Lakers Logic: The Analytics Advantage

Various sports hubs began reporting over the weekend that the Los Angeles Lakers had undergone a front office overhaul, realigning their organization to give analytics a more prominent role. Beyond improving organizational agility, the Lakers front office is making a statement that they intend to drastically improve the flow of information and implementation between the analytical and coaching staffs.

There are many wonderful things that spring out of this announcement by team management. Grabbing at the low-hanging fruit, we find that the Lakers employ Byron Scott as their head coach. Scott is a self-proclaimed “old-school” guy that has stuck to his guns that three-point shooting doesn’t win championships. Whatever does win championships also isn’t currently in the Lakers locker room.

It hasn’t been all that long since the Lakers were winning championships, but the drought has been deeper this time around – the descent from the top has been steeper and is lasting longer than most Lakers fans would have expected. And now the team also appears to not be the premiere destination for premium free agent targets. Kevin Love never hit the market. Carmelo Anthony stayed in New York. LeBron James never seemed to be an option for any team beyond Cleveland or Miami. Kevin Durant hasn’t hit the market yet, but all the speculation points to staying put or heading east, closer to home. And just this offseason, Los Angeles had a big swing-and-miss with now-San Antonio Spur, LaMarcus Aldridge.

Aldridge came away as reportedly unimpressed with the Lakers presentation on the basketball side of things. This is far from the only time that the organization has failed to impress with the analytical approach. Only in recent months, in a few interviews, have general manager Mitch Kupchak and part-owner/executive vice president Jim Buss alluded to any sort of appreciation for or employment of analytics. Until recently, the status of their analytics department was completely unknown.

The team does employ director of analytics Yuju Lee and assistant direct of analytics Aaron Danielson, but there doesn’t seem to be much else known outside of the organization. Both Lee and Danielson are impressive, master’s degrees in statistics, computer science and economics show up on their resumes. The reports that came out over the weekend shed a little more light on the staff that the Lakers have assembled, though it primarily shifts responsibilities and flow of information within the front office and seems to have created defined roles within the ‘analytics’ department for Rudy and Trey Tomjanovich, who work with ‘conventional’ numbers.

There is a lot to unpack in the Lakers movement, notably that they are publicly making moves to embrace a more modern and sophisticated approach. But, seeing as most of us don’t have master’s degrees in computer science, economics or statistics (if you do, why are you reading this), or we went to Wisconsin-Eau Claire instead of Wisconsin-La Crosse (I see you there, Mr. Moser), it’s time to take some quandaries into the possible innovations that the Lakers have in the works, particularly since Buss did say that he views the Lakers as ahead of the game. Making the waters muddy is what distinctions are meant in their terminology and how they are currently trying to formulate information from available data. Sorting out organizational definitions of conventional data and more advanced data from SportVU is an entire project to itself.

SportVU

Yes. Good place to start. SportVU is fantastic and has a lot to offer. The Lakers have said that they currently employ four people who are working with SportVU data. This doesn’t really tell us much, though, in terms of what they are looking for in SportVU. I stare at clouds, you’ve probably stared at clouds. We probably could look at the same clouds and see very different things. It’s completely understandable that organizations keep the lid on anything they think is truly valuable data that holds any sort of value that will give them even a minor advantage over their competitors. This seems like a great step to take. Good work, Lakers.

The Kobe Assist

I was first introduced to the Kobe Assist by Kirk Goldsberry’s piece for Grantland in 2012. This was a great read and the information stuck with me. This would also be a convenient analytic for the Lakers to employ because, get this, Kobe Bryant plays basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers! The very guy this metric was named after has been on their team the entire time.

Count ‘Em

I have had many discussions with people regarding who is the greatest basketball player of all-time. The discussion always pits a LeBron stan against yours truly, a Jordan stan. When discussion or debate descends into madness, I refer to the most Laker-like analytical measurement available – Count. The. ‘Ships. Banners, trophies, rings, whatever works for you. The Lakers have a lot of them and it does require you to employ math by counting the numbers of championships the storied franchise has won over the years.

Playful Secrets

The Lakers could go completely off the map and look to consult the Wise Old Wizard to discover their very own analytical blade of unicorn horn. Probably, this idea is too insane for anyone, even one of the lowest ranked analytical front offices in the entire world of sports. Also, the Wise Old Wizard isn’t real, he’s from a movie and even the proximity to Hollywood can’t help the Buss family make this one happen.

The Real Issue

Joking aside, the Lakers are dealing with some real issues right now. The aging Black Mamba is clogging up salary while taking on serious injuries. Free agents are just not that interested in the off-court bonuses because the Lakers don’t have their on-court presence figured out yet. The most telling bit on the current state of the Lakers comes directly from the mouth of executive vice president Jim Buss in his interview with Eric Pincus for the LA Times from August 28:

“There are parameters that I need to see on a guy but that doesn’t mean he fits the team.  That’s where Mitch comes in, he knows the numbers, but he also sees if he’s a fit,” said Buss. “Then you go to Byron Scott, is this a guy that you like? Is this a guy that fits the team, does he complement the other players?”

Whatever system the Lakers prefer to use for their analytics, the way this paragraph reads says a lot about the team’s true approach. Cleveland is a work in progress, but they also have the only LeBron James in the NBA. The Thunder have both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And the Warriors, who just won the NBA championship, and the San Antonio Spurs, both have generational players – Curry and Thompson for Golden State, and Duncan, Parker, Leonard and Aldridge in San Antonio – and a system. You see, Kobe played unlike anyone else in the post-Jordan era, and he once was at the heart of a very successful Los Angeles basketball team. Problem is, Bryant doesn’t have that ability any longer and the league has evolved.

While teams like Golden State and San Antonio wow us with their incredible systems that are implemented by the coaching staff, with players being fit to the system, the Lakers still seem out of step. The words of Buss echo as a sentiment, perhaps latent, that the Lakers are still trying to run organization as a team built around a centerpiece player, like Kobe Bryant, who is not the player he once was. And while Kobe has diminished, Buss makes it sound as if they are still looking for a player combination that will unlock the next run of championships. Perhaps, they should be looking at the analytics of coaching systems and philosophies instead of seeing how players will fit with one of the league’s most difficult personalities in Bryant. And it isn’t just about Bryant, there will be another player after Bryant, because the Lakers always have some kind of superstar in the locker room. No matter how any of the top teams in the NBA choose to interpret analytics, the real gem of modern analytics is that it helps unlock systems that work and players that fit those systems. The Rockets, Warriors, and Spurs aren’t sharing their data as far as we know, but when the Rockets went and got Dwight Howard out of the clutches of the Lakers, it was how they put that big name player into a system that helped them rise to the top of the Western Conference, not the star power of Howard and the organization’s fixation on a marquee name.