a hand in modern defensive analysis. In spite of the improvements, or perhaps in part because of the improvements, it is clear that defensive analysis is still not highly accurate.

Most defensive metrics which are currently extant are based on one of two schools of thought. In order to take stock of why defensive analysis is still frequently inaccurate, it will help to investigate the underlying assumptions behind most current models.

The Plus/Minus School of Thought

The most popular method by far is The Plus/Minus School, which counts BPM, RPM, RAPM, PIPM, and more among its adherents. The distinguishing precept of the Plus/Minus School is the belief that we can ascertain a player’s defensive value by evaluating the team’s performance with him on the court, if only we properly adjust for strength of opponent, the team’s talent level, the team’s performance with the player off the court, and the player’s performance level in seasons past. The adjustments made to raw plus/minus are attempts to extract reliable data by excising confounding variables.

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