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News » Playing the numbers game

Playing the numbers game

Playing the numbers game


Raptors join growing trend of teams using advanced statistics to gain an edge


Having spent most of his working life in the NBA, Toronto Raptors president Bryan Colangelo believes putting a team together is more black art than science.

"I always say there's a gut you have to listen to," he said. "It's your gut instinct on draft picks, on trades, on who might play and give you a chance to win that night."

But hey, there's nothing wrong with getting a second opinion.

Which is why this week the Raptors listened to a presentation by an unidentified consulting firm on everything from what spot on the floor yields the lowest points per shot in coach Jay Triano's defensive schemes to the NBA player that best blocks shots and gains possession for his team. (It's the Los Angeles Lakers' Pau Gasol, by the way.)

With a payroll of $57-million (all figures U.S.) coming off a losing season, Colangelo is open to new perspectives. Data collection, computing power and video technology have merged to make almost anything measurable, making quantitative analytics the hot trend in NBA front offices.

Just as baseball fans long ago began to recognize that traditional statistics were lacking, Basketball fans and insiders alike are on the same path.

Or, as Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey - the NBA's version of Moneyball hero Billy Beane - once said: "Someone invented the box score, and they should be shot."

Triano points to blocked shots and steals as ambiguous statistics and places charges taken and deflections made as more valuable numbers that don't show up in a box score. The goal for quantitative analysis now is to determine how everything interacts on the floor. As Morey says: "We want to know if a guy was open because of bad defence or was he open because one of our guys set a good screen."

About a third of NBA teams are already heavily invested in quantitative analysis and another third - such as the Raptors - are dabbling, says columnist John Hollinger, who helped popularize the approach for fans.

He started his own website in 1996 and published his Pro Basketball Prospectus in 2002. "I knew I was on to something when I was having lunch at home and an NBA coach - I can't say who, he's still in the league - called me out of the blue looking for more information. I was like, 'wow, okay,'?" Hollinger said.

The best known of a crowd of like-minded analysts, his signature breakthrough was PER - or Player Efficiency Rating - a catch-all measure for player performance. It set the league average at 15 and recognizes LeBron James - his PER of 31.7 in 2008-09 was third best in the past 35 years - as an emerging legend.

By the same measure, the Raptors' main off-season moves - signing Hedo Turkoglu and re-signing Andrea Bargnani - seem risky, Hollinger says, noting that investing $103-million in the pair seems like a lot when their PERs last season - 14.8 and 14.6, respectively - were ranked 134th and 140th in the NBA.

Colangelo argues that stats only tell part of the story. Locking up Bargnani with a five-year deal early could save the Raptors money if he continues to improve, and Turkoglu is the kind of on-the-ball playmaker that should lift both Chris Bosh and Bargnani while taking a load off Jose Calderon.

"There's a human component to our business that numbers and everything else can't help you with," Colangelo said.

Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers offered similar thoughts on the stats-based approach: "I use 'em when I can use them, that's how I use stats. If they don't go with my way of thinking, I ignore them. I'm like a politician: I'll use any stat that can help you get elected."

It's not clear how many of the league's players are paying attention to the shift, but mention that teams of very smart people are trying to figure ways to measure the so-called "little things" and their interest piques.

As Celtics sniper Ray Allen said recently: "If a guy hedges hard [comes out to pressure the ball handler after a screen], ? that's good defence but you can't follow that [in the box score].

"I would love to see that because those intangible things wouldn't be intangibles any more," Allen said. "That would be interesting. Who leads the league in deflections or charges?"

Many of those questions are being raised by Basketball's new stat geeks - such as the two young men with laptops in hand who sat in at the Raptors' practice last week and made their pitch to management later - and sometimes the answers are confusing at first.

Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder is one of the most exciting young players in Basketball, yet a debate raged in cyberspace recently when it was pointed out that despite his 25.3-point-a-game scoring average, the Thunder were better off statistically when he was off the floor than when he was playing.

The revelation hurt Durant - considered an earnest and determined young star - so he lashed back via Twitter: "Everybody that is doubtin me as a player and my team as a whole..all i can say is that we all are tryin and workin our hardest!"

He should have saved his thumbs, said Raptors guard Jarrett Jack - a friend of Durant's from Washington - who was able to deconstruct the mystery without the aid of a spreadsheet. Durant has to pass more and shoot fewer contested shots.

"I talked to him about that in the summer time," Jack said. "He's a talented, talented player. He'll be an MVP candidate one day, probably. But nobody can do it by themselves."

But don't paint Jack as a new stats guru. He's not sure of the need given that Colangelo signed him to a four-year, $20-million contract in part because he can score and pass, but also because he's a sterling locker room citizen, gets along well with Bosh and is a hard-nosed defender at multiple positions. He's a glue guy, and there's value in that, spreadsheet or not.

"I think the Basketball minds really notice certain things and they reward you for it," Jack said. "People who are into the game know what it takes to be successful."

Author: Fox Sports
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Added: October 24, 2009


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