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Stan Van Gundy questions integrity of advanced statistical data at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Mar 1, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT

Orlando's Stan Van Gundy shouts during an NBA playoff basketball game in Indianapolis Reuters

BOSTON — Stan Van Gundy appeared as part of the basketball analytics panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday, and while he isn’t opposed to coaches integrating advanced statistical data into their day-to-day operations, he was concerned about the particulars of how the data is acquired, and who, exactly, is responsible for sorting it all out.

Van Gundy posed legitimate questions that would theoretically need to be addressed before the basketball purists at the NBA level take the data as gospel, and making sure that whoever is identifying certain play types and quantifying them knows basketball, and is doing that job to the specifications of a particular head coach.

“I don’t trust most of it,” Van Gundy said, beginning an exquisite rant on the topic. “I read some of the stuff that people write on, you know, I’ll read stats on pick and roll defense and stuff that came off Synergy or somewhere else — I don’t know who the hell is recording that information!”

“I read a thing in the playoffs last year that said that New York isolated like 17 percent of the time,” he continued. “I’m watching their games, they isolate half of the time, at least. So I don’t know who’s recording that. If there’s a pick and roll, and they throw it back to Carmelo and he holds the ball and isolates for eight seconds, that’s a pick and roll play, not an isolation? And a lot of pick and roll stuff … you know, I read a thing today from ESPN the Magazine on Paul George being the best pick and roll defender in the league on the ball handler. Look, a lot of pick and rolls … there’s pick and rolls designed to score, and there’s pick and rolls you run to get into something else. If you’re recording it and you’re treating those two things the same, then you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Van Gundy really does like the additional available data — he just needs to be able to trust that whoever is compiling it has the same standards basketball-wise that he does. Ironically enough, I overheard a statistician type at one of the panel discussions explaining to a colleague that of course he watches games — but only to enhance his data set.

“I mean, I do watch the games,” this person said, “to to try to pick up on some things that maybe my numbers aren’t catching.”

This is obviously completely backwards, and as far as Van Gundy is concerned, there’s simply no substitution for the eye test.

“To me, I think that a lot of the analytic stuff can be very useful, but if you’re using that in place of sitting down and watching film yourself and seeing what’s going on, you’re making a big mistake,” Van Gundy said. “And I don’t want to offend anybody, but I think one of the problems with analytics — I think it’s good; I used it, I love looking at it — but one of the problems is, there are a lot of people in a lot of organizations who don’t know the game, who all they know is analytics and as a result, that’s what they rely on. And they will use that to supersede what guys like us see with our eyes. And I think that’s a major mistake. There’s no substitute for watching film over and over and over again, and the only numbers I trust are the ones that my people believe.”

Van Gundy isn’t alone in his hesitance, and it will take some time before everyone trusts the way that the bulk of the data is quantified and labeled for mass consumption.

  1. rick1v - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:06 PM

    Actually a pretty fair criticism of some of the advanced statistical data being compiled. As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”.

    • nbascreed - Mar 2, 2014 at 9:05 AM

      Guys 3 days ago there was a advanced stats post on challenge the shooters better known as closeouts regarding the OKC thunder. The stat was defined as being within at least 4 feet of your man at the time of the release.

      I lampooned the stat then maintain its absurdity now and even though I’m a big data guy I give zero credence to what’s coming out of the nba. They clearly are letting peopl with limited background in basketball qualif these new stats and it’s complete garbage.

      There’s no coach alive at any level who would qualify a closeouts as being within 4 feet. The fact that someone qualified that and presented to the thunder as data is absurd on its face.

  2. 00maltliquor - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:10 PM

    Stan the Man!!

  3. cantonbound13 - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:20 PM

    I thought Stan wanted to spend more time with his family? Pat Riley wouldn’t lie? Would he?

  4. dolphindubs - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:47 PM


    Do you have advanced statistical data showing Van Gundy ISNT spending more time with his family?!

    • bkbell3 - Mar 2, 2014 at 5:22 AM


  5. Gordon - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:47 PM

    Amen brother. Preach on.

  6. antistratfordian - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:48 PM

    I’ve never considered play tracking in Synergy as “advanced” information, for whatever reason. It’s filled with a lot of basic information that just wasn’t easily accessible previously. And anyone who has used it knows there is a lot of uncertainty in what might qualify as a specific type of play – definitely some head scratchers in there. So this criticism of it is certainly valid.

  7. miamatt - Mar 1, 2014 at 8:54 PM

    Stan is great, his segments on Dan LeBatard’s radio show are the best.

    And he is 100% correct. If the data is reliably collected and sorted, advanced metrics can be a powerful tool. But it doesn’t work if the person collecting the data is… well… a tool.

  8. casualcommenter - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:14 PM

    There are unique problems to advanced stats in “constant motion” sports like basketball and soccer that sports with “clear start and clear stop” sports like baseball and football don’t have. In baseball, the “play” starts with a pitch and it ends with either a strike, a ball, or a hit with nothing in between.

    In basketball, the “play” starts with the point guard bringing the ball across the court, and it ends with either a score, foul, or block/turnover, but a lot of different things can happen in between. Multiple pick and rolls and/or a guy trying to go iso for a few seconds and/or guys cutting to the basket off the ball and/or shooters using screens off the ball to get open, etc. On sophisticated offenses like the Spurs and Heat, you see several of those actions on any given possession, making it difficult to classify them.

    So that’s something stats gurus will have to work out.

  9. tfoz5150 - Mar 1, 2014 at 9:37 PM

    Maybe if he’d embrace the analytics movement he’d be working in the NBA.

  10. velocirep - Mar 1, 2014 at 10:48 PM

    And all of the advanced stat analysts push back their taped bifocals and snap their suspenders in disapproval

  11. sumkat - Mar 2, 2014 at 12:08 AM

    I have to agree with him. Stat junkies seem to make up a new stat every season to prove how player x is REALLY as good as they say.

    I’m not saying that there is no validity to it, but it’s something that has to be measured with the traditional process. After all, most of those advanced stats, compare plays to an “average” player. When you are going for the title, you aren’t coming across many “average” players in the last few rounds

    • jimmybx - Mar 2, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      There is no validity. Sports is the only PROFESSION where fat kids offer statistical analysis without ever having played a minute within said profession. What other trade offers that type of analysis and accepts it as fact?

      It’s like the +/- stat. The dumbest thing ever created. If Melo drops 40, does everything in his power to win, but Chandler and Felton are outscored by 50 points while Melo is on the floor, why is Melo penalized for his teammates being scorched. It’s ridiculous.

      • Kurt Helin - Mar 11, 2014 at 8:06 PM

        If you don’t think pretty much every other line of business out there is impacted by big data and advanced stats you live in a cave raising goats.

  12. dinofrank60 - Mar 2, 2014 at 2:41 AM

    I’m surprised SVG got out of there in one piece…

  13. spursareold - Mar 2, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    Get off my “eye test” lawn!!

    SportVU will make all of this moot. The camera doesn’t lie.

  14. spursareold - Mar 2, 2014 at 8:06 AM

    Stan really went to the Sloan conference to complain?

    Stan, if you don’t understand how they’re measuring something like a pick and roll or an ISO, LEARN how they do it.

    I swear to God, the VG brothers are the biggest whiners in all of basketball.

  15. ryanaammess - Mar 2, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    Stans a really good coach and its crazy hes not coaching somwhere. The headline is really misleading. You can watch the panel on youtube and his two main points where that there no substitute for watching tape and you need the guys compiling this data to know basketball.

    • spursareold - Mar 2, 2014 at 2:36 PM

      He’s probably not working for he same reason Hollins isn’t : skepticism of advanced stats.

      Guys that take bad shots are inefficient, and cost you games, places in the standings, playoff seedlings, and ultimately, MONEY. Owners are tired of paying 9 digit contracts for players who never take the team anywhere. Advanced stats tease out the chuckers from the quality scorers and creators. In five years, you’ll never see a player like Josh Smith get paid. He does too many things to hurt his team.

      This is the way basketball is going. Baseball did it first, and now it’s embedded in the culture. Guys lost their jobs by not accepting it. Guys will in the NBA, too.

      • ryanaammess - Mar 2, 2014 at 3:17 PM

        Watch the panel, hes not against the use of advanced stats.

      • dinofrank60 - Mar 2, 2014 at 8:59 PM

        So, what do you do with fans that don’t care about this stuff. Kick them out of fandom? Give classes on statistical theory and econometrics? Wait until they die off?

  16. dinofrank60 - Mar 2, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    SVG did not get the memo.
    Playing and coaching ball = bad. You’re only there to provide raw data; please know your role and don’t try to understand what you’re doing.
    Statistical analysis = good. This is where the real game is. Applying mathematical and economic principles to the game lets people know how the game is actually played. When the data comes in and is analyzed, then everyone will know what happened on the court. You don’t need to watch to realize what happens.

    • Kurt Helin - Mar 2, 2014 at 11:49 AM

      The most idiotic argument out there is that the stats guys don’t watch the games. They watch more than you do. I know nobody who watched as many games as Hollinger, for example. If you want to make an anti-stats argument, at least make a good one.

      • jimmybx - Mar 2, 2014 at 12:38 PM

        Unless you actually played ball, you can compile any stat you want, because at the end of the day you still won’t know sheeit. It’s all numbers without understanding the most basic principles of the sport. Any well trained monkey can collect stats. Takes someone with playing experience to teach and explain the game.

        The best knowledge in life comes from experience.

      • dinofrank60 - Mar 2, 2014 at 8:54 PM

        I think you’d better direct that anger at Stan, not me. I didn’t say that stat guys don’t watch the games.

        Since we have heated up the conversation a bit, please answer this:
        Why the insistence that everyone should embrace the new analytics movement? Conversation starts out that all information is needed, but eventually we get to the point that we should adopt this thinking.

        When reading the research papers, they read like… research papers, just like you used to do in school. Which means the definitions, data and derivations are submitted clearly. And they take a different look at the subject; it doesn’t try to be the definitive look at the subject. Why do some take these works and use them to beat them over the rest of unintelligent savages who are in the way of progress? Supporters do a poor job in convincing us that this is the way we should go.

        Nobody’s trying to make a strong anti-stat statement; stats are a part of sports. What people don’t like and what Stan touches upon is that we being told that it supercedes everything. At least that’s the perception.

        Let me see if I can make this speech on Hardball Talk!! That’ll go over like a …

      • casualcommenter - Mar 3, 2014 at 2:37 AM

        A lot of people who don’t understand statistics usually type those comments, pretending that statistics and film study are mutually exclusive.

        “You can’t use both film and numbers, you have to pick one!!!!”

        It’s a false premise that reveals a lot of ignorance and insecurity.

      • davidly - Mar 3, 2014 at 9:17 AM

        Read his comment more closely, Kurt. He didn’t say stats gatherers didn’t watch games; he said that statistical analysers think they know more than they do without watching them. That means, yes, Hollinger knows the game, but not everyone citing his math does.

  17. campcouch - Mar 2, 2014 at 9:53 PM

    Most ridiculous “stat” I heard this year: Monte Ellis has the highest scoring average on drives to the basket than anyone in the NBA” . I tried to find his average and equate that to the team’s wins but no luck. If he averaged 35 ppg and the Mavs were 60-1 I’d say yay,but neither are true so meh.

    • casualcommenter - Mar 3, 2014 at 2:40 AM

      Your comment literally makes no sense.

      Statistically, Michael Jordan was one of the best scorers in the NBA in the late 1980’s, but his teams never won over 60 games. Does that mean he wasn’t a good scorer?

      No. So why would the fact that the Mavs haven’t won 60 games disprove that Monta Ellis is an efficient scorer when he drives?

      Seriously. Your comment makes no sense. If you don’t understand statistics, that’s fine, but don’t pretend you’ve disproven anything.

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