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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

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences


ASU, Mayo Clinic open commercialization awards application

November 15, 2012

Personalized medicine offers the promise of breakthroughs in prediction, diagnosis and treatment of disease by calibrating healthcare around the varying genetic codes of both individual patients and the diseases that afflict them.

The Center for Individualized Medicine at Mayo Clinic has joined with the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development (OKED) at Arizona State University in sponsoring awards of $5,000 to $100,000 per award to promote commercialization of research in the general area of personalized medicine. Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the technology venturing arm of Arizona State University, will manage this initiative on behalf of ASU. individualized medicine Download Full Image

“The awards will foster research collaboration between the two institutions and lead to commercialization opportunities in the more than $200 billion individualized medicine industry,” said Jeremy L. Friese, director of New Business and Development in Mayo’s Center for Individualized Medicine. “At the Center for Individualized Medicine at Mayo Clinic, our goal is not only to make discoveries in genomic and clinical sciences, but also to translate these breakthroughs into real-world applications that can improve healthcare for our patients.”

“Arizona State University and Mayo Clinic have some of the top scientists and physicians in the world doing research in these areas,” said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, senior vice president of OKED. “These awards will deepen the ties between our researchers and provide a boost for promising technologies in this area.”

Qualifying projects will:

1. pertain to individualized medicine, broadly defined as “discovering and integrating the latest in genomic, molecular and clinical sciences into personalized care,” encompassing wellness and nutrition; personalized services, devices and IT; and diagnostics

2. lead to commercialization potential in the short term

3. involve or result in collaboration between Mayo Clinic and ASU

Funds can be used for a variety of activities, including (but not limited to) prototype development, software or service development, pilot execution, company formation, or research endeavors leading to a commercialization product/ service.

Applications can be for new proposals or ongoing projects. The awards are open to ASU faculty, post-doctoral researchers and graduate students. Student/ faculty teams are encouraged to apply. Applications may contain membership from only one of the two institutions (ASU and Mayo Clinic); matchmaking can occur upon award selection.

For more information and to apply, visit Applications must be received by Dec. 21. Awards will be granted January 2013. 

Contact Charlie Lewis, AzTE vice president of venture development, at with questions.