With the ever-growing use of analytics in the world of professional basketball it is imperative for NBA franchises to adapt and evolve.
The Toronto Raptors, despite an ugly 26-41 record on the season, are one of the organizations embracing the change.
The Raptors are one of 15 teams in the league to use SportsVu, a sophisticated camera technology that tracks each play of each game to give an analytics team data to evaluate what their players are doing on the floor, what they should be doing on the floor as well as what their opponents are doing.
Last weekend, the Raptors allowed Grantland’s Zach Lowe behind the curtain and into the analytics room.
In a thoroughly researched, reported and presented feature, Lowe did his part to shed light on the Raptors and the work they are doing with analytics this season. In doing so, the piece divulged a lot of information about the team’s inner workings. It also gave a glimpse into the divergent paths of the front office and coaching staff.
When the analytics team is sharing their opinion and the coaching staff is saying the opposite in the following paragraph in Lowe’s piece, that’s a less-than-optimal situation for a franchise that is in the middle of a five-year playoff drought.
Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo was quick to deny any rift between the two sides.
“There is absolutely no rift between the front office and coaches concerning the use of analytics,” he answered via email. “If anything, it’s more about coaches and management (the basketball guys) challenging the analytics team (the numbers guys) on the premise that you disregard or abandon pure and simple basketball ideology. Healthy debate is surely part of the process, but we are all learning and evolving in this very interesting space.”
Colangelo wasn’t the only one deflecting attention from the differing opinions among coaching staff and the analytics team.
“You have friction between yourself and players, yourself and your own coaching staff,” coach Dwane Casey told the media on Tuesday afternoon. “I think the challenge — I don’t say friction — I think the challenge is using it in the right way where it’s not the only piece, the only tool that you use. There are many tools you use to prepare your team to play. There’s not friction. There’s one piece.
“Everybody wants to get their point across. Analytical people want to say, ‘This is the tool to use.’ Scouts want to say, ‘My tool is important.’ At the end of the day, the bottom line is, whether it’s (through) personnel or analytics, is winning.”
Asked about the presence of analytics in the game today, Casey supported them while also stressing that they are one part of the picture.
“I guarantee if you talk to 90 per cent of the coaches in the NBA, they don’t rely on analytics totally,” he said. “Numbers don’t tell you everything. They give you great information and good insight into what’s happening. But I trust my eyes. But that might point out something that might be happening that my eyes didn’t see.”
His take makes sense for a man who earns a living making decisions based on what he sees, thinks, feels, knows and trusts to be true.
“If you try to cover everything with analytics, you get overwhelmed with numbers,” Casey said.
The use of advanced stats and data isn’t anything new to Casey, though. In addition to writing the foreword to Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, Casey also worked closely with Dean Oliver, widely considered the godfather of analytics, during his time in Seattle.
The key, to Casey, is keeping things simple for his players.
After conferring with their analytics team, the coaching staff decides which info is most pertinent to what they are trying to accomplish and then presents it to the players in basketball speak rather than having them dive into the numbers themselves.
“We don’t use it to show players,” Casey explained. “They don’t see that. We show them the actual game film…It’s a game of instincts. You can look at it in cold numbers. But at the end of the day … it’s a game of instincts, speed, quickness and reaction. If you think too much, you get paralyzed.”
When Colangelo was questioned about the organization’s willingness to allow Lowe behind the curtain, he pointed to the interest in the MIT Sloan Conference that took place in Boston a few weeks ago, saying they decided to act upon that hype. He went on to say this won’t be the only time fans are privy to the analytics work the team is doing.
“We are even doing something more on an upcoming episode of “Open Gym” as a means of communicating with our fan base,” Colangelo said. “Our customers and fans want more and we are finding ways to deliver it to them.
While it’s nice that giving access provides a service to fans and customers, those same customers and fans would surely prefer a product on the court that has something to compete for. Thus far, the organization’s commitment to analytics and being ahead of the curve has not paid off with respect to wins and losses.
Colangelo explained the importance of the software by saying, “You see the true power and value of the information lies in the programming we have developed in delivering the information. We all have (or very soon 30 teams will have) access to the data, but being able to use it and figuring out how to communicate its virtues is the key. Let’s not forget that the players still have to play the game.”
In the world of pro sports, more often than not, talent will trump all else. In mid-March of a season that will conclude in mid-April, the Raptors have not trumped much.
Before Casey left the practice court on Tuesday afternoon, he said: “It’s not about who’s right, who’s wrong, whose information you use. It’s about pooling all of that information together … as a team, checking your egos at the door. For me, that’s what’s important. When we won a championship (in Dallas), that’s what we did.”
One thing that’s for certain, regardless of how you spin it: The analytics discussion between coaching staff and the number-crunchers will continue to blaze in Toronto while a championship isn’t anywhere on the horizon.