Interview with Keith Boyarsky and Alex Rucker of the Toronto Raptors, Part I | Magic Basketball

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Mar 30

Interview with Keith Boyarsky and Alex Rucker of the Toronto Raptors, Part I

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Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Hedo Turkoglu has been dominating the headlines the past few days around the blogosphere and not for the right reasons. Whether it’s been his inability to produce at a satisfactory rate vis-à-vis his hefty contract, his indifference to show up and do his best on the job, and a myriad of other things, Turkoglu has gone from being a darling with the Orlando Magic to being a vagabond with the Toronto Raptors in less than a span of 12 months. Ouch.

Rather than try to decipher what makes Turkoglu tick from a psychological standpoint, I wanted to check up on him and see how he’s been performing for the Raptors on the court, not off it. To do that, I interviewed Keith Boyarsky and Alex Rucker, two individuals that work as consultants for Toronto and perform quantitative data analysis. They’re the guys that operate behind the scenes and crunch the numbers for, most notably, Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo and head coach Jay Triano.

Keith and Alex dish the goods on Turkoglu for me, providing a unique perspective on a player that has impacted two franchises in different ways.

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It’s ironic that, a few weeks after the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference took place, I’m conducting an interview with you and Keith. The casual NBA fan may not be aware of this but more statistical analysts — the diverse representation at the Sloan Conference, which included front office personnel from a bevy of NBA teams confirmed this — are being hired to serve a role with their respective franchises. Usually it’s a consulting gig but it differs from team to team, of course. Could you briefly explain how both of you joined the Toronto Raptors as consultants?

Alex: I’ve known Jay Triano for many years, having worked with him briefly at Simon Fraser University. When he became the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, he was eager to take advantage of the quantitative analysis that was becoming increasingly prevalent at the pro level. He talked to more than one analyst last summer to see what was out there and get a sense of how it could help him and his coaching staff. He asked me to put together a presentation for his coaching staff and I was thrilled to be in a position to help him out. I’d been working closely with a colleague, Keith Boyarsky, doing what I felt was some really useful and actionable basketball analysis. We took a close look at what Toronto did last year. The Raptors brought us up to Toronto for a series of meetings with coaches and management and it took off from there.

Keith: As a big NBA fan with a background in engineering and computer science, I had been working for 4 or 5 years on the side, developing a suite of software tools to take advantage of new data sources. I met Alex through a friend of a friend at Summer League a few years ago, and we started discussing the various things we had worked on, or were working on, in terms of NBA analysis. It was clear that, while we were approaching things from different angles, we had a similar overall view of the game. When Alex talked with Jay last summer, we learned that the Raptors were interested in the sort of stuff we were doing, and our relationship with the team developed from there.

Rather than delve more about the type of work both of you do with the Raptors, I wanted to talk about one player that Orlando Magic fans are familiar with and that’s Hedo Turkoglu. How has Turkoglu been fitting in with Toronto?

Alex: Despite being slowed by a few injuries, Hedo’s had a positive impact on the Raptors this season – both on the floor with his talent and unique skillset, but also in the locker room as a veteran, a proven winner with playoff experience. Cohesion, morale, chemistry – those things do matter and from what I’ve seen of Hedo in the locker room and on the practice floor, he’s become an integral part of this team.

His bulk box score stats are down and he’s gotten a fair amount of criticism in some circles for that. It’s easy to look at his line and see a guy who went for 17 PPG, 5 RPG and 5 APG, signed a big free agent contract with Toronto and is now averaging 12 PPG, 5 RPG and 4 APG. It’s easy to look at that and say “this guy’s been a disappointment”. It’s easy, and it’s probably wrong – at least from my perspective. If you just look at his Per 36 minute stats, you’ll see that Hedo has done almost the same things in Toronto that he was doing in Orlando – the only difference is that he’s taking fewer shots and he’s playing slightly fewer minutes.

When you see the decline in shots, it’s important to consider team context. In our offense, we don’t need to rely on Hedo to be a high-usage scorer and to carry as much of the offensive playmaking responsibilities the way that he often did in Orlando. If he were taking a lot more shots and scoring more points, I suspect that some observers wouldn’t be so hard on him – but it’s unclear if our team would benefit from that.

In Orlando, especially when Jameer Nelson was sidelined with an injury this past season year, Turkoglu was entrusted to be a playmaker for the team and had the basketball in his hands a lot. According to Synergy Sports Technology, 39% of Turkoglu’s offense was generated from the pick and roll last year. The number has dipped to 29% this year. How has Turkgolu’s role changed with the Raptors?

Keith: One of the biggest differences in terms of Hedo’s role is team personnel. As you mentioned, in Orlando he was sometimes the primary ballhandler and the guy responsible for running the offense – especially when Jameer was out with injury. In Toronto, we have two quality point guards who are more than capable of running the show. Hedo plays a critical role in our team’s offense, and the offense runs very efficiently through him, but we haven’t needed to rely on him as much in those areas as a result of our depth at PG.

People have argued that some of Turkoglu’s impact on offense can’t be quantified by his individual stats, though there are a few numbers out there that have showed his positive effect with Toronto on the offensive side of the ball this season. What do you think of that? Are they right?

Alex: Well, I tend to believe you can quantify anything if you have the right data – and if you’re talking about a player’s impact on the offensive end, there is a rich amount of data out there for that. So I’d disagree with the notion that you can’t quantify his (or any other player’s) impact on the offensive end beyond box score stats.

One of the reasons that Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo targeted Hedo was precisely because of the positive impact he has on the court beyond the box score, if you will. Last year’s Magic team had a slightly above-average offense. Our data suggests that when Hedo was involved in Orlando’s offensive sets last season, Orlando’s offense was among the best in the league. When Hedo wasn’t, Orlando’s offense was below league average – over 4 points per game worse than when he was involved.

On the surface, Hedo appeared to be an above average usage, medium efficiency offensive guy with decent assist totals. However, if you start to dig into the weeds a little, you may discover that Hedo played a pretty catalytic role in that improved offense performance. More importantly for us, it seemed likely that those same traits would have a similarly positive impact on Toronto.

Now 60 or so games into this season, that positive, non-box score impact on the offensive side that Hedo demonstrated in Orlando has definitely shown up in Toronto. The Raptors’ offense has gone from below average last year to among the league’s elite – and Hedo’s played a meaningful role in that. Though his scoring volume has declined, his offensive production in other areas – both box score and otherwise – has remained quite valuable.

In either of your opinions, what’s the best way to utilize Turkoglu’s unique talents as a player in the most efficient and effective way possible?

Keith: There is no question that Hedo is at his best, and contributing the most to his team, when he’s acting in an enabling role in his team’s offense. We gather a large amount of data internally to fill in the sizeable gaps in publicly-available data. In a playmaker role, Hedo generates high-value looks, including a high percentage of threes, for the number of good shooters on our team. Our offense really clicks when it runs through Hedo, though to be fair, it’s clicked pretty well in general this season.

It’s no secret that last year with the Magic, Turkoglu benefitted from playing in a defensive scheme that involved Dwight Howard as the anchor. How does Turkgolu’s defense look this year?

Alex: Yeah, I mean, individual defense is obviously one of the harder things to get a finger on. Partly because there’s basically zero publicly-available data on it. So, using our internal numbers, I would say that last year he was an above-average defender and I’ve heard people make the argument that it was largely because of Howard or because he was, kind of, hidden in the sense of they could match him up. Especially when they were playing with [Mickael] Pietrus and guys like that. They could match him up against lesser offensive players and I didn’t watch a ton of Orlando games last year, so that may well be the case. We don’t have that luxury, in Toronto obviously, to really hide guys on defense and honestly, on the defensive end, he’s been fine. He hasn’t really been a positive or a negative, if that makes sense. We definitely have defensive problems as a team but frankly, they’re not defending the small forwards.

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Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow.

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