The San Antonio Spurs and the Trouble With Analytics

Mar 4, 2015

From Texas Standard: 

The Spurs recently won an award for using analytics – but do they use them?

The San Antonio Spurs have won five NBA Championships in the past 16 years. But it’s an award they got over the weekend that we want to focus on here: The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference named the Spurs the “Best Analytics Organization” and gave manager R.C. Buford a lifetime achievement award.

So when we’re talking about analytics – what do we mean? And are the Spurs really leading the way?

People have been tracking things like points, rebounds and assists in basketball for almost as long as they’ve been playing. Analytics takes that to the next level.

It’s the phenomenon made famous in the 2011 baseball flick “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

Analytics often uses complicated formulas to look beneath the surface to see what the numbers show about performance. Not everyone is sold. The loudest skeptic may be former NBA great Charles Barkley – who calls analytics “crap.”

“The NBA is about talent. All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics have one thing in common – they’re a bunch of guys who’ve never played the game, they never got the girls in high school and they just want to get in the game,” Barkley said recently on TNT.

But at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference over the weekend, some smart guys were laughing at Barkley.

“Yeah his name came up a lot at the conference. Most presenters were pretty good at getting a laugh by bringing up a picture of Charles Barkley,” Mike Lopez says.

Lopez is teaches statistics at Skidmore College. He also covered the conference for the ESPN blog FiveThirtyEight – which basically relies on analytics to cover anything newsworthy.

Lopez believes in the numbers – but knows the trick is using them correctly.

“I think teams have a really hard time discerning valuable information and valuable things that will help their team from salesmen that are just pitching, that are really good at selling their information,” Lopez says.

Longtime NBA sportswriter and Forbes contributor Mark Heisler isn’t completely sold.

“You know you can BS in numbers just as easily as you can in words – or maybe even easier,” Heisler says.

Most professional teams – especially in baseball and basketball – are using analytics right now. But their strategies differ.

“Some of them I think have major roles in decision-making and that could mean in-game decision-making. That could be decision-making in the draft. And then, I think, others are a little more on the outside: they have a role and they probably work very hard but maybe they don’t get listened to as often,” Lopez says.

So what about the Spurs? They just got this big award, and ESPN recently ranked the team as one of the top ten of any sport in analytics use.

“I mean they used the Spurs, the San Antonio Spurs, as an example of a team that’s ‘all in,’ and I talked to Spurs people – and they don’t say they’re all in,” Heisler says.

Heisler says he talked to Spurs manager R.C. Buford – who also got an analytics award last weekend  – about taking the data to Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich.

“The numbers people they develop stats and insights and then they bring them to him and then he looks them over and, if he sees merit in them, he’ll take them to Pop. But knowing that Pop is very old school. (Laughs) So it had better be good – and Pops liable to dismiss it anyway,” Heisler says.

But did Pop even know about the analytics award? (Reportedly not!)

“Yeah, I saw that report as well,” Lopez says. “And I think it comes back to the fact that analytics can mean different things to different people. The Spurs do a very good job of doing a lot of things that are sort of numbers based. So their coach may not think that he’s using numbers in the most advanced way – but I certainly think that they are.”

So analytics, talent or coaching? No doubt it’ll be the combination of all three for anyone placing a bet on Wednesday night’s game against the Sacramento Kings.

This story was prepared with assistance by Jan Ross Piedad.