A Geeky data analyst and a sports fan walk into a bar. Discussion ensues. The big question on the table: will analytics be the key to harnessing a team’s peak performance, or is it just jumbles of numbers? Well, it depends on who’s talking.
Sports Analytics Conferences and the Movies [Read]: Sports Analytics are Here to Stay
The start of the NBA’s 2014 season was a tech geek’s / sport fan’s dream come true. Chicago-based company Stats LLC came to an agreement with the league to place high tech cameras in every one of its arenas. Now analysts and coaches can track every move of the ball, and each of its players up to 25 times per second.
Sports analytics is hot right now. MIT Sloan Analytics has been holding a well attended annual conference since 2007. What was once a novelty has become a sort of Revenge of the Nerds reality. Discussion about sports analytics reveals lots of opinions. One thing is sure, it’s here to stay.
Ten years ago, the hit book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game came on the scene. (The movie by the same title, starring Brad Pitt, came out in 2011) came on the scene. Professional sports world has been trying to crack the stats analysis code since.
The jury still seems to be out on the effectiveness of data analytics in the NBA and NFL. Neither are as mathematical and clean as say, baseball. In baseball, tight stat analysis is easier. It shows that on-base percentage and slugging percentage are better indicators of offensive success.
Sabermetrics and the Real Analytics Challenge in the NBA & NFL
According to baseball analyst guru, Bill James (the man behind the analytics “sabermetrics” method), sabermetrics is “the search for objective knowledge about baseball” that helps to answer questions like whether pitching coaches make a difference, and things like what’s the best way to measure a hitter’s value to the team.
In basketball for instance, these kinds of metrics aren’t applied so easily since the game can be so driven by elite players that affect the final score. So is winning the game about the numbers or elite players? That’s the question.
In the NBA and the NFL, the question is how to get meaning out of thousands of player movements. Of course an observant coach or obsessed fan understands players’ strengths and weaknesses. There are stats on points scored, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and field goal percentage. But what if you could get even more stats like how fast a player is running, or which direction he tends to pivot on a rebound.
According to retired Miami Heat player Shane Battier, “Risk has been mitigated…it’s like playing blackjack in the casino. Teams are giving themselves the best opportunity to shave off a few percentage points and improve their chances of success.”
The Naysayers’ Only Important Stat: Elite Players [Like LeBron James]
But there are naysayers as well. Sure, getting the right combination of players on the court is a no-brainer. The right skills and good player chemistry after a high energy locker room talk goes a long way. But when it comes to an elite player like LeBron James, making coaching decisions based on stats will only take you so far. As Bill Russell has said, “The only important statistic is the final score.”
One official from the NBA said, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”
Now, how does a coach or General Manager decipher the “good stuff”? It may be too soon to tell. Without a doubt technology can capture thousands of points of data a good eye, clipboard, and a stopwatch never could. But as with all analytics, numbers are just numbers. You have to know what to do with the numbers to get anything meaningful out of the data.
So, what say you analytics-ers and sports fans? What’s the future of analytics in pro-sports?
We know you’ve got an opinion. Leave your thoughts in the comments section.