Stats Van Gundy: Pistons Head Honcho Talks Analytics | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Stats Van Gundy: Pistons Head Honcho Talks Analytics

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Updated: March 18, 2015
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[Stan Van Gundy, G.]

When an NBA coach comes to Washington, particularly one who’s willing to open up a little past coachspeak with the media, it’s always nice to pick their brain on the state of the game. When Detroit visited Washington recently (Feb. 28, a Wizards win), it seemed like a good opportunity to ask the Detroit Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy, both head coach and president of basketball operations, a question about ‘the stats’… Luckily, other media present followed suit with questions, giving more of a peek into SVG’s frame of mind.

Detroit was one of eight NBA teams in the secondary “Believers” category in ESPN’s great analytics rankings. Four teams were in the “all-in” category: San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and Philadelphia. The Wizards were ranked with five other teams in a fourth category: “Skeptics”; three teams were bottomed in the “nonbelievers” category.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was not a fan of the rankings. ESPN the Magazine‘s commentary on the Pistons:

Don’t be fooled by the grumbling he did about stat geeks in his two years as a panelist at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Stan Van Gundy is a believer in well-done analytics, and few coaches are as informed about the concepts developed by the statistical community.

By the numbers, Van Gundy was an especially savvy coach in Miami and Orlando, and his tenure in Detroit has reinforced that rep. He has demonstrated the power a coach can have over shot selection, especially when he has final say in player personnel. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Pistons attempted more midrange shots than 3-pointers in 2013-14. This season, they’ve attempted nearly two-thirds more 3s than shots from midrange, the league’s second-highest ratio behind the Houston Rockets.

On the front office side, Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower have instilled an analytical mindset. They inherited respected analyst Ken Catanella, who was brought on board to build an analytics department not long after the ownership group led by Tom Gores purchased the team in 2011. Van Gundy promoted Catanella to assistant GM and has devoted additional resources to the growing department.

Stan Van on…

Right now a lot of basketball minds are at the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference, has there been a time in your career, maybe before you got to Detroit, where a particular stat changed your perception or philosophy?

SVG: That’s a good question. I mean, I think that they’re valuable in looking at players and looking at teams. I don’t know that anything has really changed my philosophy, you know? But I would say, in fairness, looking back it’s hard to, as you’ve made subtle shifts … it’s hard to say why you’ve made them as I look back in years. But I am somebody who looks at all those numbers, so I’m sure they’ve had some influence on what I’m doing, but I can’t point to anything specific. We use them all of the time in evaluating players. I use them all the time to evaluate the kind of shots we are getting and giving up. But that didn’t really change my philosophy. I had my philosophy on what shots that I wanted to get it before I was looking at the numbers, but I do use the numbers.

On who the Pistons sent to the Sloan.

SVG: We have four people out there. Ken Catanella (assistant general manager), Pat Garrity (director, strategic planning), Jorge Costa (software engineer), and Andrew Loomis (executive director, basketball operations) are all out there.

On what the Pistons get out of sending people to the conference.

SVG: Well, I think a lot of things. I think number one you make some really good contacts there, obviously. They will run into some very, very bright people, I know that for sure. And some people that, you know, we may want to use their businesses or bring on board in the future. You get some great ideas, they’re always presenting the new research, not only is the research itself valuable, but it gives you ideas on other things you might want to do for the numbers. I found it an eye-opening thing of how much can be done and how many smart people are out there. As I’ve always said about that conference, people are way too smart to be working in basketball. No, really, those people are really bright, and they need to be coming up with the analytics to solve world hunger, to build transportation systems in the undeveloped the world so we can medicine and food in those areas. That’s what those people need to be doing, not figuring out who I should draft, OK? Because they are really, really bright.

On if he’s been educated by his staff to ‘ask the right questions’ about analytics.

SVG: Yeah, Ken Catanella knows what’s going on and we’ve implemented things. Again, I just … that sort of is a must for people to be there, for us to be there. Because we’re trying to build that area up even more, and those guys will come up with good ideas, and that’s why we have four of them out there.

On the release of call statistics for NBA referees in the last two minutes of games.

SVG: I can’t really give you a firm opinion. It’s interesting. I’m generally in favor of transparency in almost everything, but as much as I get on guys while the game is going on, I’ve never been one to second-guess them after a game. I think you have to realize that is a very difficult job and I just hope whatever we do doesn’t make it more difficult. I didn’t read Mike Bantom’s (executive vice president, NBA referee operations) comment about how sometimes now they will be talking about them making the right call, rather than only talking about it on the bad call. That part I liked, but critiquing them every night, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m sure the league has thought it through a lot more than I have, so I can’t really offer an opinion.

On balancing the use of analytics with the “eye test.”

SVG: There’s a lot of things that can’t be quantified with numbers. You know, you really can’t. And so, you have to know the player you’re getting involved with, you have to know the fit with your team, things like that. You can’t quantify that. But that doesn’t mean that the numbers aren’t useful, I think they’re very useful. I think they’re part of the entire picture. I think that if you focus only on numbers you’re making a mistake, and if you’re not using them, I think you’re making a mistake. So, you’ve got to put everything together, all the information you have about the player as a person—the numbers make things objective, and then what you see and your scouts see and everything else. It’s not an exact science, but I think the analytics make it a little bit easier, a little bit better.

On if analytics impact him on a daily basis.

SVG: I don’t know about an everyday basis, but I use them and coaching as well as personnel. I mean, I look at the numbers every day. Some of them are numbers we’ve looked at for 50 years, you know, when my dad was a high school coach. Some of those numbers are still the same, I mean turnovers, things like that, and some of them are more advanced. But I look at them every day. It’s hard to say, again, ‘I looked at that number and it made me do this,’ because it’s all part of a bigger picture. But, yeah, I do use them on a daily basis.

 The Struggle Continues.

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Kyle Weidie
Founder / Editor / Reporter / Writer at TAI
Kyle founded TAI in 2007 and has been weaving in and out the world of Wizards ever since, ducking WittmanFaces, jumping over G-Wiz, and avoiding stints on the DNP-Conditioning list. He has covered the Washington pro basketball team as a member of the media since 2009. Kyle lives in D.C. with his wife, loves basketball, and has no pets.