The now (accelerated) Nets rebuild is often attributed to culture, character, and a list of other buzzwords that sound corny at first listen. But along with the performance team’s focus on the whole player, they are what distinguishes the Nets from other teams.
The same goes for their use of advanced analytics.
The Nets are one of the most analytically driven teams in the NBA, both by choice and necessity. Advanced metrics, performance and the player development that comes out of those two are what this team lives and dies by.
“It’s a big part of what we do. It’s been that way from day one, not just this season,” insisted Kenny Atkinson, to NetsDaily, ahead of the Nets 113-107 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It’s a big part of my background.”
Same goes for Sean Marks.
“We use analytics on a daily basis, hourly basis,” the GM has said.
For Atkinson, it all began in 2007-08 with the Houston Rockets, where he served as the Director of Player Development, within an organization that included then (and still) general manager Daryl Morey – one of the first to swear by some of the advanced metrics – along with Sam Hinkie, then a Rockets vice president, before famously becoming the architect of “The Process” in Philadelphia.
“That kind of sparked me like, ‘what is this?’ I had never been exposed to it before. And over here, Sean values it greatly. It’s a big part of what we do,” offered Atkinson. “I think the challenge for me and our staff is that there’s so much information. I know you guys know because you’re looking at the same stuff.”
According to ESPN, which polled current and former NBA executives to determine which organizations were the best at using draft analytics in 2018, the Nets are fifth among 30 teams. The only teams ahead of them? Houston, Boston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, in that order. Not bad company.
Ben Alamar of ESPN Stats and Info wrote of the Nets...
Perhaps a surprise entry, but another Buford disciple (notice a trend?), general manager Sean Marks, has changed the process in Brooklyn, and folks around the NBA have noticed. Said one current NBA front-office type: “Sean is definitely doing things the right way,
The Nets already had a couple of analytics staffers when Marks and Atkinson took over. Billy King, pressed by Dmitry Razumov, had added Glenn DuPaul and Rami Antoun, two young stats geeks who were more familiar with MLB but made the transition to the NBA. (At the time, one Nets executive said they liked DuPaul as much for his ability to explain things as they did for his analytic abilities. “He speaks English!” the executive said.)
Then, in one of his first moves after being hired, Marks dipped into his San Antonio connections and hired Logan MacPhail, who is now Director of Coaching Analytics in Brooklyn. MacPhail had been San Antonio’s manager of coaching analytics in and an analytics specialist with the team beforehand. He too has a baseball background. His grandfather and great-grandfather are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame and he once worked for the Mets.
For the most part, DuPaul handles player personnel decisions — like trades and the NBA Draft, Antoun systems development and MacPhail game prep, rotations.
And the Nets rely as well on math and engineering heads to bolster their work.
Kevin Roark, who’s listed as a basketball systems developer, graduated from Columbia University in 2015 with a degree in computer science. He designs and engineers software for the team, including the analytics team.
One Cal Berkeley engineering student who worked with the Nets as an intern in 2017-18 described his experience this way on LinkedIn: “built models. Watched machines learn stuff about basketball.”
And its role is not limited to code about who shoots better in one situation or another. The Nets analytics staff has developed a “player valuation model” to measure how much a player is worth for the purposes of trades or free agency negotiations, taking part in flash meetings on whether to follow up on a trade proposal. Essentially, they try to use numbers to predict which players will translate into the most amount of wins for the least amount of cost.
Then, there is the growing area of biometrics, how sleep patterns and nutrition can effect performance, etc. As Joe Harris famously said, “They even track the color of your piss.”
The Nets coaching staff is also populated with assistants who worked for teams with an analytic bent. Jacque Vaughn, who Marks and Atkinson brought over from San Antonio, was an assistant under Gregg Popovich with the Spurs. Jordan Ott, who worked with Atkinson in Atlanta and on the Dominican Republic national team, is similarly connected to analytics.
Atkinson said early in the season that the analytics staff may in fact be larger than his coaching staff.
Is it working? The record would suggest it has, as does a summary of just how well individual players are progressing. Here are several examples of where individual Nets place in some advanced metrics among the NBA’s elite this season.
(Number courtesy of basketball-reference and nba.com)
In assist percentage, Russell is ahead of everyone except for Russell Westbrook. Davis is sandwiched between Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond in rebound percentage. In shooting metrics, Harris and Steph Curry are first among non-bigs in the league, followed by DJ Augustin, who is way behind those too.
So on and so forth.
This isn’t all about analytics of course. Marks and Atkinson have talked about how analytics and performance are integrated into the Nets development schemes. It’s not an easy job.
Atkinson notes that players, too, have to buy in. For a lot of them, the NBA — and the specific focus of the Nets — is something new.
“There’s so much information, so just being able to filter that information, the analytics that are coming out at you and understanding what the important ones are. And then understanding how to get your players to understand what the important ones are. I think that’s a big part of what we do and it’s definitely a challenge,” he told NetsDaily.
In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the Nets have added the element of development to the range of building blocks —or rebuilding blocks— for a championship organization, along with the Draft, trades and free agency. For “Markinson,” with their lack to draft picks, limited cap space and poor reputation, it had to work.
Using analytics and scouting, they uncovered players like Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie and others, later acquiring Russell via trade and helping get him to All-Star level. Using analytics and performance, they rejuvenated veterans others had given up on.
Ed Davis has been rejuvenated, having his best season on the boards in his 10th NBA go-round. Same with DeMarre Carroll who had his best season last year and is doing well again this season. Putting them in the right situation at the right time is not just extending their careers, it’s helping them improve.
A lot of that development work — the individual attention, the added strength, it’s evident and visible. It’s on the court. It’s in the training room.
Analytics are different.
It’s about iPads and software programs and a lot of consultation among analysts, coaches and players. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
“The progress we have to see is how players continue to develop,” Marks said following the conclusion of last season. “Of course, in the past two years we’ve seen that. We’ve seen our scouts and front office bring players that we saw something special in, [that] analytics saw something special in.”
Now, of course, the Nets believe they have found something special in their analytics abilities. Some fans may not like it, some may think the Nets invest too much in it, throw the remote or curse in the darkness about coaching decisions. It is indeed always a balance, but it all gets down to the more you know ... and the Nets know a lot.