This past weekend, I attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston as one of 40-plus True Hoop Network representatives. Leaving aside just how excellent a weekend it was on a personal level (and how great Sunday’s “True Hoop Invitational” basketball was), the conference was a great learning experience for everyone who attended. Over the next few days, I’ll be writing about specific panels and research presentations that I attended, but today I just wanted to do a stream-of-consciousness style piece about analytics in the NBA.

The first thing that really came across from all of the people who spoke, which ranged from Harvard/Grantland genius Kirk Goldsberry to R.C. Buford of the Spurs to Stan Van Gundy and beyond, is that analytics does not mean stats. If I site Adjusted Statistical Plus Minus and you don’t like it, that’s completely fine. It doesn’t make either one of us any less of a basketball observer or fan. But if you watch a Raptors game and scream at Dwane Casey because he’s put Andrea Bargnani in as the lone big-man, and you KNOW Bargnani struggles in those situations, well, that’s analytic. Analytics doesn’t mean stats, it’s about trying to understand the game of basketball better. And that’s what this whole conference was about.

Yes, there were math-heavy presentations and research papers based on complicated SportVu data that the average fan can’t access. However, the people doing this research, and the teams doing it as well, aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. Nobody is looking for a secret formula to make DeMar DeRozan play like LeBron James, or some algorithm that turns Amir Johnson into Dwight Howard. A lot of the time, analysts are looking to confirm the ideas they’ve developed by watching the games (“watching teh gamez, as anti-stat people will yell on Twitter).

A great example was Goldsberry’s paper called The Dwight Effect, which used visual tracking data to attempt to quantify interior defense. Stat geek or otherwise, most people who watch basketball can appreciate things like David Lee being a poor paint defender, Bargnani wanting in the help defense department, and Dwight keeping people out of the lane. Goldsberry aimed to quantify this, showing that Bargnani is present around very few shots (not getting to balls), while Lee gives up a ridiculous percentage at the rim. These findings aren’t groundbreaking in themselves, but what is it that we have ways of confirming our theories quantitatively.

Also, LARRY SANDERS! is a beast.

I’m really hoping that with my pieces this week, people won’t fire back with comments about stats being stupid and the usual reaction I get when I talk more analytics-heavy. The whole process of gathering data and discovering trends and inefficiencies isn’t about changing basketball from what you played in high school, it’s about understanding it better and making improvements at the margins. Analytics can’t change Jose Calderon to Kyle Lowry defensively, but they might tell you what style of two-guard or big-man or system is best to pair with him to hide his defensive shortcomings. This is a prescient example since the Raptors’ team defense has taken a step back despite their defensive personnel objectively improving, which can be frustrating and confusing. (And this isn’t to call out the Raptors in any way, just to use an example that is close to home.)

Really, if a guy like SVG is accepting of some of these elements, so should fans. That’s not to say SVG isn’t intelligent or an analytics-oriented coach, because he is extremely intelligent and does appreciate analytics. It’s just to show that even coaches and people who have been around the game for a long time appreciate these nuances. For Stan, it was when the advanced analysis showed that corner threes and shots at the rim were the best shots in the game and, lo and behold, Stan’s game plan was already based entirely around that because of their personnel.

And this kind of lead’s to my next point – a lot of the discussion this weekend focused on how to disseminate the message from the spreadsheet to the end user. For Van Gundy, it was about showing him that it backed up his conventional wisdom. For Kobe Bryant, it might be about showing him how to add another point per game to his totals. For Dwane Casey, it might be saying “look, we know you probably don’t love the idea of being forced to trot out Bargs every night, but here’s how to make the most of it.”

Coaches and GMs that were present admitted that the amount of analytics a guy is willing to listen to and the method of presenting it to him varies widely by player and coach. Just as important as the analysis, it seems, is finding ways to effectively communicate it. For me, as someone who wants to write, the goal is to include these elements in a way that isn’t too math-heavy or overwhelming. For team personnel, it’s about leveraging the competitive spirit present in each and every player and coach and hammering home that it can help them win, and here’s how and why.

Finally, the fact that coaches and players are willing to listen depending on the subject matter made me think that maybe the best way for teams to approach analytics isn’t top-down. Maybe the Raptors analytics department should be just as focused on answering questions for the coaches and players as dictating their findings to them. Maybe once Rudy Gay trusts the analytics and the personnel, he can come up with questions of his own about how to best use the space he’s so good at creating. Maybe Alan Anderson is curious about how he can possibly take any more shots at all. Maybe Dwane Casey wants to know how far off of Klay Thompson a wing can sag while still having time to recover if the pass comes directly from the left elbow to the right break. There are hundreds of tiny nuances that are present in every game and every strategy, and there are analytical tools that can really help manage them and optimize them.

For what it’s worth, the Raptors are actually pretty far ahead of the game in terms of collecting and using visual tracking data. They seem to have an intelligent and really well-respected department for this kind of stuff – it doesn’t mean a championship is on the horizon, but it means they’re being proactive and working hard for an edge where they can find one.

Anyway, there’s only so much anyone can do to foster buy-in and leverage these analytics. I know some people, no matter what, just won’t accept this stuff and I’ll be berated in the comments. That’s fine…my job as a writer is to try and spread the word in a digestible way, and I hope I’ve done that in the past and will continue to do so. For those who fight the analytics, they obviously didn’t read the early part of this piece. Nobody is reinventing the wheel, but the basketball world is beginning to make that wheel a little more round, a little more smooth, and a little more predictable.

  • Ds

    This: “For what it’s worth, the Raptors are actually pretty far ahead of the game in terms of collecting and using visual tracking data.”
    AND
    This: “…scream at Dwane Casey because he’s put Andrea Bargnani in as the lone big-man, and you KNOW Bargnani struggles in those situations”

    Doesn’t make sense.

    • Copywryter

      Knowing is only half the battle. 

      • Guest

        Dude, you’re an idiot!

        • MoCo

          How old are you?

    • Colinmohoney

      you write like a grade nine highschooler. plug analytics more!

      • Colinmohoney

        this site is bush league…….seriously, a writer is bragging about  CONFERENCE!!!! wow.

        • BlakeMurphy

          Damn. It’s this kind of well thought out and well-written discourse that makes me scared I’ll never be able to think and write like the intelligent commenters of RR. Shit, better quit then, ya?

        • ezz_bee

          Seriously?  Fuck off.  Analytics are the tits, and the Sloan conference has been getting real basketball junkies wet for years.  

          • FLUXLAND

            Hmmm.  I don’t think I’m ready to call any THF or StatHeads for that matter, basketball junkies.

            Ball junkies do not need stats to get wet.  This advanced analytics/stats bonanaza is only trying to capture numerically numerically what junkies already know:

            “For Stan, it was when the advanced analysis showed that corner threes
            and shots at the rim were the best shots in the game and, lo and behold,
            Stan’s game plan was already based entirely around that because of
            their personnel.”

            (But yes, that dude’s comment was wack.)

  • Copywryter

    Looking forward to the pieces on the panels and research. 

  • Asdf

    No mention of the guy who said 2 out of the 5 most overpaid ballers play for Raptors? (Bargs and Gay)

    • BlakeMurphy

      Doesn’t warrant mentioning…it was a self-promotional shirt for their site…which also pegged the Raps to finish 4th in the East in the preseason.

  • Paul Stevens

    Really looking forward to more on this Blake. You can’t discuss basketball intelligently without giving analytics at least a nod. 

  • Timo in Waterloo

    Thanks for the post and sharing what you learned at the Conference… Cheers

  • knickz

    i would give up anything to have larry sanders on this team

    • james

      even your virginity?

      • Copywryter

        Sanders has already swatted that away. I even had to hurry to get this comment up.

  • Statement

    Well written,

    I understand from your chats with Rucker that they are using the sportVu data.  However, despite their usage, how come there is no tangible positive effect on the court? 

    I hope that some light was shed on what ails the Raps.  IMHO, the fortunes of the franchise depend on Valanciunas.  I had
    a suspicion that he was a poor defender that was vaildated by some data that I saw

    http://www.sloansportsconference.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/The%20Dwight%20Effect%20A%20New%20Ensemble%20of%20Interior%20Defense%20Analytics%20for%20the%20NBA.pdf

    I’m hoping that is simply a rookie thing and that he will improve (very likely IMHO), but he looks like he gets bullied and gives up great position against his defender and teams do try and post him up, to much success.

    This IMHO, is the key to the team at least making the playoffs.   That and keeping Amir Johnson playing big minutes. 

    • Statement

      Let me clarify that making the playoffs does not mean for this year.

      • ezz_bee

        Yeah, that key, otherwise people will start saying “Statement is cray-cray”

  • FLUXLAND

    The “problem”, Blake, is in the fact that some people like to use stats to make future predictions and claim them as irrefutable “facts” because the “stats” back them up.  (Buddhafan, where are you buddy, old pal?)

    Analytics/stats may help an individual player fine tune his game (if you can convince him what you are saying holds water), but in no way can they encompass everything  or predict anything at all, as there are far too many intangibles that cannot be captured by stats and those intangibles are the most critical part of the game.  “The Secret”.  

    They do a decent job of sort of telling you what happened during a game,  but to then turn around and make predictions based on them seems… naive?

    P.S.  I do wonder what Rucker thought of the Gay trade.  This has been The Year Of Hollinger – first he “dared” to make a 33 win prediction while DC scoffed at the proposition and then he dumped Gay onto BC.  We’re finding out who the hell the real #clowns are.    

  • FAQ

    Would it be fair to say that “analytics” is the same as “second-guessing”….???

    • Gavolt

      on the strength of your evidence? no, not really.

  • DumbassKicker

    these stats are for idiots, anyone with eyes can clearly see andrea is one of the teams best defenders. he can rebound if he wants to.

    • BlakeMurphy

      It was an example. Thought I was pretty clear with that. I could give a complex example, but pretty sure the RR commenters wouldn’t understand anything beyond “Guy X sucks” and “Guy Y good.”

    • DumbassKicker

      I thought I understood how this panty sucker got a hold of the pOOka name to play the pathetic imposter, but I signed this one up on Disqus, so how is it able to steal this one?

  • ezz_bee

    Here’s an idea, if you don’t like analytics don’t waste your time!  There’s nothing wrong with being a Luddite.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to the MANY pieces blake is going to write about the conference and I don’t want him feeling like he shouldn’t write them because some people don’t understand them or because they actively are against analytics.  

    Blake is taking his time, WHICH HE DOESN”T GET PAID FOR to share some stuffed he learned from some of the GREATEST BASKETBALL MINDS IN THE UNIVERSE with those of us he don’t have access to.  And instead of being grateful, and interested their are people who want to shit all over him?  What the FUCK!?!?!   I’m not prone to dropping F*Bombs like an air force, but c’mon, the guy is doing something really really nice, and it’s fine that you don’t think analytics is worthwhile, and it’s fine that you think these pieces aren’t worthwhile, but you could do the respectable thing and just ignore the pieces?

    Don’t be assholes, or the universe will get you.

    Thanks Blake.  I really appreciate what you’re doing and I for one am REALLY KEEN to hear about what you saw at the conference, and the best part is I get to make up my own mind about what I think about it all.

    I hope you do like 15 pieces and I hope they are huge and that you don’t dumb down your explanations.  I may have to read the articles more than once to understand what’s being proposed but that’s just more bang for my buck right?

    Thanks again.

  • MG

    The Raptors have the tools to use for analytics but they also have two players on their team who are players that analyitcs say are not worth their contracts.  Those two players are also who the team is building around right now (Gay and DeRozan).  I understand that stats to prove anything but they make suggestions and over time if those trends continue you have to compare it to what is actually happening (ie watching games live and on tape).  It really doesn’t seem to me that the Raps organization has a handle on how to use analytics to influence their decision making at all.

    • Theswirsky

      Here is some tidbits from a Rucker interview before the season:

      http://sports.nationalpost.com/2012/09/22/unplugged-raptors-analytics-consultant-alex-rucker-on-advanced-statistics-part-1/

      http://sports.nationalpost.com/2012/09/22/unplugged-raptors-analytics-consultant-alex-rucker-on/

      Q: Is Andrea Bargnani what he looks like defensively: a fine one-on-one defender and an atrocious help defender?
      “Up until 12 months ago, I think that narrative was supported by the data. … He was certainly miscast as a [centre], in the sense that you need [a power forward or a centre] who is protecting the rim and getting a large volume of rebounds. That was never his natural role……I think that narrative was correct until a year ago. Dwane moved him to the [power forward] … and that I think took better advantage of his strength as a defender while permitting him to play a complementary role as a help defender. Frankly, he was a lot more effective last year as a help defender. Is he at the Amir [Johnson] level where he is this top-tier help defender? Certainly not. But he made great strides, such that I think last year, especially early, he was a positive for us as a help defender, when maybe that was not the case in the past.”

      They had a piece on WoW about the Dwight Effect Blake mentions (interior defense leading to lower opponent fg%) and in it Andrea is good.  However, the problem is Andrea doesn’t do it!!  So looking at what Rucker said, the Dwight Effect and Andrea…. Rucker is claiming Andrea became a good help defender.  What he did not mention is he doesn’t actually come over and help.  The result being is he is a good help defender when he helps, but he rarely helps, which then means he is actually a bad help defender.  On top of that alot of this is a result of looking at the small sample size (as Rucker says ‘early’ last season – ie. 13 games) rather than looking at the real sample size and applying that going forward.  Basically, 13 game Bargnani is really good, so if the Raps get 13 game Bargnani he’ll be a good player.  Except 13 game bargnani was an outlier and all the analytics would scream there were never enough data points to consider it was the new normal.

      Thing is shouldn’t a guy who works in that field recognize something as simple as that?  Thats stuff, sample size and distribution, they mention day one in stats 101.  Well here is another peice:

      “But I think our focus has shifted over the last three years. We’re focused on what kind of team does Bryan want to assemble, and what kind of performance does Dwane want on the court …”

      you may get an unbiased view of the #s, but if those #s need to fit or are derived from within a box different individuals create, you are going to get skewed results on your apply them.  So analytics tend to say Andrea sucks, but that doesn’t matter because Colangelo wanted to build around him.  They weren’t looking for ways to make the best team available.  What they were looking for was ways to make the best team available WITH Andrea on the floor.

      To me it sure sounds like – Raps use analytics but only to see who fits within a system that isn’t based on analytics. 

      Its not trying to discover whats working, and whats not working.   Its trying to discover the best ways to get Colangelo and Casey view of players and team building to work. 

      Which ofcourse becomes a waste if the analytics say the view or system is wrong in the first place. 

  • Ajar

    Personally, I’m happy to see analytics posts cropping up here. Let’s have more!

  • vino

    Thanks for posting. Eventhough I an not big on analytics/advanced stats, I recognize there is a spot for them in today’s game. I will just throw one name out there – Shane Battier. I read in multiple places this dude craves advanced stats on his opponents like no other. Mind you, he’s the same dude who recruited players to come play at Duke, helping to put together a championship team of 2001. The point I am trying to make is that usually, it takes an above average mind to comprehend and to take advantage of the advanced stats. The majority of the players don’t have that. The general comment of “studying tape” is not the same as analyzing the tendencies of an opponent to project his most likely moves, so player X could defend him better…

    Looking forward to more stuff from the conference.