Basketball teams offer insights into building strategic networks

November 15, 2012

What started out as a project to teach undergraduate students about network analysis, turned into an in-depth study of whether it was possible to analyze a National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball team’s strategic interactions as a network. Arizona State University researchers discovered it is possible to quantify both a team’s cohesion and communication structure.

The researchers’ findings appear in an online November issue of PLOS ONE. Phoenix Suns 2010 playoff series Download Full Image

Jennifer Fewell, a professor in ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and lead investigator on the project, explains that because teams are an integral part of both human and animal societies – understanding how a team’s interactions as a whole affect its success or failure is important.

“We were able to come up with a hypothesis about strategy and then apply network analysis to that,” says Fewell. “Often, people simply create networks and then conduct descriptive analysis of them, but they don’t actually explain why they would expect an individual in a group to communicate the way they do. We take a different approach by suggesting that there are potentially successful ways to organize your team if you use this strategy then we should expect this network metric to show up as an indicator – sort of a proof of concept.”

The researchers measured two offensive strategies to learn whether differences in offensive strategy could be determined by network properties. First, they looked at whether teams moved the ball to their shooting specialists — measured as “uphill/downhill flux,” and second, whether they passed the ball in an unpredictable way — measured as team entropy. They analyzed games from the first round of playoffs in the 2010 season and gathered an extensive amount of data on 16 teams.

To evaluate the teams as networks, researchers graphed player positions and ball movement among players, as well as shots taken. Then, they used that data to find out whether network metrics can measure team decisions in a useful way. The study involved more than 1,000 ball movements and 100 ball sequences.

“What that paper basically says is that for the 2010 NBA playoffs the most successful teams were the ones that used a less predictable, more distributed offense and that connected their players more,” said Fewell. “Those were the teams that had actually hired more elite players and allowed them to work together.”

Fewell believes measuring team cohesion and communication is important.

“It’s one way to capture the essence of a team,” Fewell explained. “You work in teams for all different kinds of reasons. The fundamental idea of needing cohesion and communication structure among the individuals and the team is critical and it’s not easily quantified – and this gives you a way to quantify it.”

You may be wondering how the Phoenix Suns measured up.“I started working on this in part because I’m a Suns fan, especially of the ‘run and gun’ Suns,” shared Fewell. “Our data suggested though that the 2010 Suns played the game as a fairly traditional point-guard centered play style. The Lakers and Celtics, in contrast, showed the network equivalent of the triangle offense, and it paid off for them.  They were the teams in the finals that year.”

The study included researchers from ASU’s School of Life Sciences, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, and Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity.

The paper is published on the PLOS ONE website:

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


Morris lecturer to students: 'Be the best lawyer you can be'

November 15, 2012

By taking seriously his responsibility to promoting diversity, President Barack Obama has increased the number of federal judges of color, and appointed African Americans as U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a College of Law audience was told, Nov. 13.

“Personal responsibility is getting yourself in a position where you can impact diversity,” Lonnie J. Williams Jr. said during the 13th annual John P. Morris Memorial Lecture, presented by the College of Law and the John P. Morris Black Law Students Association. “That’s the future of diversity, and I think you see that at all levels.” Download Full Image

The title of Williams’ lecture was “What is your personal responsibility in addressing the challenges of diversity in our multicultural society?”

Williams, a partner at Stinson Morrison Hecker in Phoenix, expressed disappointment that, with the exception of large corporations that have promoted minority lawyers to general counsel, little has been done to advance people of color in the field of law. “The legal profession needs to mirror society and have representation in all areas – women, minorities, the disabled,” said Williams, noting that progress at universities has been mixed as well.

The son of parents who did not finish high school, Williams excelled at the University of Arizona and at Yale Law School, and he met John P. Morris upon moving to Phoenix.

“He was a tremendous mentor, someone you could talk to, ask questions of, someone who always made it known he was a part of ASU,” Williams said.

Morris experienced discrimination from a young age, but he persevered and performed well at law school and, after practicing law for a time, he came to Arizona State University in 1968 as a founding faculty member of its new law school. He taught until 1993, counseling students throughout ASU and working tirelessly to foster diversity.

In his own quest to even the playing field, Williams has shattered various barriers, having been the first African American to be named partner at a law firm in Phoenix, the president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and president of the Maricopa County Bar Association. More must be done, he noted.

“I suggest you deal with it (discrimination) by remembering the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Williams said, reading part of his October 1967 speech to junior high school students in Philadelphia:

“When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn't do it any better.

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can't be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley.”

Williams encouraged students to work harder, mastering legal rules and the written word, discover their passion, and create unique value for their clients.

“You need to pick the area that matches your traits and do it,” he said. “Put in the time, because you have to be in a position where only one person controls your career, and that’s you.”

Earlier in the program, professor and dean emeritus Alan Matheson, a close friend and longtime colleague of Morris’, recalled that the professor mentored ASU law and undergraduate students alike, and never turned anyone away, even when lines of them stretched from his office door.

“He suffered racial discrimination most of his life, and he spent his life moving beyond that, making sure every person in this country had the rights to which they were entitled,” Matheson said. “He was not bitter, he was not a person who held a grudge. He simply went about in a quiet way, helping other people.”