Analytics and all its accompanying elements has been one of the hottest topics among NBA die-hards for much of the year, and especially in the last few weeks. Comments by guys like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal on TNT touched off another round of silly debates between the so-called “nerds” and the so-called “old-school basketball guys”1, a scene we’ve seen before and will see again. More recently was a comprehensive ESPN summary of analytics within the four major North American leagues, including a separation of all 30 NBA teams into categories of acceptance by Kevin Pelton.
There’s no doubt this remains a divided issue even among some of the bigger names in the game, and this theme was evident in the responses I got pregame when I asked both coaches about their approach to analytics overall. On the one hand there was Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who preached the sort of all-around, comprehensive look many of the league’s most progressive thinkers advocate.
“Some of it I think is relevant, and we can adjust and address,” Quin told me before a tough Jazz loss. “Some of it’s less relevant, and it’s up to me to try to make that determination at various times. But it’s information, it’s feedback.”
Quin followed up with a simple example, noting he obviously doesn’t need any sort of advanced analytics to tell him he probably shouldn’t design sets to get 3-pointers for Rudy Gobert. But he was quick to note that “there’s a continuum there where it may not be as obvious” – in other words, not every decision is this blatantly clear to the naked eye, and Quin wants to use all available information to make his decisions. He continued with another of his typically insightful notes:
“You want to use the analytics to chart growth, and they want to determine where you are, but not who you are. Because where you are can change, you know, who you are is a lot more difficult to change.”
This is high-brow stuff from Snyder, who made these comments within the context of his specific Utah team and their relative inexperience. Pigeonholing individuals or the team within a group this young would be cause for disaster regardless of the metrics being used to do so. Rather, one has to admire a cautious but open approach, especially from someone who seems to understand on a basic level that “analytics” and “eye test” don’t have to work independently and are, in fact, best used in tandem.
On the flip side was Lakers bench boss Byron Scott, who coaches one of just three franchises labeled by Pelton as “nonbelievers” in analytics.
“I think we’ve got a few guys who truly believe in it – I’m not one of them, but I listen to it and all that stuff, and take it into consideration. But I’m still just old school,” Scott said when I asked him about his approach and whether Pelton’s characterization was accurate. He said he receives data roughly once a week, and that it “sits on my desk and I look at it for a little while, then I take it to (Lakers assistant) Mark Madsen and we’ll talk about it for a minute, and then I say ‘OK,’ and I take it from there.”
Scott infuriated analytics proponents early in the season by declaring his dislike for too many 3-point attempts and his preference for the midrange game instead, and his comments tonight were far from unexpected. But they illustrate the dichotomy even at the highest levels of the game; Snyder and Scott were far apart in their analysis, and Quin isn’t even particularly close to the most devoted end of the analytics spectrum within the league.
The issue isn’t going anywhere, especially so long as supporters of the “old-school” game continue to try and turn it into a debate between two sides that, in reality, aren’t at war whatsoever2. It’s rare historically to see many of the game’s top decision-makers so divided on their approach, and it’ll be intriguing to see how the trends develop in the upcoming years as further data becomes available and more and more franchises continue to lean heavily on it.
|Derrick Favors, PF 36 MIN | 7-10 FG | 4-8 FT | 9 REB | 1 AST | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 3 TO | 18 PTS | -9 +/-Favors was active offensively and on the glass, but was surprisingly sloppy next to Rudy Gobert defensively, missing a few assignments he’d normally be on top of. He also missed a few vital free-throws down the line, emblematic of the entire group tonight.|
|Gordon Hayward, SF 31 MIN | 7-18 FG | 6-6 FT | 1 REB | 3 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 6 TO | 20 PTS | -11 +/-He did will his way to 20 points and was the only Jazzman outside Elijah Millsap to beat his season average percentage from the line, but Gordon just didn’t seem to have it tonight. His per-possession rating was worst on the team, and he seemed to drive right into inadvisable traffic on several occasions.|
|Joe Ingles, SF 15 MIN | 0-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 3 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 1 BLK | 3 TO | 0 PTS | 0 +/-Jingles drew the short end of the minutes stick tonight in favor of Millsap and Rodney Hood, and wasn’t particularly effective when he did play. He’s reverted back to the sometimes-anonymous Joe we saw earlier in the year just a tad over recent weeks, and here’s hoping he can rediscover some of his energy.|
|Rudy Gobert, C 36 MIN | 6-11 FG | 4-7 FT | 14 REB | 2 AST | 1 STL | 3 BLK | 1 TO | 16 PTS | -6 +/-The Stifle Tower was his usual self for most of the game defensively, racking up three swats, but also had a couple periods of uncharacteristic struggles on this end. Jordan Hill went at him one-on-one with success more than once. But he was a beast on the glass and had a couple huge dunks, perhaps serving as Utah’s most influential player tonight.|
|Dante Exum, SG 19 MIN | 1-2 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 3 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 3 PTS | -1 +/-After one of his best games of the year Monday, especially defensively, Exum put up a real stinker against the Lakers. The Jazz had their worst defensive rating of all individuals while he was on the floor, and his usual timidness offensively was magnified to a worrying degree by an aggressive LA defense.|
|Trevor Booker, PF 20 MIN | 1-6 FG | 1-4 FT | 6 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 3 PTS | +3 +/-Booker was one of few Jazz players who appeared to have any fire, but unfortunately his offensive game didn’t reflect this much. He rebounded the ball well in limited minutes and was a good energetic presence, however, though it wasn’t enough to get the Jazz over the hump.|
|Jeremy Evans, SF 4 MIN | 1-1 FG | 0-0 FT | 0 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 2 PTS | +1 +/-Another spot showing for Evans, who did have one nice basket down low.|
|Trey Burke, PG 29 MIN | 2-8 FG | 1-2 FT | 5 REB | 4 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 3 TO | 7 PTS | 0 +/-Trey had to play longer periods with the starters due to foul trouble for Exum, and the feel wasn’t there for anyone during these minutes. He struggled to find space and forced shots, and looked to even abort a couple plays called from the sidelines for unknown reasons. A disappointing game tonight from a Jazzman who has been playing quite well of late.|
|Elijah Millsap, SG 30 MIN | 5-8 FG | 6-7 FT | 7 REB | 1 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 2 TO | 17 PTS | +3 +/-Millsap was perhaps Utah’s best two-way player on the evening, playing assertively offensively and slicing into LA’s defense before they could set up. He gave his usual excellent effort defensively also, and is building real confidence as a rotation NBA player. He’ll continue to see big minutes if nights like these are frequent.|
|Rodney Hood, SG 20 MIN | 4-8 FG | 0-0 FT | 2 REB | 0 AST | 0 STL | 0 BLK | 0 TO | 11 PTS | +5 +/-With his minutes restriction a bit more flexible, Hood looked strong in his time on the floor. He hit a few nice triples including a buzzer-beater to close the third quarter, moved very well off the ball, and played reasonable defense. He’ll look to continue trending upwards and work his way back into the full-time rotation.|
For the first time all year in my estimation, Quin may have handled a late-game situation imperfectly. He also has to take some of the blame for his team’s flat effort overall. But for a rookie head coach to see a “B-” grade as one of his worst on the season has to be encouraging for Jazz fans moving forward, just like basically everything about Snyder.