Advanced Analytics in the NBA: A Love Story

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In the past few years we have seen an exponential growth in the use of advanced analytics in the NBA. With more and more teams investing heavily into analyzing metrics, the industry has been able to boom and provide more and more accurate data each year. While Rockets GM Daryl Morey may be the most well known proponent of analytics, he definitely was neither the first nor the most successful. But are advanced metrics really the way to build your team? Two of the best Bulls coaches in history think chemistry and athleticism [Trigger Warning] trump any numbers some nerds behind computers can come up with.
Just one look at Daryl Morey and morey-formula_lyou know this guy gets excited just talking about numbers. The face of NBA analytics first started as an investment consultant for private companies before being tapped to join the Boston Celtics where he rose through the ranks to become VP. As VP, Morey pushed his analytics agenda and found himself with
a new gig shortly after as GM of the Rockets. The Rockets’ style is notoriously boring, led by the notoriously “boring but still has cool celebrations and huge stats” James Harden and his band of merry men. Acquiring Harden was Morey’s first real proof that his algorithms can locate a talent being underutilized and turn it into a basketball player so good that any Kardashian would want a piece of him. With his superstar in place, the GM implemented “Moreyball”, a style of play focusing on taking the most efficient shots possible: 3 pointers and drives to the basket. Moreyball has had its highs such as being considered a contender in the west during the playoffs. There were also the extreme lows of last season that showcased a Houston team devoid of any chemistry, Ty Lawson getting extended minutes, and a Harden that was all over the internet for his ball stopping and matador defense. The new faces Morey has added this offseason, most importantly (a clean shaven???) Mike D’antoni, have been an injection of nitrous into a high powered offense led by “I’m a point guard now” James Harden. The question is, how long will this last until they play a team that can cool them off and return Harden to his ball stopping ways? You can listen to Daryl Morey’s opinion of his offseason moves at the bottom of the article.

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Another GM who deserves just as much credit is another mustachioed Italian coach: Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy was able to solidify his style when he led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 2009. His system was centered around a young wrecking ball named Dwight Howard and surrounding the beast with shooters to give him space and let him feast on rebounds. After the extremely uncomfortable falling out between Howard and Van Gundy, Van Gundy took the reins of the lowly Pistons who had recently struck gold with their own mountain of a center in Andre Drummond. Van Gundy was given complete control of the organization and was able to instill his analytically efficient system into his young team that was able to organically grow into what should be a formidable team this year if not in the next two. All of their players will be in their prime (asides from Steve Blake who was in his prime for one year) and may just have the man on the inside needed to take advantage of the Warriors’ small ball lineups.

Analytics haven’t always proven to be the most successful [Trigger Warning] Process. The 76ers picked Sam Hinkie from the weird tree of the Moreyball teachings. Hinkie compiled draft picks like it was nobody’s business and was beginning to look like a genius that could assemble a team full of young talented players that would grow together. Danny Ainge ended up taking his idea and making it better. Unfortunately, Hinkie struck out with his first picks in Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter Williams. Both of these players are excellent (okay, maybe just Noel) but are role players in a bigger team that Hinkie was never able to put together. He drafted big man after big man and failed to either recruit talented players or make the most of fringe prospects. Hinkie’s “process”, as it came to be known, failed to meet the standards Hinkie’s sensei has set and Hinkie was exiled from his kingdom. Too bad he couldn’t see what Joel Embiid is doing now.

On the other side, one of the biggest skeptics of analytics is the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. The President of basketball operations for the Knicks has not been shy about his thoughts on the current play style of the NBA. Most likely bitter from losing Steve Kerr to the Warriors, Jackson launched a couple of tweets during one of his ayahuasca journeys saying teams are relying too much on the three point shot, one of the most efficient in basketball.ch6jyy7xaaa9ndoThis also comes to the defense of his famous Triangle Offense which is predicated on ball movement and dominated with midrange jumpers: a shot that Daryl Morey will cut you immediately if you dare take such an inefficient shot. So far under Jackson’s rule, the Knicks continue to Knick but fell into their best draft pick since Ewing when they gambled on Kristaps Porzingis, the sweet shooting, shot blocking Latvian unicorn and savior of the Knicks.

Ironically, Porzingis has become one of the most efficient players in the NBA as his usage rate has lowered but his efficiency has risen in his second year. His defense around the rim leaves opponents shooting 13% lower than the league average and he currently has accumulated 0.7 win shares, the same amount as Chris Paul and Anthony Davis. Phil has stayed true to his beloved triangle when he signed players such as Derrick Rose, a notoriously inefficient scorer, and Joakim Noah. This team still has a plethora of talent that hasn’t played long enough together but can gain a head of steam rather quickly once they gel. While Jackson’s triangle offense has sputtered, he blamed it on the players not having a basic understanding of fundamentals. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be prudent to then switch to something a little more modern that fits to the modern NBA player’s skillset?

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The second challenger of the analytics movement is the second best Bulls coach and also an avid Derrick Rose supporter: Tom Thibedeu. Thibs’ time in Chicago has him working with one of the better analytics minds in Steve Weinman who worked with Thibs under Jeff Van Gundy. While Thibedeu has shown his respect for analytics, he warns on relying too heavily on it saying, “I think there is a place in our league, and I think it’s good. It may be getting overplayed somewhat right now. I think the trained eye is very important, but numbers are a part of the equation.” Now with the Timberwolves, I don’t see Thib’s approach changing one bit. With a young team continuing to gel and with fresh new knees he can grind into the hardwood, Thibedeu will instill a defensive intensity and utilize the athleticism of his young players to compete in the West.

At this point in time, teams favoring an analytical approach have been more successful. Unfortunately, Sir Charles Barkley has warned us of how boring and dumb this style of play can be. His argument is based around how boring the game will become is based mainly on the Rockets but fails to take in account other analytic powerhouses such as the Spurs, Celtics, Warriors, and Hawks who have proven this method could be fun for all fans and gives more athletes opportunities to succeed.

Analytics fit the mold of the modern NBA player and that is why its working. As players develop, measurements and play style will change again but for now we play by Morey’s rules.

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