January 20, 2018

Former NBA coaches who spoke at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference all agree: if there are numbers that can help you win, they want to know. Whatever you can get to find an edge. As Jeff Van Gundy eloquently noted during Sloan’s opening panel on Friday Morning, “dumb gets you beat.”

Ten years later, the ‘jocks vs. nerds’ narrative still dominates the discourse. Sure, some teams are more heavily invested in the movement than others, despite the acceptance of analytics reaching all-time highs, revisiting the applications and implementation of these data was a major discussion topic at Sloan.

Between the SportVU cameras, Catapult wearables (physical exertion monitors), almost all of the data is available to every NBA team. Though accumulation of data is obviously still happening, most teams are working with the same numbers. At this point, we all understand the pro’s of Moreyball offense, plus/minus, on/off splits, and effective field goal percentage. The data is all out there, so the question becomes: how can you use analytics to continue to provide that edge?

Jeff Luhnow, GM of the Houston Astros, alluded to the importance of protecting team secrets, in sports being a challenge when there is so much coaching and player turnover.

“It really becomes a fine balance between sharing the information that has to be shared, and then really understanding it so you can create the changes that you want. And then protecting yourself, because once the change gets out, and it’s across the industry, you’re all starting at zero again, the advantage is gone…you’ve got to work on the next thing.”

Every organization has different people working on different things. The Astros hired a NASA scientist to study sleep for them, the San Antonio Spurs hired Kirk Goldsberry to lead their research team. So even if the idea that all the data is out there, is true, every team, every front office, coach and player has to decide how they want to apply this tool In order to be able to use analytics as a tool to help them win. For this, communication is vital.

The Communication Barrier

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Implementing an analytically driven style of play is not flipping a switch. It’s a conversation that starts with the Owner and GM, and if communicated effectively, can then trickle down to the court.  

Reigning Executive of the Year Bob Myers explained the importance of an alignment throughout his organization that is critical to accepting and implementing analytics.

“From ownership, GM, Coaches, Players, If there’s an an alignment, analytics are wonderful, because they’re a great tool to help you win, when used properly. But if you don’t communicate that information properly, it never gets there.”

Luhnow echoed those thoughts in explaining that the transferring of so much information can get lost in translation. If management can’t relay the right information to the coaches, or the coaches aren’t understanding that message, there can be a disconnect.

“You’ve got to get all those people [coaching staff, management, ownership] in line. If you have a couple people in the chain that are working in cross purposes, it destroys everything, because the player is suddenly getting mixed messages.”

Interestingly, Assistant GM of the Boston Celtics, Mike Zarren, said that SportVU data can actually diminish the disconnect to potentially help teach front office execs how to “speak the coaches language” citing location of pindowns as an example. 

But a lot of teams have to find different ways to get the players and coaches thinking.

“We’ve tried the model where the people with the information go on the field & teach players. That model doesn’t work. The coaches, first of all, have to understand the information, in order to transfer that information to the players. How you get the coaches on board is critical success factor.”

Trusting the Process

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Shane Battier, a well-known advocate of analytics, shared an anecdote about his time with the Miami Heat during their Finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. LeBron James was preparing to guard Kevin Durant and the scouting report showed data that suggested Durant was weaker when he shot over his left shoulder in the post. Forcing Durant to take a tougher shot should shake his confidence and slow him down for the rest of the game. When missed two shots, then wanted to go over the right shoulder, which he was already covering. “That made LeBron a believer,” Battier said.

From a coaching standpoint, so much of getting the team to succeed is creating a game plan to execute. Tom Thibodeau was able to create a defense that attempted to take away the Moreyball shots.

“The shots you want to take are obviously layups, free throws and corner 3s, so defensively, that’s what you want to take away. If they make a couple of those shots [long 2s] that having your team understand that’s not going to beat you.”

This is an interesting point, because the concept of maintaining trust in a relatively different and foreign way to play basketball might be a challenge for some players. But just seeing that these strategies can work, especially over time, can help lead to a trusting environment where players understand the broader picture. 

“How does it help you win games?” Thibodeau said in reference to the importance of context, “Coaches are getting fired if they don’t win every game, so it needs to relate to that.”

Of course, the irony here, is the current state of coaches being fired. That also speaks to the teams who are truly invested — Celtics, Mavericks, Spurs and 76ers — have something in common: their coaches all have job security.

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Then again, Jeff Van Gundy points out that the obvious can sometimes be more offensive than helpful if communicated poorly. Van Gundy, in perfect Van Gundy fashion, stole the show with his cynicism and sarcasm towards the topic. He told the audience about a time, on the bus to a game against the Lakers, he looked at his stack of analytics scouting report and said to Battier, “I looked at this shit, “Kobe’s good, you better be on it tonight.”

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Will Gottlieb

Lifelong lover of all things NBA, I'm thrilled to share my words through bballbreakdown. Formerly a contributor at SBNation's BlogaBull, I now run Bulls Confidential. You can follow me on Twitter @wontgottlieb

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