Grantland, the estimable site of Bill Simmons, has published a lengthy and fascinating piece on how the Toronto Raptors are blazing a trail in the use of SportsVU, from STATS LLC. Written by Grantland’s fine NBA commentator, Zach Lowe, the piece focuses on SportsVU’s camera-tracking technology, the plethora of data it produces, and how the Raps’ coaching staff utilizes the insights it provides.
The goal appears to be defensive improvement, particularly of green-but-game Jonas Valanciunas, but I’m sure that’s only half the story. I’m confident our forward-thinking Assistant Coaches like Tom Sterner and Micah Nori will turn their attention to the other side of the floor, to figure out how to beat ghost defenders, then real ones (read the article).
The macro-significance of the Raps’ trail-blazing is the acceptance of statistical analysis when thinking strategically about basketball. Moneyball-type musings have been rare in hoops. I think there are two reasons for that, one being that no sport lends itself to statistical analysis better than baseball, because no sport has such a clear-cut line of demarcation between offense and defense. Even in football, it’s possible to switch due to a fumble or interception, but in baseball, you’re either batting or fielding. There are no transitions or turnovers to muddy the waters, so individuals’ stats are “pure”. It’s also the only sport where time is irrelevant. Basketball ranks third in frequency of transition, and in acceptance of statistical analysis. Hockey, the major sport with the most frequent transition between O and D, is the last refuge of the Luddite.
The other reason I believe basketball has been behind the statistical analysis curve is the lack of a leader, someone with both technical credibility and charisma. John Hollinger, whose PER (Player Efficiency Rating) calculation is a very useful summary datapoint, might be the closest. However, his profile is but a shadow of the pioneer of baseball statistical analysis (a.k.a. SABeRmetrics), Bill James, who also is a vastly superior prose stylist.
Can the Raptors’ organization demonstrate the value of extracting insight and team improvement from reams of visual data? Let’s hope so; if their efforts can hasten the arrival of a brighter future, Raps’ fans will be thrilled. We’ve certainly seen more than enough of the dreary present to know our team needs all the help it can get.
Brian Boake is a co-editor for Raptors Rapture. “Like” Raptors Rapture on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @RaptorsRapture for all the latest news and updates about the best damn NBA team from Canada.