Ahh, analytics, the term that all of the younger, non-basketball playing people who are trying to steal the jobs of the basketball gods and heroes that we grew up watching on TV. It’s no secret that we are in the digital age, you’re probably reading this on a screen and not a newspaper…just in case you didn’t want to agree with us right off the bat. In basketball, we are now in the “analytics age.” But what does that even mean? Let’s see if we can figure it out. Dictionary.com has a few definitions for analytics:
1) Logic, the science of logical analysis
2) The analysis of data, typically large sets of business data, by the use of mathematics, statistics, or computer software.
3) The patterns and/or other meaningful information gathered from the analysis of data.
Those meanings don’t seem to terrifying or outrageous. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Logic. The SCIENCE of LOGICAL ANALYSIS. See, nothing to be afraid of. It literally means to use math, computers and other rule-based sciences to help sift through what’s actually happening on the court and steer us humans away from our own biases and cognitive dissonance.
We’re sure there has to be some reason why there are people deciding the fates of our favorite players and franchises aren’t into getting accurate information to help their processes…
Let’s take a look back through the history of scouting and see how it has evolved. Maybe there is pattern to acceptance/adoption.
Waaaay back when, advanced scouting was a disruptive tool that helped teams win games. Since the goal of competition is to win, employing tactics that improve those chances seems like a logical idea. You don’t need to be an expert to know that going into a game with a plan for success is probably a good idea. No different than studying for a history test, preparing a pitch to your boss, explaining to your significant other why the credit card bill is really high…again.
So instead of going into a game blind, teams determined that if they had an idea of what their opponent was going to do, they would be able to prepare a better game plan to increase the likelihood of victory. At the time, I’m sure there were a handful of coaches who threw out cliches like, “we just need to worry about what we are doing out there,” or “as long as we do what we’re supposed to we’ll be fine.” You get the idea, we’ve all had a coach like that at some point in our playing careers. So teams decided it was advantageous to send a scout to their opponents’ games to get an picture of what their tendencies on the court/field were. Having a sheet of play calls and the movements of the players was exponentially better than just guessing. The adoption of advanced scouting was a pivotal moment in sports. It meant sports were no longer a casual measure of strengths and athleticism. It was on the way to functioning like warfare and big business.
Now you’re probably thinking, “well, duh.” But it’s important to remember that information didn’t travel easily in those days. Phone lines weren’t always secure. There was no texting or file sharing. When this started, fax machines didn’t exist. But there were ways of getting the information to the appropriate parties that were creative because it was necessary.
So defensive coaches now knew what formations/sets to look for at certain points of the game and could devise ways to stop it. Anyone who has ever tried to learn anything will tell you that it is much easier the second time around than the first, and easier the third time than the second. With each training rep, the movements become more fluid and natural. In football, after a few days of practice it’s realistic that players will know what plays are coming and how to react properly.
Pretty soon the information was able to get across state lines with greater ease thanks to fax machines. After that, email came along and made it even easier. The evolution has continued and the amount of information that can exchange hands has grown. With that, the ability to decode and analyze huge amounts of data become necessary to keep pace. And that lands us in the “analytics age.” It’s a stop on the trajectory path that sports information has traveled along since its birth.
With basketball analytics, like most things, the curve tends to follow an exponential growth pattern. The amount of data collected and distributed in sports has mimicked the age of information. In modern times, there is such a massive amount of data…guess what, it’s not stopping either as there are more games being played by new players every day/week/month/year…that teams needed to figure out a way to comb through what was useful and what was not.
Now there are still some experts who don’t need to look at the data. They believe that just watching a player/team will afford all of the information they need to make the right decision. After all, that’s the way it’s always been done. I bet some of those guys take planes to get to those games and not travel via horse-and-buggy even though that’s how it was always done. But there is a reason why the teams like Houston, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Boston (get the drift) have embraced and utilized “analytics.” It’s a more effective way of attacking problems. That doesn’t mean it will always provide the answer, but it will certainly improve the discussion and increase the percentages of success.
For those who are on the wrong side of the analytics age, go find an expert to build you some big, beautiful regression and predictive models and get some wins!