The opportunity to sit and chat with Raptors Director of Analytics Alex Rucker is one Iíve been looking forward to for a while. Advanced stats isnít a topic weíve heard a lot about with relation to the Raptors over the years and Rucker has been a big part of its recent growth within the organization.
I met him inside the Raptors front office headquarters at ACC recently to talk tweets, trends, summer transactions and a how a whole bunch of cameras have kept him busier than ever.
Jay Satur: Your twitter account has offered up some fascinating insight on the organization without giving too much away. One tweet that really caught my eye was in mid-July when you said ďIím now in my 4th year with the team, and the past month has been the best monthÖand itís not close.Ē Why so happy?
Alex Rucker: The last three years for me has been sort of an interesting journey. I was heavily focused on the coaching stuff and then thereís kind of been a three-year progression of both refining what we do analytically and also working more and more closely with the transactional side with Bryan [Colangelo] and now Ed [Stefanski]. So for me as an analyst, the time period of signing Jonas Valanciunas, bringing him over, trading for Kyle Lowry, bringing on board Landry Fields, I mean these are guys that analytically are all excellent additions to our squad. Jonas has obviously been in the works for about a year, but there was a significant shift to these guys that I feel very strongly will improve our team in a variety of different areas so it was great to see that all come together.
JS: This will be your first full year for you and the analystics team, but youíve been working with the Raptors in some capacity since 2009, how has your role evolved over time?
AR: Iíd spent the previous eight years kind of refining my craft as an analyst, but there is a massive difference between being a public analyst with access to public data and then working with an organization where thereís an exponential increase in data available to you. Whether itís coaches play calls on offence or defence, or specific things the coaching staff or video guys are tracking, kind of folding that into your analysis, thereís all these new data streams. So the last two or three years I feel like as a professional, as a basketball person, as an analyst, Iíve grown massively. Our analytic team, led by myself and Keith Boyarsky, weíve really benefitted from that additional flow of information and being able to fold it into what we do.
I think it was also a new thing three years ago for this organization. It was one of those things where Jay was aware of this world of analytics, Bryan was aware of it, but it wasnít something that had been really embraced or taken advantage of because itís a journey, right? With baseball you can see that in the 80′s, there was all this public analysis being done. If you use the ĎMoneyballí book/movie, it took 15-20 years for it to get engrained in front offices, so itís not an unusual thing this new way of looking at the game, if you will, it kind of takes a while to trickle in, for people to get comfortable with it, for people to understand it, because itís an unfamiliar way of looking at the game to someone who has grown up inside that world.
JS: How have you seen the use of analytics grow over the course of your time with the Raptors?
Coach support is one of three big picture areas that Ruckerís team assists with. (Ron Turenne/NBAE)
AR: There are three Ďbig pictureí areas. The first is pro player evaluations; looking at NBA players, free agents, transactions, contracts, the guys on our team. Then thereís prospects, the draft and thatís a whole separate world and frankly requires a very different analytic methodology. The third is what I call Ďcoach supportí. The other two are focused on transactions, player value and role at the strategic level. At the coaching level, itís much more about executing every individual possession a certain way. Thatís three very dissimilar areas and growth and progression has occurred differently in each of the three.
At the player transaction level, I think itís really more been a function of better understanding what Bryanís vision was and better identifying players that fit that vision analytically. Thereís always kind of a lag time with the science piece of building some new design, model or methodology and then testing it, making sure it works and then ĎOK, you want these things? Here they are.í So I think that itís largely been a function of that, the development of it, so the things theyíve wanted, we now have much more of them. To identify certain things weíre now better able to do that.
Then at the college level itís kind of the same thing. Before coming here, my focus analytically had 100 per cent been on pro players. I had not devoted a lot of energy into college or European prospects because honestly, the dataís ugly. NBA data is much more rigorous and reliable. College data, thereís a lot of issues with it. European data even more issues and thereís less of it, so we hadnít delved into that world. Thatís been a significant challenge. I think weíve gotten to a much better place, but scouting and drafting will always be a lot more of a grey area, I donít know that it will ever get as scientific as the pro player stuff.
JS: Has this been accelerated by working with a coaching staff thatís been a little more rooted in analytics in the past?
AR: Dwaneís definitely very open. His staff is very inquisitive. They ask a lot of questions. They challenge our assumptions and question the things we do and thatís great. The first thing I tell anyone, whether itís working for Bryan or the coaches, is that Iím going to offer suggestions and I want you to challenge them.
In the academic world, itís like submitting to peer review. I want these guys to attack our ideas. I want them to criticize them, to dig into them. If they donít stand up to scrutiny, they donít belong in the conversation. Thatís what we aspire to and Dwane and his staff have done a great job with that. We have very passionate conversations about a whole host of topics and whether itís Dwane or Tom [Sterner] or Micah [Nori], thatís the stuff that helps us get better and better supports them.
JS: Advanced stats is something thatís become commonplace now in public basketball discussion, how do you view that public analysis given your advantage in terms of that volume of data available to you?
AR: The disparity in available data is a huge deal and Iím always sympathetic to that. Iíve mentioned this before, but there is basically no good data about defence in the public sphere. If you as a public analyst want to understand defence, good luck. The data just is not there and the attempts that do get made are mostly unhelpful in terms of understanding defence.
Iíll read articles about defensive rating or steals or blocks. Those all indicate something, I donít know that itís correct to say that you can take those things together and say that it gives you an idea about a guyís defence. For some guys yes, for some guys no, but then the problem is that itís not a correlation thatís a meaningful thing.
I think that in the public sphere, you can make a lot of progress in terms of offence. I think thereís enough data to do some really interesting, really good analysis of certain things on offence. Lots of areas for growth there. But on the defensive side, with the current data, youíre not getting there.
JS: How beneficial has the SportVu system been to what you do?
AR: The SportVu data system, which to recap is six cameras tracking all 10 players on the court, the three referees and then the ball in three dimensions, has been the single biggest step forward in terms of analytics in my lifetime basically. Itís orders of magnitude better than what we had before in terms of data. I guess the easy example is we went from about 800 bits of data in an NBA play-by-play to about 800,000.
Now the opportunities for growth and for enhanced understanding using that data are almost limitless. If you can ask a question about the game, thereís probably a way to capture that using SportVu camera data. The other things all help, but that is the single biggest advantage that we enjoy over the public sphere. Having all the intent pieces from the coaches and the management is awesome, but having this incredibly rich array of data that SportVu gives us, thereís nothing to compare it to.
JS: This is fairly new technology, but how many teams currently use it?
AR: Two years ago in their beta year, there were six teams, this past season, there were 10 teams and my understanding is theyíre shooting for half the league this coming year. From our perspective, every additional team is more data, so thatís great. If they stay with 10, thatís still frankly a lot of data for us to continue to exploit and explore. But itís been a phenomenal step forward.
Part two coming soon, with Ruckerís thoughts on Lowry, Fields and Valanciunas.