Wingspan in the NBA

NBA players are known for their freakish size. Average height in the league has been six foot six or seven since the early 1960s, but the wingspan of NBA players is even more extraordinary than their height. According to David Epstein, the average person’s wingspan it slightly longer than their height, with a ratio of about 1.01:1. In the NBA, the average ratio is 1.05:1.

Some players have ratios much larger than this, allowing them to play bigger than their size. The average NBA shooting guard is 6’5, but Donovan Mitchell plays the position at 6’1. One factor that allows Mitchell to play above his height is his length. Michell’s 6’10 wingspan gives him a wingspan to height ratio of 1.12:1, well above the league average. This extra length helps him guard players who are taller than him, and may be a reason he averages about a steal and a half per game for his career

It is common belief that wingspan directly impacts performance, especially on the defensive end of the floor. As a result, many teams prioritize filling their rosters with length, not just height. 

But does wingspan actually have an impact on team defensive success? To find out, I calculated the average wingspan to height ratio for each team in the 2018-19 season. I used data from the NBA Draft Combine Anthrometric to find each team’s average ratio for the five players who played the most minutes last season. I then compared these averages to adjusted defensive rating (DRtg/A) from the 2018-19 season. I used DRtg/A because it is an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for strength of opponent offense.  

Average Wingspan to Height Ratios for Each NBA Team (2018-19)

After performing a linear regression of the data there does not appear to be a significant relationship between wingspan and team defensive success. According to the regression, team average wingspan to height ratio can only explain about 10 percent of the variation in DRtg/A. This finding could challenge the conventional belief that emphasizes the importance of wingspan, especially as a determinant of defensive prowess.

However, there does appear to be some correlation among the best defensive teams from last season. Out of the five longest teams from last year, three of them are among the top five for 2018-19 DRtg/A. This suggests that some elite defensive teams are exceptionally long, but length alone can’t make a team great defensively. 


Although team wingspan may not be a good predictor of DRtg/A, it does have some impact on deflections. Of the top five teams in deflections last year, four were also in the top ten for wingspan to height ratio. Wingspan on its own can’t effectively predict a team’s defensive success, but perhaps taking into account other factors such as deflections, charges drawn, and coaching would provide a more accurate picture of defense in the NBA.

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NBA Viewership in the Social Media Era

The emergence of sports on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter has changed the way viewers consume sports media. It is now a common occurrence for highlights to make their way onto social media within minutes, allowing people to stay connected with what is happening in the event. In the past, the only way to watch sports was to go to the event and watch live sports. This changed with the creation of the television, shifting the focus from the excitement of going to the game to the convenience of watching it in your own home. Within the past ten years, social media has poached the consumer from television and has placed almost real-time highlights of all exciting plays, interviews and highlights. This shift has lead to altered priorities within the National Basketball Association (NBA), potentially hindering real-time viewership by conventional television or game attendance.

The future of the NBA lies within the development of new and innovative technology. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook hold the top spot for most users, racking up nearly 3.5 billion combined users. Considering two out of every three Instagram users are between the ages of 18-29 and the NBA’s largest growth demographic are people between 18-34, the changing tide could have large implications for the success of the NBA as a business. The anticipated implications of sports consumption on social media can go two ways: People may not watch live basketball because they can see all of the important highlights on social media within minutes of something happening, or, more people may watch because they see the highlights on Instagram and are more interested in seeing the players do what they do best. The trend is not yet clear, but the future may hold a change that will disrupt how we watch sports.

The average NBA TV viewer is around 37 years old and 43% of its audience is under the age of 35. This may be important because the consequences of sports in social media may not have hit yet. Once the Generation Z, those who grew up only knowing social media, grows up and continues to use these platforms, the NBA live viewership may take a hit. The NBA will have to cater to the changing demands of consumer preferences.

Based off of follower count, SportsCenter (15 million), ESPN (14.4 million), House of Highlights (15.1 million) and the NBA (42.1 million) are the most popular professional basketball accounts on Instagram. Combined, these Instagram accounts can simultaneously reach upwards of 87 million people with just four posts. In fact, between SportsCenter, ESPN and House of Highlights, there is potential for 1,184,000,000 views on Instagram every month. The power and influence these accounts have is beyond the scope of the NBA alone, however, they must strategically control for third party accounts, such as House of Highlights, influencing their own success.

The content on these accounts ranges from pictures of players, videos of highlights and interviews with the best players in the world. House of Highlights is more tailored to highlights of players while ESPN and SportsCenter are more focused on key updates and top plays within sports. The diversity of interaction with fans has diversified with social media and the NBA now has a new dimension of fan interaction that they must handle. 

The personal accounts of NBA players cannot go unmentioned when talking about potential effects of social media on NBA viewership. The player’s ability to interact with fans via social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, increases consumer interest and could potentially have effects on NBA viewership. LeBron James alone has more followers than the NBA account, giving one person more social influence than an entire institution. This type of connection by the players to the fans seems to create interest by his followers and therefore increasing likelihood of watching his games.

Data from TechCrunch and Statista

The growth of social media since the creation in 2004 has been consistent. It is hard to say whether the increase will be as consistent as the past, however, the capability of reaching 2.5 billion people on Facebook and 1 billion people on Instagram is a disruption in the manner we watch sports news and highlights. The NBA clearly recognizes the potential threat or benefit to their viewership and is ensuring that their influence is not lost. The NBA has the largest social media presence out of any professional sports league. The NBA Instagram account has 42.1 million followers, compared to 15.9 million people that follow the NFL account. The NBA seems to be embracing the use of social media and using it to gain exposure to the demographic of people who would not or cannot watch many games.

Data from SportsMediaWatch

Using data on NBA Finals average viewership from 1998 to 2018, we can see how the presence of social media has not particularly increased or decreased NBA viewership. However, the influence that the NBA has on its fans is much more personal. The NBA is now able to virtually interact with its fans by posting, commenting and showing live video of the players and coaches that the fans enjoy.  There are approximately 1.5 billion fan interactions across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube within a given season and according to Nielsen data, television viewership has increased by 17% from the 2016-2017 regular season and the “most watched start to a season” since 2012-2013. Not surprisingly, the growth is stemming from the 18-34 year old demographic — the ones that are interacting with the social media. This is convincing evidence that if social media is used correctly, it can create fans through the personal interaction.

Data from Statista

Although the data on viewership does not tell us much other than NBA viewership is volatile, this concept of a more personalized interaction with its fans may be contributing to the revenue generated by the NBA in recent years. The fans are able to virtually interact with the players, consequently creating a higher chance that the fans feel more personally linked to that player. Also, teams are able to interact with other teams — making the team feel more like a personal entity rather than an institution we cannot see into. For example, the Portland Trailblazers, Chandler Parsons and CJ McCollum were all exchanging messages and trash talk in 2017 and the Timberwolves and Warriors were exchanging jokes about their players in these Twitter exchanges. This person-person-company interaction makes the viewer think the team is more personal than ever before — potentially making a fan may be more likely to buy a player’s jersey or buy a ticket to the game.

The revenue increase since 2010, coincidentally the same year as the creation of Instagram, has clearly accelerated. According to the Nielsen Sports, an analysis of the 2017-2018 NBA season shows that social platforms were responsible for delivering 20% to 50% of the combined media value generated for sponsors. After analyzing the logo exposure on official league and team profiles, they determined that brands received $490 million worth of exposure from social media platforms during the 2017-2018 season. The ability to gain direct exposure to the primary audience has allowed the NBA to better target the demographics that can increase revenue. 

Although the presence of social media does not seem to increase or decrease the total viewership of the NBA, the increased viewership within the younger demographics may be explained by the increased use of social media in sports. The NBA must continue to embrace the potential impact social media will have on their business when Generation Z reaches the their average viewer age. All things considered, the increased virtual interaction between players and fans may be the fuel that propels the NBA to one of the most watched and valuable leagues in the world.

Note: All social media photos from Twitter.com and Instagram.com

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NBA 3-Point Revolution

The importance of the three pointer in the NBA is at an all-time high. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich emphasized how the game has evolved, “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the threes. If you made threes and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don’t even care. That’s how much an impact the three-point shot has and it’s evidenced by how everybody plays.” This new style of play began in the 2012-2013 season, when the average three point attempts per game began to spike, and it has been on a steady climb ever since.

What caused this sudden shift to the perimeter? One explanation comes from analytics. Points per shot (PPS), which calculates points scored per field goal attempt (Total Points)/(Total Field Goal Attempts), is one of the best measures of a player’s efficiency. PPS can also be used to determine the places on the court where shooters are most efficient from, providing a reference for where teams score most efficiently. Tracking PPS by location over from 2013-14 to 2017-18 showed that only shots in the paint are worth more than three pointers. The corner three (22ft instead of 23.75 ft) is only behind the restricted arc in PPS. As a result, teams are opting to shoot more threes instead of less efficient shots like mid-range jumpers.

This sudden change in offensive focus has impacted the makeup of the typical starting five in the NBA. Teams no longer have a single three point specialist, and it is common for an entire lineup to be a threat from deep. The Golden State Warriors’ “Death Lineup” of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala is the most famous example of a small ball lineup in the modern NBA. Curry and Thompson both shoot over 40 percent from three, and are considered two of the greatest shooters ever. Durant is another elite three point shooter (38 percent), and Green and Iguodala are both around 33 percent, which forces defenses to at least respect them from deep. This type of lineup causes an unprecedented amount of spacing, since opposing defenses are not able to help because every player is able to shoot the three. For comparison, here is the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls starting five and their career three point percentages: Harper (28 percent), Jordan (32.7 percent), Pippen (32.6 percent), Rodman (23.1 percent), and Longley (0 percent). Steve Kerr, the current coach of the Warriors, was the only player to shoot over 40 percent from three on this Bulls team.

In the new perimeter-centric NBA there are fewer big men who play with their backs to the basket. There is now a new brand of frontcourt players who can shoot from range, and some of the most prominent stretch fours and fives in the league today are Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingus, and Brook Lopez. Each of these seven-footers averages at least five three point attempts a game, a number of attempts that the three point specialists of the early 2000s would average. 

Stephen Curry is perhaps the one player who is most responsible for the three point revolution. In the 2012-2013 season Curry made 272 three pointers, breaking Ray Allen’s previous record of 269. Three years later Curry shattered his own record, making 402 threes. Curry owns five of the top ten seasons with the most threes made in NBA history, including three of the top four. While Curry is groundbreaking in the number of threes he makes, he also belongs to an elite group of deep three point shooters. Last season the trio of Curry, Damian Lillard, and Trae Young combined to make 71 of 186 threes from 30 to 40 feet, a 38% clip well above the league average (25.9%) at this range. 

Although it is more difficult than ever to make the league without shooting the three, there are still players who are effective without being three point marksmen. Elite rim protectors like Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, and Derrick Favors are all able to play without stretching the floor, perhaps because of their ability to prevent easy baskets in a spaced modern NBA. 

Ben Simmons is one of the few NBA guards who does not shoot threes. The six foot ten point guard has never made a three in his career, nearly all of his points come in the paint on drives or in transition. Other guards like Rajon Rondo have tried to add the three pointer to their games, since the majority of backcourt players coming into the league now are able to shoot.

Note: All statistics are from Basketball Reference, unless linked to another source.

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