NBA Chemistry: Positive and Negative Synergies in Basketball

We introduce a novel Skills Plus Minus (“SPM”) framework to measure on-court chemistry in basketball. First, we evaluate each player’s offense and defense in the SPM framework based on three basic categories of skills: scoring, rebounding, and ball-handling. We then simulate games using the skill ratings of the ten players on the court. The results of the simulations measure the effectiveness of individual players as well as the 5-player lineup, so we can then calculate the synergies of each NBA team by comparing their 5-player lineup’s effectiveness to the “sum-of-the-parts.” We find that these synergies can be large and meaningful. Because skills have different synergies with other skills, our framework predicts that a player’s value is dependent on the other nine players on the court. Therefore, the desirability of a free agent depends on the players currently on the roster. Indeed, our framework is able to generate mutually beneficial trades between teams. Other ratings systems cannot generate ex-ante mutually beneficial trades since one player is always rated above another. We find more than two hundred mutually beneficial trades between NBA teams, situations where the skills of the traded players fit better on their trading partner’s team.

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