philadelphia — There were plenty of empty seats at Wells Fargo Center, and Sam Hinkie settled into one near midcourt, about 25 rows up, to watch his team. Depending on your perspective, Hinkie, five months into his job as the Philadelphia 76ers general manager, is presiding over what promises to be one of the league’s worst NBA teams or one of its greatest experiments. Perhaps both. ¶ A Sixers guard missed a three-pointer from the corner. The rebound bounced high into the air and fell into the hands of an opposing player. ¶ “Great shot,” Hinkie said of the miss. At other times, his team scored a bucket and Hinkie groaned, lamenting the field goal. His peculiar reactions are because he watches the game and judges every action based on probabilities — what should have happened, not necessarily what does happen. Such is the credo of the new NBA, and what exactly unfolds in Philadelphia the next couple of seasons could be the truest test yet of the analytics movement that is sweeping through the league. ¶ Hinkie, a Stanford School of Business graduate who cut his teeth at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm, got here in part thanks to numbers. He hopes he can build a team from the ground up aided by formulas, statistical models and data-centric philosophies that will reduce risk and lead to smarter decisions.
“It’s just information. We use it all the time in everything,” he said. “Fifty years ago, you wanted to know if it rains, you looked to the west. Now you just turn on your phone, and a million sensors send a prediction. It’s way better than looking west.”
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The NBA opens its season this week, and the information surrounding the game has never been as rich, detailed or impactful. It’s not like the Moneyball divide that split much of the baseball world; most in basketball have embraced detailed statistical analysis.
“We use it. The Wizards use it. Everybody uses it to different extents,” Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.
One of the movement’s most ardent backers is incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver, whose interest in analytics dates from his days as a law student at the University of Chicago. “Clearly now, throughout the league, there is a cross section in terms of how they value it,” Silver said, “but I think there is a sense now from every team that at least it’s a factor, in considering lineups and considering players, and some teams use it more than others.”
Roughly three-quarters of the league’s 30 teams have full-time staffers charged with dissecting numbers — most have clunky titles, such as Senior Quantitative Analyst, Basketball Information Coordinator or Manager of Basketball Analytics. The smarter dissection of data has changed the way general managers construct rosters, coaches teach players and those players act and react on the court.
“It’s been an amazing leap. Even 10 years ago, teams were trying to get fairly simple information, and it was just hard to come by,” said John Hollinger, a former numbers-cruncher for ESPN who’s now vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies.