I’ve never really understood why measuring performance through the best available metrics, and then attempting to implement what’s been learned as a means of improvement would be such a despised practice in sports. To me, the use of analytics represents a reasonable pursuit of something that resembles the truth.
I’m not an athlete or a coach or a member of a front-office, but in my own chosen field, both as a writer and a reader, I value this pursuit. I want to investigate phenomena that hasn’t already been explained, I desire the acquisition of new knowledge and I covet the correction of what I previously believed to be true. I’m of the firm belief that curiosity remains one of the better human traits, especially when it’s coupled with a drive to explore.
Last week, Grantland published a fascinating article written by Zach Lowe that looked into the Toronto Raptors and their use of SportVu, a camera-tracking system that records player movement and allows teams to use the data that it gathers as a means of understanding how to best attack an opposing team’s defense, and alternately how to best defend against an opposing team’s offense. The story is an excellent example of form matching function in that it informs readers of something new that’s being used in basketball to inform talent evaluators of fresh insights.
In response to Lowe’s work, Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star filed a follow-up story in which he spoke with Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey about the Grantland article. Kelly essentially used Lowe’s investigation into Toronto’s use of analytics as a launching pad to rage against his own convoluted idea of the use of advanced metrics, further his own narrative on a divide between the coaches and front office, and indirectly insult Lowe’s reporting.
It comes across as the perfect example of a writer too focused on a preconceived narrative and an axe in need of grinding. Early on in Kelly’s piece, which isn’t so much about analytics as it is a supposed divide within the team’s ranks, the Toronto Star writer dismisses the use of advanced metrics as something of a fad.
Analytics are to this year’s NBA season what beards were at the Academy Awards — something not so new as to be shocking, but still cool enough to attract would-be hipsters.
In the first paragraph of this piece I described analytics as measuring performance through the best available metrics, and then attempting to implement what’s been learned as a means of improvement. This isn’t anything new. It’s not a fad. It’s not merely fashionable. It’s how sports teams get better. The problem for many is the use of numbers that are collected through means that are difficult for lay people to understand.
This is not an indictment of analytics, though that branch of study appears increasingly cultish and removed from the reality of the human decision-making process under pressure.
This is not an indictment of Cathal Kelly, though that writer does tend to write one thing, and then do exactly what he said he wasn’t going to do.
The use of analytics isn’t an all-or-nothing practice. It’s okay to not understand the way data is collected and utilized. It’s not okay to assume that supporters of analytics believe that the analysis of those numbers is the only way to solve a problem. It’s easy when building a case against to present it in this light, but the exact same problem exists for other means of analysis. Relying on one method – any method – is a recipe for disaster.
It’s also important to remember that basketball analytics isn’t Moneyball. It’s far more revolutionary than that. Moneyball was an evaluative tool. Moneyball didn’t change the way baseball was played (at best, it put a larger emphasis on not playing, e.g. taking walks).
I think what Kelly is trying to suggest – through offering up his ignorance to both Moneyball and the way in which baseball is played – is that the use of basketball analytics is primarily found on the floor with in-game strategy while baseball analytics – at least those highlighted in Moneyball (presumably, the film version) – trend toward relevance when it comes to player acquisitions and roster construction.
It’s a false suggestion because as we’ve seen in baseball, on-field strategy, most notably in terms of the defensive shift, has been affected. It’s also false because it assumes that this isn’t what the Raptors are doing, as well. In Kelly’s rush to “indict” the team’s front office, he’s assumed that the team not only gave up all of their information to a writer from Grantland (we’ll get to more on that later), but that the only application of the data that they’ve acquired and tracked is for strategic purposes on the court.
Kelly suggests that because the collected data doesn’t seem to be utilized during in-game play, there exists a disconnect between the front-office and the coaches, which fits the narrative he attempts to push throughout the article.
“A lot of coaches will say how great it is that analytics confirm what they already see,” Keith Boyarsky, an analytics consultant with the team, tells Lowe. “The fact of the matter is, that’s not really true.”
This is a guy who lives in L.A., who visits with the team from time to time, apparently burying the coaching staff. You know, the men who played the game, spend every day with the players and see them as something other than white dots on a monitor.
Again, this assumes that the information that the Raptors have collected is only for use on the court. The same assumption isn’t extended to the Raptors front office whose “giving away of information” may be a whole lot more limited than was Kelly supposes.
According to Casey, the players never see the SportsVU animations. They watch only game tape. Showing them the utopian vision of “ghost” basketball would be too confusing (and, based on the small sample obtained by Lowe, too embarrassing).
Instead, all those gigs of data are boiled down to “four or five stats” that players can plug into their games — such directives as shoot more from this or that position.
That sounds like a sensible team-wide approach. What isn’t sound is publicly trumpeting a needless sense of friction between the geeks and the jocks.
Actually, this sounds like exactly what happens in almost every single corporate environment. Decision-makers rely on analysis from those capable of it. They don’t receive all of the nuts and bolts. They receive a recommendation. A smart executive team will look to multiple branches of its company to offer such recommendations when making a decision. Why would it be any different for a professional sports franchise?
Oh, it fits in nicely with the narrative that the writer is trying to espouse? Got it.
This may be why the Raptors decided recently to open up the guts of their own analytics skunkworks and show them to Grantland writer Zach Lowe.
It is difficult to credit that the people guarding the team vaults are also doing guided tours.
The Raptors braintrust unwisely moved the battleground right into the middle of their organization.
This all smacks of pointless grandstanding and destructive over-sharing.
Casey’s bosses appear too interested in being seen to be on the cutting edge, while undermining the reason why you go out there in the first place.
Okay, so, tell us how you really feel. Kelly smells division, and there may very well be a division, but using Lowe’s article to promote this narrative isn’t the route to take. Instead of actually proving any sort of rift, it only implies that the Grantland writer was served the story on a red, black and silver platter. It completely undermines any work in relationship-building and question-asking that Lowe would’ve had to have done to secure this incredibly informative piece.
This all smacks of a writer upset that something so interesting about the team was gleaned by a writer not on the team’s actual beat. However, we’ll give Kelly the benefit of the doubt as it pertains to any ulterior motivation in writing this article. Unfortunately, it’s a luxury that the writer didn’t extend to the Raptors, or Lowe himself.