AP Photo/John Raoux
This past weekend, six members of the Orlando Magic’s basketball operations department attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT. That group included general manager Rob Hennigan and assistant general manager Matt Lloyd.
The event, founded by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, has been growing consistently in stature since its inception in 2006. What was at first a fringe event that didn’t hold a lot of interest outside of the most forward-thinking executives and analysts has now become a mainstay.
We’re reaching a point where analytics are a staple of basketball writing in one form or another. Whether it’s your more basic advanced stats like PER and True Shooting percentage or the cutting-edge SportVU cameras, analytics are permeating nearly every facet of the sports conversation.
And the fact that the Magic’s basketball-ops department had a half-dozen representatives at this year’s conference is an encouraging sign for the future of the organization.
Since taking over for Otis Smith in June, Hennigan has adopted a team-building philosophy that’s consistent with his roots with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder organizations. General manager Sam Presti and the Thunder, as well as general manager R.C. Buford and the Spurs, have long been among the trailblazers in basketball analytics and have based their basketball decisions around asset accumulation, smart drafting, and finding value on the free-agent market.
The pieces Hennigan pulled in as part of the trades of Dwight Howard and J.J. Redick bear this out, but we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible with the greater integration of analytics into the game.
With the introduction of STATS LLC’s SportVU cameras, the specificity with which teams can break down data has never been greater. Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently took an in-depth look at this technology:
Fifteen of the league’s 30 teams have purchased a data-tracking camera system from STATS LLC that records every single movement on the court — the ball, the players, the referees, etc. — in three dimensions. The cameras can measure just about anything, and the teams that are using them best have moved far ahead in developing their own algorithms to measure whatever they wish — which team forces pick-and-rolls left most often, where corner 3s typically rebound when they miss, and how often a player accelerates from “jog” to “sprint” during a game.
It should be noted that the Magic are one of the 15 teams which have purchased the cameras, and one can only imagine that Hennigan plans to make use of them when scouting potential free-agent signings and trade targets. For the time being at least, this gives them a significant competitive advantage over half the league.
When you factor in that three of the other franchises that are making use of SportVU are the Thunder, Spurs, and Rockets — consistently three of the smartest, shrewdest, and most forward-thinking franchises in the league — it’s impossible not to think the Magic are in good company.
The cameras are a significant financial investment, especially for a small-market team, but without the resources to spend unlimited dollars on players like the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, or Brooklyn Nets, a team like the Magic needs every edge it can get.
How Hennigan makes use of SportVU and other new developments in the field of analytics remains to be seen. But it’s a positive sign that the man in charge of putting together a roster that will hopefully put the Magic back into contention after the fall of the Dwight era is this committed to staying at the forefront of an ever-changing culture of team-building.