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Sean Highkin, @highkin, USA TODAY Sports

As the analytics movement further ingrains itself in the DNA of basketball, it has become more important for the stats geeks in the front office to effectively communicate their ideas to the players and coaches whose job it is to put the numbers to work.

At the recent 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, it was clear that the future lies not in creating new stats but in using numbers to augment traditional scouting.

"There's no substitute for watching film over and over and over again," former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said on one panel. "The only numbers I trust are the ones my people keep."

Brett McDonald is attempting to bridge this gap. The CEO of a company called Vantage made a presentation at the conference, showing off a new tool that provides more nuanced video breakdowns and scouting reports than have been available.

Vantage has caught the attention of Golden State Warriors All-Star point guard Stephen Curry, who commissions the company to provide him with customized scouting reports on opponents and also identify strengths and weaknesses in his game.

In other words, it's data that exists as more than a string of numbers for teams and players to sort through unaided.

"A big part of our mission statement as a company is not to be a data dump," McDonald told USA TODAY Sports. "This is a problem that you'll see in the industry. People will just produce reams of data and say, 'OK, we want to sell it.' What we wanted to do was not to sell data but to sell insights. And part of that is speaking to each individual user. A writer is a different user than a coach who is a different user than a front-office GM who is a different user than a player."

Before this season, the NBA installed cutting-edge SportVU cameras in every arena (about half of the teams in the league were using them already), which track every on-court movement during a game. But use of these cameras' data is limited, and it's completely up to teams to process them.

McDonald's platform combines computer-generated data and the human eye to provide teams and players with practical observations.

One reason coaches are alienated by the analytics movement is that it can at times be too prescriptive. The explosion of the corner three-point shot in recent years stems from data proclaiming that to be the most efficient shot. But not every team has the personnel for that, and it doesn't fit with every coaching philosophy.

"We're never telling Steph, 'Only pass to David Lee at this part of the floor,' because that will never work," McDonald said. "The other team is playing, too. It's not like you can just do what you want to do. The idea that you're only going to shoot three-pointers or layups is divorced from the reality of the game. The great thing about working with players is that what matters to them is very different from the analytics guy in the front office.

"Our stuff has to be immediately applicable to players or it's worthless. It speaks to different people. A coach will care about a different thing than a player, and our stuff is flexible enough to do that."

In the beginning of the analytics revolution in basketball, the focus was on developing metrics using existing data. But unlike baseball, where advanced statistics have reached a point of saturation, basketball is a fluid game whose secrets can't be deciphered through a single number. Catch-all metrics such as Player Efficiency Ratings and Win Shares are handy shorthand to determine a player's effectiveness, but they don't tell the entire story.

"As long as there are scouts out there, analytics aren't everything," McDonald said. "What we want to do is take what fans are looking at and what scouts are looking at and quantifying it in a good way, a way that makes sense to them that everyone can use and be flexible with."

With players such as Curry embracing these new platforms and tools, a way forward is emerging. It is possible for analytics and old-school scouting and coaching philosophies to work together in harmony. It's just a matter of finding a middle ground.

"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 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."


March 10, 2014




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