Game-changing metric: Who's open?

Once in a while a measurement can change everything.

For instance, if you were born since the middle of the last century, the beginning of your life was changed by a metric. he most essential and timeless human act (or, at least one of them) changed globally and instantly in the middle of the last century when a doctor named Virginia Apgar thought to score newborns on their health, as described by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker:

The Apgar score, as it became known universally, allowed nurses to rate the condition of babies at birth on a scale from zero to ten. An infant got two points if it was pink all over, two for crying, two for taking good, vigorous breaths, two for moving all four limbs, and two if its heart rate was over a hundred. Ten points meant a child born in perfect condition. Four points or less meant a blue, limp baby.

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept—the condition of a newly born baby—into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores—and therefore better outcomes—for the newborns they delivered.

I think hoops is due for an Apgar moment.

We have lots of new measures, and they are changing the game bit by bit. PER has liberated us from a lot of dumb conversations about which boxscore stats matter more. Plus/minus, in its various forms, has started to shed light on the value of individual defense and 100 other tough-to-measure things.

But the real basic thing, the way that a measurement could change every NBA game for the better, every night, is to measure this one thing: Was that shooter open?

That's the thing I want to know.

Introduce that to the equation, and all of a sudden things get very interesting:

  • It'll quickly become obvious that who's open matters more than making sure the most famous players shoot. Covered guys usually miss. Open guys usually hit.

  • It'll help separate the very few players who are at all efficient when covered from chuckers.

  • Like doctors competed with each other to have good Apgar scores, so will coaches compete to have teams with good open shot percentages -- after all, this is the measure of an offensive tactician. That's the antidote to Scott Brooks and Mike Woodson essentially saying "get it to the star" all through losing playoff series.

  • I'm dying to know this about point guards: How likely are their teammates to get open looks?

There are some challenges. What is and is not open is open to debate. And the data is tricky to collect for other reasons too.

But the fact is that it's already tracked in various ways. Many teams dig into such things with their internal numbers. SportVu dabbles in it, as do other startups peddling data packages to teams. It's kind of knowable. What we need, though, is for it to be part of the boxscore, part of the daily dialogue, part of how every game is judged and discussed from the bar stool to talk radio.

Then we'll get quick and instant pressure on every team to play better, more effective basketball.