Staying ahead of the statistical revolution | Magic Basketball



Dec 30

Staying ahead of the statistical revolution

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Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Though a rising tide ostensibly lifts all boats, the trend toward analytically-minded NBA head coaches has left Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn adrift in the wake of public opinion. And it’s too bad, too, as Vaughn and the Magic were a year ahead of the curve.

This past offseason, nine teams hired rookie head coaches to lead their on-court execution and player development. Unsurprisingly, several have struggled significantly and notably in their first year on the bench — Jason Kidd, of course, but also Mike Malone in Sacramento. Dave Joerger in Memphis has battled through injuries to his roster and a two-step forward, one-step back foray into changing the way the Grizzlies play, and Brian Shaw’s Nuggets have been down, then up, then down again.

Yet the other five first-year head honchos (Brett Brown, Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens, Steve Clifford and Mike Budenholzer) have gathered a fair amount of acclaim for their relative success in their brief careers, and one of the ties that binds that group is an appreciation for and application of the statistical and data revolution in which the league currently finds itself in.

Orlando, however, took to the future a year ahead of the rest. General manager Rob Hennigan, who spent eight years in the San Antonio and Oklahoma City organizations, is well-known at this point for his interest in analytics. The Magic were among the earliest adopters of the SportVU player tracking technology, and Hennigan attended the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference along with other members of the Orlando front office.

A quantitatively-inclined GM in turn hired Vaughn, who’s expressed his own interest in the numbers. In February, Vaughn made it clear that while statistics are far from the only factor in his decision-making process, they certainly play a large role as noted in a piece at Orlando Pinstriped Post in February.

Vaughn favors an approach that combines statistics with his own observations. “I look at ‘em [the stats],” Vaughn said, “but I also base my ideals off of instinct and feel and when you watch the tape and you see where shots are coming from and who’s getting shots and at what time of the game. So you can do it with numbers and feel.”

Vaughn says the stats he consults are for “coaches only” because players don’t show much interest in them. “Players aren’t concerned about… they’re concerned about numbers, but different numbers [….] A little different than plus-minus and other jargon like that.”

It’s a thought that’s generally been echoed by San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. While the data is important, being able to apply it effectively and communicate it succinctly to the players both present their own challenges. Furthermore, it represents a synergy between the front office and coaching staff that’s become something of an imperative in modern franchises, with the Magic leading the charge toward everyone being on the same page.

Still, Orlando seemingly doesn’t get nearly as much credit for their top-down commitment to analytics, despite being slightly ahead of the curve. Where teams like the Sixers, Suns and Celtics have been much heralded for installing such dovetailed philosophies among their organizational hierarchies this season, the Magic have largely been ignored since the initial hires of Hennigan and Vaughn.

Perhaps it’s merely a matter of the new blood taking the spotlight away en masse. Where one team’s decisions might be an outlier, for one-sixth of the league to come to the same conclusion in the same offseason is an unavoidable phenomenon. Perhaps it’s a result of fewer national eyes turned toward Orlando, a team that doesn’t exactly move the needle.

Or perhaps it’s due to the fact that the Magic haven’t quite been as successful in implementing a statistically-influenced game plan as some of the other franchises. Orlando is an average team in pace, average in 3-point attempt rate and top-10 in mid-range jumpers, all of which fly in the face of new-age convention. Some of Vaughn’s decisions are questionable at best, as his timeout usage can be curious, and his rotations include some real head-scratchers.

Regardless of the reason, though, coach Jacque Vaughn deserves to be in the conversation of young head coaches with an eye on the numbers. He’s far from perfect, but his inclination to include quantitative analysis in his bag of skills hints that he’s capable of integrating new information and, one hopes, improving as a result.

The Magic are in a good place going forward, with assets stockpiled and good players whose ceilings seem a ways off. And they have a staff in place that can guide them toward the right future, with the statistics helping lead the way.