How Geeks Took Over the NBA
Credit: Courtesy Sportvu

The roots of basketball analytics actually date back to the 1960s, when University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith charted such non-box-score factors as rebound attempts and "hustle points" (baskets scored off gritty effort). But the modern era's numbers boom began in the early 2000s, in the same grassroots fashion as baseball's, with posters on message boards like the Association for Professional Basketball Research expanding on the innovations of obscure statisticians like Bob Bellotti and Dean Oliver. Many NBA teams now have analytics experts on staff – for example, in 2012 the Grizzlies snapped up Hollinger, then an ESPN writer, who had developed the Player Efficiency Rating, an attempt to assess all of a player's offensive and defensive contributions in a single number. Hollinger's remarkable career arc – from proto-blogger to columnist to an executive with roster input – is emblematic of the new age. "I think a lot of people on this side have embraced the word geek as a badge of pride," he says.

Last off-season, the Boston Celtics named former Butler University coach Brad Stevens, an outspoken analytics devotee, to head one of the NBA's most hallowed franchises – though Stevens feels that all the talk of advanced stats is somewhat overblown. "Coaches have always used whatever information they had; the difference is that now we all have way more information," says Stevens. "You're always looking for any little edge you can get. From a coaching standpoint, you try to put your guys in positions where they can best be successful, and a lot of those numbers help you do that."

Some coaches, however, have proved more reluctant to surf the wave of new facts and figures. Shortly after the Grizzlies' new stats-friendly ownership hired Hollinger, coach Lionel Hollins publicly criticized analytics in a radio interview. Despite the fact that Hollins led the Grizzlies to a franchise-record 56 wins and its first-ever berth in the Western Conference finals, the team decided not to renew his contract.

"I still trust the gym, practice, and games more than I do statistics," says ESPN analyst and former NBA coach George Karl. "But I do think there's space in the game where analytics can help a coach, team, or organization figure out what decisions they should make." Citing the 11 coaches who lost their jobs this past off-season (including himself, let go by the Denver Nuggets), he sees a more ominous role that numbers can play – one that pressures coaches not just to win, but to win a specific way. "You could probably use stats to prove that a coach who won 56 or 57 games still provides reason for a change. Winning was always the security blanket of coaching, but now it's winning plus you must follow the philosophy the organization wants. It's kind of confusing to coaches. It feels like sometimes you're drowning when you're winning games and you're being told you're not doing the right thing."

Of course the most important constituency that needs convincing may be the folks being rendered into data: the players. "I try to use analytics mostly on the defensive end," says Miami Heat forward Shane Battier, who requests info on opponents before games. "If I'm covering Kobe Bryant and I know that if I send him to his left hand versus his right, I'm shaving 50 basis points off his efficiency, over the long run that's going to help me." Without his use of numbers, says Battier, "I don't think I would be playing at a high level at 35. I can't jump as high as I used to, I'm not as fast, but I understand the game of basketball. I know what gets me in trouble and I have the data to back me up, and it has enabled me to carve out a unique niche in the NBA."

But Battier remains an outlier among athletes. Only a "handful" of NBA players, he says, "maybe one or two on every team, really understand how to apply the numbers." Battier feels the problem may be intrinsic to the sport. "There is always going to be a conflict with how practical analytic theory can be in a game because the game is so fast-paced," says Battier. "As much as you try to make it academic, it's an instinctual game at its heart, a primal game."

Still, that hasn't stopped him from attempting to be a transitional figure in the sport. "Like it or not, big data is driving the world," says Battier, "from the stock market to agriculture to entertainment and sports. The more data you have, the better served you are. That's why I think teams are investing in analytics personnel – and if they don't, they're going to get left behind."