Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. They’re well-known as dynamic duos in the NBA, but it wasn’t until I saw this visualization by Andrew Bergmann that I realized how much they dominate.
In his latest piece, Bergmann—who creates some of the most intrinsically understandable visualizations in all of sports—illustrates how each of the NBA's 30 teams pass within simple stars. Each player is a point. A line connects each point. The thicker the line, the more the players pass to one another.
"The star formation was the very first thing that I sketched out," Bergmann tells Co.Design. "It's one of those unusual cases in which both the concept and the visual solution came simultaneously. I still explored several other graphical treatments but kept coming back to the star, due to its simplicity and clear representation of the data."
It’s a powerful visualization grounded in just five interconnected points. At a glance, you distinguish the teams that play like teams, sharing the ball with everyone (the Bulls, Nets, and Cavaliers), from the teams that rely more on star power and the chemistry (the Clippers, Timberwolves, and Spurs).
Bergmann pulled the data from SportVU systems, cameras installed within the rafters of NBA stadiums that track every player movement through the game. The challenge of having so much data is spotting any real, meaningful trends within these systems (you can read our deep profile on SportVU here).
"I wasn't convinced that there would be any real clarity in the data," Bergmann admits to Co.Design. "It wasn't until I had completed many hours of coding to render the graphic and popped in the final data set, that the stories immediately took shape. I was really excited to see that every team has a completely different pattern and that passing connections like that between Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love just jumped right off of the page."
Bergmann could have pushed the visualization further. He could have rendered passes as a two-way street, for instance, mixed the whole bench into the passing rotation rather than the starting five, or compared his findings to how often teams win. But each of these steps would have distracted from the graphic’s instant understandability. Besides, Bergmann is skeptical if teams that pass generously, demonstrating good team play, are really correlated with the teams that win most often.
"I still may follow up on [wins], but I would be surprised to find any direct correlation," he writes. "If a team has a few phenomenal powerhouses you probably want them to handle the ball more often. If you have a well-rounded squad you might want to pass around a lot looking for opportunities."