Sixers' team of NBA stats gurus is taking analytics to the next level
The Sixers' analytics crew has grown from a one-man operation to a 10-person team of experts. Their goal: use metrics to gain a competitive edge.
First of two parts. (Read Part 2.)
Sam Hinkie joined the 76ers in 2013, and The Process began.
Through Hinkie's tenure, the team was lauded as on the forefront of the analytics movement in the NBA. His asset-collecting plan and statistical-based approach had basketball nerds standing in applause. But the tools for deeply diving into the new analytics world were still not being fully utilized by the Sixers.
In April 2016, Bryan Colangelo became the general manager of the Sixers. Hinkie was gone, but the team remained committed to its vision of becoming a leader in the analytics world.
In October 2016, Colangelo hired Alex Rucker to be the team's vice president of analytics and strategy.
"When I got here, there was one [analytics] guy on staff, Sergi Oliva, who is now my director of analytics," Rucker said. "He was here, and he's an exceptionally talented guy. But he's one guy."
Now, with Rucker at the helm, the Sixers employ a team of 10 who are under the analytics umbrella. That's not counting consultants, scouts who use analytics, and the sports science team that works closely with Rucker's department.
"We almost certainly have the largest analytics staff in the NBA," Rucker said, noting that his team is as diverse as it is large. "We are, I believe, the only analytics team with two women full-time, and my team has members hailing from Catalonia, Italy, Taiwan, Croatia, and Canada."
The age of analytics
In the beginning, there was sabermetrics. The term was coined by writer Bill James in the 1970's, and it refers to the analysis of statistics in baseball that were used to answer what once seemed unanswerable.
Fast forward through the decades, through Moneyball — the book turned feature film that helped make advanced analytics mainstream in baseball — through Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and algorithms for true shooting percentage, through Hinkie, who came from the Morey camp in Houston.
Fast forward through it all, and you arrive in the modern era, where stats gurus reign supreme, a time when technological advancements have led to regularly staffed analytics teams that are commonly used by every pro sports franchise to inform decisions and gain a deeper understanding of the game.
The advent of player-tracking cameras systems such as SportVU and Second Spectrum — currently used in every NBA arena — has made more data than ever available for the teams to analyze.
According to Rucker, a classic box score and play-by-play readout averages around 800 lines of data. The player-tracking systems spit out roughly 800,000 lines of data per game.
These systems track every movement of every player and the ball — from the number of passes made by a player to the distance that player leaves between himself and an opponent when he closes out on a shooter and how effective he is depending on the speed at which he does so. Everything is trackable.
"The amount of information has grown so much that it needs translators," Rucker said. "The people who work with me, their job is to translate that mass of data into something that looks like basketball and then use that to inform our decisions."
In the earlier days of using metrics and data in professional baseball, there was some pushback. Sports are rich in tradition and history, and it's difficult sometimes to bring in new ideas. Rucker said that basketball benefited from baseball's learning process.
"Honestly, is there some resistance to the proliferation of analytics in pro basketball? Yes. I don't think it's anything like baseball experienced," Rucker said. "We are very fortunate here. Bryan [Colangelo] asks questions and pushes and challenges me all the time, and it's fantastic, and Brett [Brown] is the same way."
Rucker says that's not the case every where, though, and he knows people in the analytics world who work for other teams that experience resistance on a regular basis.
Gaining the competitive edge
After Rucker was hired last fall, the Sixers spent the rest of the season creating their analytics team. Now the task is learning how to use the team effectively to leverage all of the information available.
The Sixers crew of stats gurus is a collection of PhDs and MBA data scientists and mathematicians whose main goal, according to Rucker, is to support the coaches and front office with information so that they can make well-informed decisions.
"Whether we're talking about the GM or the draft or the coaches in game, they all make a lot of decisions, and the decisions all matter," Rucker said. "Usually the decisions they make are right. We just want to make sure we get them right at a higher rate than other people."
The Sixers aren't using the information that is just available to every team through in-arena tracking. They've heavily invested in a large team, and Rucker said they have a "robust and significant software suite" that is used to try to gain a competitive edge.
In addition to the player-tracking systems that are used in arenas, the Sixers also use GPS and RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in the players' shorts at the practice facility. This allows them to gather the same kind movement-based data for every player, which is used for managing the players' rest and recovery.
Players are becoming increasingly interested in the analytics approach, too. Without using a name, Rucker said a player recently approached the analytics staff with questions about a part of his defensive game. A traditional box score does not give much insight into defensive metrics, but the analytics crew has a ton of data.
The player sat down with Oliva and went over the data.
"It's one thing to hear coaches say you've got to do this. 'Stop closing out too aggressively,' " Rucker said. "But we can sit them down and say, 'Listen, when you close out short and stop a couple steps short of the shooter, this is the kind of stuff that happens. When you go too aggressively, you're able to suppress the guy's interest in shooting. But he drives a lot, and that causes some bad outcomes that we're not interested in.' "
The player had been told as much by coaches, but seeing it in black and white and with the numbers to support the assertion, it became more clear.
Just like the players, the analytics crew lives in two worlds: the NBA season and the offseason.
In its first season together, Rucker's team is focusing its energy on the areas in which Brown and the coaching staff want to improve and providing data-driven information about opponents and player tendencies.
Oliva, the director of analytics, travels with the team, sits in on coaches meetings and is constantly available to offer an analytics perspective on any given day, including before, during and after games.
After the 2017-18 campaign ends, Rucker's team will reflect on what worked and what didn't as well as delve deeper into some of the more nuanced data that will inform front-office decisions.
"It's clearly the case that there's something of an arms race, and teams are investing more and more into analytics on the human side," Rucker said.
The Sixers say they want to do everything they can to win that race.
Coming Thursday: In Part 2, a look at the future of analytics in the NBA. Is it possible to track chemistry, heart and mood with data?