#NBATwitter: A Study

Twitter is the lifeblood of the NBA.

As described by the Washington Post, it’s “a sports bar that doesn’t close, where the stars pull up a seat next to you”. According to Twitter itself, the NBA was the most tweeted-about sports league in 2018, and it’s no surprise, as the online home of the players houses more organic drama than any episode of The Bachelor. From burner accounts of superstars and GMs, to asking for trades and reacting to them, to basketball players doing what they do best – shooting their shot, fans of the NBA know there’s no way to track their favorite league quite like Twitter.

So, if you were doing a study about who’s receiving attention and who’s not relative to their production, you’d obviously use [checks notes] … Wikipedia?

Well, that’s what The Ringer used in its recent article about the most objectively underrated players in the NBA, right after they started their new segment called ‘The Corner 3’ that I’m certainly not bitter about.

All things equal, I knew there could be a lot to learn from Twitter follower data either way, so I pulled the number of followers for each current NBA player with the help of Basketball Reference’s aggregation. Instead of comparing the follower counts to third-party ESPN’s Real-Plus-Minus, I decided to use our own proprietary WAR statistic, because here at Corner Three, we have one (I hope this pettiness is appropriate for an article about NBA Twitter).

So, without further ado, below is a chart of logged (because the most popular players have exponentially more followers than the players with the fewest, it’d be difficult to find a meaningful relationship with WAR) NBA player Twitter followers as a function of CornerThree WAR, including a line of best fit. There is a clear trend:

Screen Shot 2019-01-19 at 1.41.25 AM.png

The better a player is, generally, the more followers they have accumulated. Of course, few players actually lie directly on the line of best fit, and have either more or fewer followers than their WAR total would predict (the R^2 value of this relationship is 0.2039, indicating a 20% correlation; clearly, there are factors other than CornerThree WAR that influence Twitter following). It’s fun to pick out individual points on the chart and see where they are in terms of expectation, e.g., the lowest point in the plot represents Ish Smith, whose verified Twitter account boasts under 1.4 thousand followers, the fewest in the NBA. His 0.8 CornerThree WAR isn’t exactly world-beating, but based on the 366-player sample, he’d be expected to have more followers. Sorry if this comes off as a roast, Ish. Everyone go follow Ish.

In general, a point below the dotted line has fewer followers than expected (underrated), and a point above has more followers than expected (overrated). The player with the most followers (LeBron James; the highest point on the plot) isn’t the player with the most WAR (James Harden; the rightmost point on the plot).

Now that the chart itself is fully understood (feel free to shoot me any curiosities on who’s who on the scatter plot in the comments, or on Twitter), we can get into some calculations. Based on the point-slope equation of our best-fit dotted line, we can decipher what the expected logged number of Twitter followers would be for every player, and thereby, back-calculate the expected absolute number of Twitter followers. Here are the players that had the biggest positive difference between expected and actual followers:

Rank Name Followers (000s) CornerThree WAR Expected Followers (000s)
1 Pau Gasol 7450 1.1 49
2 Dirk Nowitzki 3380 -0.1 30
3 Kevin Love 3180 1.0 47
4 LeBron James 42K 7.5 645
5 Tony Parker 2170 0.4 36
6 Chris Paul 7710 3.8 144
7 Jamal Crawford 1290 0.0 31
8 Jeremy Lin 2530 2.4 83
9 Ricky Rubio 2970 2.9 100
10 Joakim Noah 714 -0.5 26

This list mostly makes sense – it’s a lot of players who are veteran legends, past their prime, who have accumulated a following while they were great, and some players who have missed a lot of time due to injury, thereby unable to accumulate much WAR this season.

For the next table, I filtered to only those players younger than 35 who had played 30 or more games this season:

Rank Name Followers (000s) CornerThree WAR Expected Followers (000s)
1 LeBron James 42K 7.5 645
2 Jeremy Lin 2530 2.4 83
3 Ricky Rubio 2970 2.9 100
4 Stephen Curry 13K 7.3 584
5 Kevin Durant 17K 8.0 787
6 Derrick Rose 2590 3.8 141
7 John Wall 1880 3.7 139
8 Russell Westbrook 5880 6.7 472
9 Blake Griffin 4460 6.4 406
10 Draymond Green 1280 3.6 135

LeBron has missed some games this season, so he only ranks 9th in CornerThree WAR, but has far and away the most followers of any NBA player. He’s also 34, which is the oldest age I allowed to be on this chart – we’ll give him a pass on the “overrated” tag.

Jeremy Lin and Ricky Rubio make sense too – both are players with a strong, loyal  international following that outweighs their actual production (sorry Jeremy, I didn’t mean it).

Derrick Rose is a fascinating candidate, too – he’s currently in the midst of debatably his best season since 2011 after being left mostly for dead the past few years. If I’d done this study last season, he might be atop the list.

Next, I tabled the players that had the biggest negative difference between expected and actual followers:

Rank Name Followers (000s) CornerThree WAR Expected Followers (000s)
1 Ish Smith 1 0.8 43
2 Maxi Kleber 4 3.3 116
3 DeAndre’ Bembry 8 4.6 196
4 Wesley Johnson 4 2.2 75
5 Torrey Craig 3 1.9 68
6 Dorian Finney-Smith 5 3.0 104
7 Pascal Siakam 20 6.0 353
8 De’Anthony Melton 5 2.6 88
9 Isaiah Hartenstein 3 1.0 46
10 Rodions Kurucs 5 1.9 68

There’s Ish Smith again. Maxi Kleber – apparently not all international NBA players have a devoted following. His solid production thus far this season for Dallas would put him at 116K followers on average.

The Ringer came at Dewayne Dedmon, their #1 “most objectively underrated” player, for having “a pitiful amount of pageviews for being… decent.” However, his 15.3K Twitter followers keep him all the way out of our top 10. Good on you, Dewayne. You’re doing fine where it really matters.

When we really talk about underrated players, though, do we really mean mostly inconsequential role players? We want to know which truly impactful players are being underappreciated despite their star- or borderline star-level performance. Here’s the same list, filtered to players with at least 5 WAR:

Rank Name Followers (000s) CornerThree WAR Expected Followers (000s)
1 Pascal Siakam 20 6.0 353
2 Nikola Vucevic 70 6.6 440
3 Jusuf Nurkic 52 5.9 330
4 Montrezl Harrell 48 5.4 278
5 Clint Capela 68 5.7 316
6 Thaddeus Young 57 5.1 240
7 Kawhi Leonard 222 7.7 688
8 Giannis Antetokounmpo 560 9.8 1637
9 Tobias Harris 88 5.2 251
10 Jrue Holiday 136 6.1 366

Pascal Siakam – the potential favorite thus far for Most Improved Player has helped take the Toronto Raptors to the next level this season, and has just 20K Twitter followers to show for it. Notice there are no point guards on the list (unless you consider Jrue Holiday to be one; I’d classify him more as a SG) – more on that later.

Kawhi Leonard makes sense – the soft-spoken and socially awkward superstar doesn’t spend much time promoting himself, and on-brand chose New Balance as his signature shoe this past year. Keep doing you, Kawhi (though your play should be earning you more than triple the Twitter following).

Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who may win MVP this year, makes the list – he ranks 2nd in WAR, but 48th in Twitter followers. Maybe it’s part of the hard-to-predict effect of being from overseas; maybe it’s just that no one can spell his name. Either way, he’s proved that he’s entertaining enough to deserve more attention.

With all this data (and the time it took to pull it), I wanted to play around and run a few more tests. We’ve shown that older, more accomplished players have accumulated a large following – who’s killing the Twitter game young? The most followed players under 25:

Rank Name Followers (000s) CornerThree WAR Expected Followers (000s)
1 Joel Embiid 1570 6.1 362
2 Lonzo Ball 911 3.8 147
3 Ben Simmons 742 7.1 543
4 Devin Booker 631 3.5 128
5 Giannis Antetokounmpo 560 9.8 1637
6 Kyle Kuzma 547 3.6 133
7 Andrew Wiggins 518 3.6 135
8 Karl-Anthony Towns 437 6.5 419
9 Julius Randle 412 4.1 163
10 D’Angelo Russell 408 4.4 182

Joel’s resume speaks for itself.  And perhaps Lonzo owes a few of those followers to his quiet-since-LeBron-showed-up father. Or maybe it’s just because he’s on the Lakers, who have the highest average (logged, so huge outlier numbers like LeBron’s have muted impact) following by player despite being middle of the pack in the standings:

Team Average WAR Average Log(Followers)
Lakers 2.7 2.6
Warriors 3.2 2.4
Hornets 2.7 2.2
Jazz 3.0 2.2
Spurs 2.6 2.2

Maybe the bright lights aren’t doing it, though, as the Miami Heat and New York Knicks find themselves among the 5 least-followed teams in the NBA:

Team Average WAR Average Log(Followers)
Magic 2.7 1.5
Nuggets 2.7 1.6
Heat 2.6 1.6
Knicks 2.9 1.6
Suns 2.2 1.6

What about by position? Though basketball is becoming more positionless on the court, the 5 designations still seem to hold weight when it comes to Twitter. Power forwards have by far the biggest following:

Screen Shot 2019-01-19 at 1.55.08 AM.png

However, that’s probably due to many of the league’s best players (LeBron, Durant, Giannis, etc.) being classified as power forwards. Next, then, I calculated which position had the biggest average difference between expected and actual following. The Corner Three Diva Factor makes its debut:

Screen Shot 2019-01-19 at 1.57.01 AM.png

Point guards don’t just love to have control on the court; they like the spotlight off it, with by far the highest negative differential between expected and “earned” followers. Note that despite having the highest average followers, power forwards’ positive differential indicates they maybe should have even more.

A tweet has a maximum of 280 characters, but the NBA soap opera has 450. I look forward to watching basketball the rest of the season with you, the way it’s meant to be watched – on the internet.

 

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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