Analytics Art: Making sense of patterns in passing charts from 2016-17 season

Andy Bergmann, Special to NBA.com

Apr 5, 2017 12:24 PM ET

It's no surprise that Houston's passing chart is dominated by MVP candidate James Harden.

I just put together a new set of passing charts for the 2016-17 season and some really interesting patterns have emerged.

Each team is depicted by its five starters, connected by curved line segments. The thickness of each line represents the average amount of passing per game between those two players. The thicker it is, the more they passed back and forth to each other.

Here are a few things to take note of:

All Roads Lead to Westbrook and Harden

Former teammates James Harden and Russel Westbrook are the central dominating forces of their respective teams. If you’ve seen a single Houston or OKC game this season, you’ve probably noticed these guys controlling the ball for a good portion of the game. Their two charts look strikingly similar. You can see how the large majority of passing for both the Rockets and Thunder moves predominantly through its lead player. It’s no shocker that Harden and Westbrook currently hold first and third in the league in assists.

 

The Two Conference Leaders

There are some interesting similarities between the East and West Conference leaders, who went head-to-head in The Finals last season. Both Golden State and Cleveland show a tremendous amount of ball movement, which is distributed across the majority of their starters. Each also features one extra-thick line between two players that are frequently on the look-out for each other. For the Cavs, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving average 25.9 passes per game. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green average 28.8 passes per game on the Warriors.

 

The Two-Man Game

Over-concentrated passing between two individual players, without the broader team support, has not demonstrated tremendous success this season. Here you can see a clear dominance of movement between Gasol and Conley for Memphis. The Grizzlies are in a solid seventh place in the Western Conference and have secured their spot in the Playoffs, but are 21.5 wins behind Golden State. The majority of passing for the Suns has been between Booker and Bledsoe. Pheonix currently holds last position in the Western Conference.

 

A quick note on the data - SportVU cameras are installed in every NBA arena. All movements of players and the ball are tracked throughout each game and converted into massive amounts of data for analysis.

 

Andy Bergmann’s data driven design work has been featured on CNN, NBA, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post and NPR. See more on www.dubly.com and twitter.com/dubly


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