Courtesy of Patrick Harrel ’16
When the NBA created a bubble, Harrel brought his expertise in data science

Patrick Harrel ’16 keeps plenty busy as director of basketball strategy and analytics for the NBA. From creating the season schedule to quantitatively analyzing rule changes, his department helps make some of basketball’s most consequential decisions.  

When the pandemic hit, Harrel and his team faced a new set of challenges: They needed to help hatch a plan for restarting the 2019-20 season, which was paused on March 11.  

“I would say that all of my life, really since February, has been so coronavirus centric,” he says. Throughout the spring, Harrel analyzed the fairness and implications of different competitive formats for restarting the season.  

The NBA eventually brought 22 teams in playoff contention to Orlando in July, where they played a modified regular season and full playoffs at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The complex became known as the “NBA bubble” because players and staff rarely exited the facility due to COVID protocols. It was a feat, Harrel says, bringing 1,000 people together with just 45 days of planning.

Harrel has worked for the NBA’s Strategy and Analytics department since graduating in 2016. He credits Princeton with sparking his interest in data science. 

“I remember the first data science class I took. I was like ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ And I found out I could use this for a bunch of different things,” he says. A longtime basketball fan, Harrel found that data science allowed him to contribute without the same on-court knowledge as players or coaches. 

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As last season unfolded, Harrel traveled to the bubble, where he helped schedule games and practices and coordinate the league’s COVID testing regimen, which required daily testing for players, coaches, and staff. “I think we did our best to satisfy everyone involved,” Harrel says. “It was an amazing thing that the NBA pulled it off.” 

When he left Orlando, Harrel turned his sights to the 2020-21 season, which began in December. While the league did away with the bubble, COVID-19 remained the primary scheduling concern. The NBA has already postponed a few games because of COVID, as have other leagues.

“Historically, it’s been very focused on travel and player rest. That remains the case, but all of a sudden the equation sort of changed because we now are operating in a pandemic. So reducing travel became an even higher priority. Things that we wouldn’t normally have done are now on the table, like playing in series,” he explained.

Teams will sometimes play the same opponent in consecutive games this year to limit travel. In the past, this form of series play was rare in the regular season. Some teams worried it wouldn’t be fair to play the same team in back-to-back games, Harrel explains. But upon examination, COVID concerns trumped any sort of competitive concerns, and in the end, the move actually led to better player rest and other benefits.