Monday, July 04, 2016

Glockner's Book And The State Of Analytics

If you haven't read it yet, I recommend reading Andy Glockner's book inside the NBA and the analytics world. It's a good overview of the current state of analytics at the NBA, college, and prep levels.

As a general rule of thumb, it's hard to go wrong with a book that gets a behind-the-scenes look at basketball. When you follow sports on a daily basis, you are bombarded with the mind-numbing beat reporting, full of its vapid "What motivated you to come up big today?" questions. When you get an insider's book you instead learn about stories like Nick U'Ren's invention of the Golden State Warriors "death lineup" and how it turned the tide in the 2015 NBA Finals, which Andy goes into in depth in the final chapter.

One issue you're always going to have with a book focusing on "Here is the state of the world now" is that the book reads differently depending on when you consume it. It was a bit disconcerting reading Andy talk about the high expectations for the Cavs in 2015-16 about a week after the Cavs won the 2016 title. If I have one criticism of this book it's one that is probably unavoidable on a topic like this, which is a general lack of structure. It feels more like a series of long vignettes than a single book, though that's fine for me, as I could read the book chapter by chapter.

Here are a few conclusions that I had about the topics covered in the book:

Analytics is everywhere and nowhere
The debate over whether you need analytics to build a team is long over in professional sports. Every NBA team has analytics staff. Some teams use it more than others, of course, but the stupid dualism of "stats vs scouts" only exists in the minds of terrible sportswriting dinosaurs.

That said, most advances are happening behind closed doors. The early part of this century, where analytics was developing rapidly in the open Internet, are long gone. Anybody who comes up with a real advance these days is quickly snapped up by a front office and his/her work becomes proprietary. As Andy admits repeatedly throughout the book, teams simply were not willing to tell him about their newest analytics. It's a competitive advantage to keep it secret.

Analytics is in every facet of the game
It's become a bit of a narrative at this point that "the next realm for analytics is injury prevention", but there's no question that teams are looking for any advantage that they can get in whatever aspect of the game is possible. For example, Andy spends a large chunk of his book covering P3, a firm that does advanced training and biometrics. They are capable of watching the way players jump to tell that they are putting more weight on their right knee than their left knee, tracing that back to overcompensating from an old injury, and predict/prevent the way that will cause a future injury. Andy also goes in depth into the advanced video and biometric analysis, some of it with P3 as well, that allowed Kyle Korver to become such a deadly three-point weapon.

One of the more annoying media stereotypes of "analytics" is that it's just a bunch of dudes calculating WAR and whining about who got left out of the Hall of Fame. The fact is that "analytics" really just means "objective analysis". It means that you are interpreting data, whatever that data is. Measuring the force on various joints of a player's body while he jumps is data that can be analyzed and used to create a better, healthier player. That is "analytics", too.

Analytics is far more entrenched at the pro level
NBA teams have huge front office staffs, often managed by folks who never played the sport. It's thus natural that it's front offices that have embraced analytics before coaches and players. As Andy mentions, the last frontier of analytics acceptance is players and (unsurprising since so many of them were recently elite players) coaches.

College programs, far more than the NBA, are dictatorships ruled over by a single coach with significantly smaller staffs. It's natural that modern analytics just are not nearly as entrenched at that level. Andy discusses coaches like Buzz Williams and Steve Wojciechowski that are using modern analytics like SportVU to inform their development styles, but they are few and far between. Andy even mentions a subscription to Ken Pomeroy's website as a mountain too high for a large number of college coaches.

One of the most misused terms is "Moneyball", which the media often seems to interpret as "acquiring baseball players with high on-base percentages". If the term has any meaning, it refers to finding market inefficiencies, wherever they are. And to that end, modern analytics seems to be a far larger market inefficiency at the college level than the pro level. College coaches: take note.