May 16 2012

Who Are The Best Shooters In The NBA?

Harvard scholar uses spatial analysis to reveal insights into shots on the basketball court.

Ever wonder who the best shooters are in the NBA? Kirk Goldsberry did — and he found out the answer by analyzing every shot taken by an NBA player over the past five years.

Goldsberry, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Geographic Analysis, typically conducts research in the field of geographic information science. But during the past year, he applied his expert knowledge of geography to the basketball court.

“My main goal was to show that spatial analysis — looking at space and making maps — is valuable for a community that has never thought about it before,” he says. “I wanted to use spatial analysis to reveal new insights about basketball.” 

A huge basketball fan, Goldsberry divided the scoring area of a basketball court into a grid of 1,284 unique “shooting cells.” He then analyzed all 700,000 field goal attempts from 2006 to 2011, using a mix of statistical, mapping and graphic design software on his personal computer. His goal was to find the most effective shooter from the most locations on the court.

His research revealed that the Phoenix Suns’ Steve Nash is the best shooter from the most places on the court. Nash scored from 31.6 percent of the total scoring area. The Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen ranked second at 30.1 percent, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant at 29.8 percent. The average NBA shooter scored from 18.5 percent of the total scoring area.

Goldsberry, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University, also produced visual charts on NBA players, showing where they take and make most of their shots. For example, his analysis showed that the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki shoots few 3-point shots, but he scores often in the midrange area on the left-hand side of the court. 

In March 2012 Goldsberry presented his research at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and received plenty of media attention.

“This is not going to replace existing methods of evaluating performance, but it will complement them and supply people in sports with a new lens to examine performance and understand sports,” he says.