Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors

Most basketball fans knows about the statistical/analytical revolution happening in the NBA right now, similar to what baseball went through years earlier that inspired “Moneyball” – both the term and the film. The advanced metrics unearthed during this revolution have helped us break down and understand both games better than ever, regardless of the traditionalist criticisms, and the NBA recently added all of the advanced stats you can ask for to its own website.

The NBA may actually be surpassing Major League Baseball in terms of how far this revolution will be taken thanks to “SportVU,” a program currently used by half of the Association’s teams which records every single second of action on the floor “and spits it back at its front-office keepers as a byzantine series of geometric coordinates,” writes Zach Lowe of Grantland.

Lowe’s fascinating feature on SportVU should be read by all, especially basketball savvy Raptors fans who want the organization to immerse itself in stats and analytics, as one of the main points the in-depth feature makes is that “The NBA is undergoing an analytical transformation, and the Raptors are one of the teams at the forefront.”

Sandwiched in the intriguing Grantland post which focuses on the Raptors are a few talking points for Raptors fans…

- The system is so incredibly in-depth and advanced that in addition to showing what every player on the floor is doing and where they are on every possession, it also shows the Raptors’ staff what players should be doing and where players should be moving with “ghost” icons (check out the clear circles with the same numbers as the white/Raptors circles in this video). Lowe writes that “the ghost players are consistently more aggressive on help defense than the real Toronto players,” but it is also pointed out that it’s tough to cover all of the ground the ghost says you should be covering unless your name is LeBron James.

- I love this quote from Raptors’ technical director of analytics Keith Boyarsky – “Anybody who is going to pooh-pooh this kind of analysis will say things like, ‘You can’t measure defense, because it’s all about the guy who doesn’t help or rotate.’ That it’s about what you can’t measure. But that’s exactly what we’re measuring.”

- Brian Kopp, the executive vice-president of STATS, says the Raptors “go a step beyond” what most other teams are doing and also states that “their visualizations are the best I’ve seen.”

- While Bryan Colangelo and his staff sound like they are fully on board the SportVU and analytics bandwagon, the coaches and Dwane Casey in particular don’t seem nearly as ready to rely on it. How about this quote from Casey on SportVU: “It’s a good backup for what your eyes see. It may also shed light on something else, but you can’t make all your decisions based on it, and it can’t measure heart, and chemistry, and personality.”

For people like me who thought Casey should be given more rope in Toronto than Colangelo at this point, Lowe’s feature certainly gives us something to think about. SportVU, advanced stats and analytics are the way of the future and it is encouraging to hear that the organization seems to agree. As for Casey, I completely understand why some more old school coaches may not be ready to let everything ride on numbers – in fact I agree with it – but I don’t think anybody’s trying to tell them to coach only by numbers. The point of an analytics-based revolution is to enhance traditional basketball evaluation and coaching, not to replace it all together.

Furthermore, are “heart,” “chemistry” and “personality” the deciding factors in Aaron Gray getting valuable fourth quarter minutes over Jonas Valanciunas or Andrea Bargnani over Ed Davis earlier in the season? Because if so, then I suggest Casey and his staff start taking these new, more advanced measures more seriously than those overrated intangibles.

- Despite my frustrations with his puzzling substitution patterns this season, I still believe in Casey’s defensive approach and his passion for the game, and I really do hope that he’s the one capable of leading the Raptors into a successful future, but when you recall the reported organizational split between Calderon and Lowry earlier this year and the apparent divide on the full value of analytics, the question has to be asked – is he the right guy for the job given the analytics-based direction the team is obviously going in?

- Here are a couple more passages from Lowe to consider in regards to the possible divide – “part of the team’s job is to sell a sometimes skeptical coaching staff on the value of all these new numbers and computer programs, says Alex Rucker, the Raptors’ director of analytics.” Later, when discussing a theory about jacking more three-pointers that the analytics team holds, Rucker is quoted as saying “That’s a conversation we’ve had with our coaching staff, and let’s just say they don’t support that approach.” For the record, Lowe himself downplays the divide later in the post and to be honest, I don’t think it’s at all isolated to Toronto, as most coaches around the league and around pro sports in general are probably hesitant to fully accept analytics.

- Given the potential for higher reward, three-pointers are highly valued by stats guys, and in general, advanced stats tell us that the best offence is one that gets to the free throw line regularly while knocking down threes at an above-average clip. Hitting more threes also depends on attempting more long-range shots, and one of the interesting tidbits from Lowe’s piece is when he writes that on a specific Raptors’ possession the did not end up with a three-point attempt, “the analytics team would have liked Gay, a below-average career 3-point shooter really struggling this season, to jack up a contested 3 at this moment — with about six seconds left on the shot clock.”

What I find so interesting about this is that we all rip on Rudy for taking too many threes when he’s not a consistent three-point shooter, which would seem to contradict a basic set of analysis, while the actual analytics people prefer he takes more! Maybe Gay’s frustrating decision to take what we consider to be “too many” three-point attempts is actually coming from the analytics team. If you’re a stats advocate like I am and you read through Lowe’s post, you may come to the realization that it’s time to stop criticizing Gay for jacking all of those threes, though our criticism of his long-twos should remain very much alive. In any event, whether it’s smart for Gay to be attempting more threes or not, Rudy has to improve his stroke from behind the arc, because one of him or DeMar DeRozan becoming even average three-point shooters could do wonders for this offence.

- Overall, Lowe’s fascinating Grantland post should be seen as encouraging by Raptors fans looking for their team to gain any advantage they can, and perhaps a few years down the line we’ll really start to see this investment in analytics pay off with sustained success on the court. But by reading through the column multiple times, the biggest obstacle still appears to be getting coaches and players to fully buy into what the analytics tell us, and I remain skeptical that you can teach so many old dogs so many new tricks.

Whether it’s the Raptors or a whole slew of other teams, we won’t start to see this investment in analytics truly pay off until the old school coaches, players and executives embrace the revolution, or perhaps more realistically, until those decision makers are slowly but surely replaced over the years by more forward thinking basketball minds.

With analytics at the forefront, the Raptors have been given a light to guide themselves out of the tunnel. How effectively they put that guiding light to use (and that includes how well Colangelo himself actually utilizes the analytics he has invested in) will go a long way in determining how quickly they emerge from the darkness that is mediocrity.