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Stan Van Gundy to the Pistons: SVG's views on analytics

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New Pistons' coach and President of Basketball Operations, Stan Van Gundy, knows his way around a stat sheet and has been active in the emerging analytics community. This is a good thing for Pistons' fans.

Jonathan Daniel

Stan Van Gundy doesn't like to be called an "analytics guy," but whether he likes it or not, he thinks along the same lines as a lot of us who embrace the label. There still a lot we don't know about how SVG will run the franchise, how he will structure the roster, run the offense, or handle the responsibilities of coaching and managing personnel, but as someone who's argued that the eye test has failed the Pistons, I'm thrilled to see the Pistons make a firm commitment to a Coach and President who is engaged in the analytics community.

What we do know is that SVG is engaged in the emerging conversations about analytics in the NBA. He's attended and been a panelist at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, and he's been vocal about trends in analytics, coaching, and roster management. Here are some of the highlights.

SVG is a skeptic of closed-source, proprietary data, and that's a good thing. Many of us embrace the use of publicly-available tools like, but are also aware that automated tracking systems don't get it correct one hundred percent of the time. SVG on pick-and-roll data as one example, from Brett Pollakoff at NBC Sports:

"I don’t trust most of it," Van Gundy said, beginning an exquisite rant on the topic. "I read some of the stuff that people write on, you know, I’ll read stats on pick and roll defense and stuff that came off Synergy or somewhere else — I don’t know who the hell is recording that information!"

"I read a thing in the playoffs last year that said that New York isolated like 17 percent of the time," he continued. "I’m watching their games, they isolate half of the time, at least. So I don’t know who’s recording that. If there’s a pick and roll, and they throw it back to Carmelo and he holds the ball and isolates for eight seconds, that’s a pick and roll play, not an isolation? And a lot of pick and roll stuff … you know, I read a thing today from ESPN the Magazine on Paul George being the best pick and roll defender in the league on the ball handler. Look, a lot of pick and rolls … there’s pick and rolls designed to score, and there’s pick and rolls you run to get into something else. If you’re recording it and you’re treating those two things the same, then you don’t know what you’re doing."

From the same piece, SVG makes the case that relying on analytics without watching game film and understanding the game is a mistake:

"To me, I think that a lot of the analytic stuff can be very useful, but if you’re using that in place of sitting down and watching film yourself and seeing what’s going on, you’re making a big mistake," Van Gundy said. "And I don’t want to offend anybody, but I think one of the problems with analytics — I think it’s good; I used it, I love looking at it — but one of the problems is, there are a lot of people in a lot of organizations who don’t know the game, who all they know is analytics and as a result, that’s what they rely on. And they will use that to supersede what guys like us see with our eyes. And I think that’s a major mistake. There’s no substitute for watching film over and over and over again, and the only numbers I trust are the ones that my people believe."

At first blush, it might appear that SVG is rejecting analytics, full stop. A closer read suggests that is not the case. First, SVG is not criticizing collecting information, compiling data, and analyzing it; instead, he's criticizing proprietary systems that aren't always clear about how the information is collected. "Who's collecting this, and how?" is absolutely the correct question a professional coach should be asking. If it's your profession to understand what's happening on the basketball court, you'd be silly to trust an automated system and only an automated system. Note that he's had staff working the numbers, but he knows what they are and how they came to be.

The right tools in the hands of the right people with the right kind of experience and knowledge is what I think SVG is preaching.

Second, and most importantly, SVG is emphasizing the importance of context and knowledge of the game. You can give me a power saw, nail gun, level, and a load of lumber (and any other tools I'm not knowledgeable enough to know I need), and I won't be able to build a new deck on the back of my house. But that doesn't mean I have the wrong tools.

The right tools in the hands of the right people with the right kind of experience and knowledge is what I think SVG is preaching, and here, he's preaching to the choir which is responding back, "Preach, preacher!"

My friends Andres Alvarez and Arturo Galletti over at The Wages of Wins Journal were quite impressed with SVG at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference (click through for a pretty epic picture of SVG, Morey, and others with some WoW t-shirts):

"How does he not have a job?" is what Arturo kept asking during the Basketball Analytics panel of Sloan. He managed to bash lineup data, playing smallball, coaches playing systems over playing to win, as well as explaining how the NBA is not a video game. He was definitely the star of the panel. He kept saying he wasn’t really an analytics guy, and would procede to then say an analytics statement.

Also from Sloan, 2013, Dan Devine from Yahoo! Sports has a nice Twitter round up of analytic-minded analysts reacting to SVG's reluctance to label himself an "analytics guy." In spite of being reluctant about applying the label to himself, the analytics guys in the room noticed SVG kept saying things an analytics guy would say.

For example - and man, do I love this one:

SVG hints that analytics that aren't actionable are suspect. Again, I say, preach on. Means and ends get conflated too often, and the amount of information being collected is overwhelming. It's critical to understand what matters and what doesn't.

Upon reading Paul George has run a league-leading 130 miles this season, Van Gundy said, "Of what possible use is this information?" Tough to argue with that.

If we've missed something analytics or stat related, hit us up in the comments.