Gut vs. data in NBA decision making

When looking at sports analytics, a lot of it seems to have to do with the evaluation of talent from a front office standpoint. Whether it is looking at a draft prospect or analyzing potential trade partners, analytics have been embraced most by those in the front office.

So when I sat down for “Gut vs. Data: How Do Coaches Make Decisions” I was interested in hearing what former coaches had to say on the topic of analytics and whether or not they use data to formulate decisions in the heat of the moment, or if it is strictly their gut and experience.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

The first panelist to discuss the issue was Mike Leach, the former head coach of Texas Tech University’s football team. Leach mentioned that he liked to use data in the week of preparation to the game, mentioning he uses data to get a feel for the opponent and what they do. Though he admitted that some decisions are gut decisions based on emotion, for example deciding to go with the hot hand, Leach also mentioned that some decisions that may look like gut decisions are actually decisions made based on data and preparation, saying, “We sort out what we do before the game in the boardroom where we have time to make decisions.”

Bringing this back to basketball, both R.C. Buford and Del Harris (who were both a part of this panel), were in agreement when it came to making decisions based on preparation and data vs. gut feeling. For Buford, he tends to shy away from gut decisions because it makes it harder to take a step back and analyze those decisions after the fact. If you get the decision wrong, you don’t know why, but maybe more importantly, if you get it correct, you don’t know how to duplicate it.

Harris echoed much of what the others said, but he also mentioned how he likes to receive situational data in game so he can use that information when making decisions on what defense or offense to run. In addition to this data, Harris mentioned that when he coached in college he used to have a student manager chart possessions for him. He used this data as a tool to measure momentum as he would have his manager let him know if his team would put together a string of stops or makes and vice versa and make decisions based on that. For example, he mentioned that if his team was on a run of makes, he wouldn’t call timeouts or make a substitution until the opponent took back momentum (the only exception to this rule was in the final two minutes when he would play his best players). This is interesting because momentum is usually considered this unexplained thing that coaches use to make gut decisions, but Del Harris tried to quantify it and use that data to help make coaching decisions.

As a basketball fan, the most interesting portion of the panel was the discussion of perhaps the biggest Gut vs. Data issue in the NBA today, whether or not to foul up three points. Both Harris and Buford mentioned that the data is out there proving that when you foul up by three points it is successful most of the time, yet coaches tend to shy away from doing it, stuck in their ways. For what it is worth, Harris is in favor of fouling up three, but to him it is all about preparation.

He teaches his teams to foul only with less than six seconds left and only if a player's back or side is facing them; if a player is facing the rim, he wants his players to just defend the shot (in addition, Harris also mentions that you need to let the ref know you are fouling to ensure that it does in fact get called). Both Buford and Harris mentioned that nobody seems to remember when fouling up three does work and that it only gets talked about when it fails, and this is what is in the coach's mind when they decide not to foul.

Going into the panel, I was wondering how much data is actually used during the game and the answer seems to be that more often than not decisions in game are based on data and preparation rather than gut with coaches from both football and basketball (the two sports represented) agreeing. It also seems that coaches seem to respect the data more than I originally thought, and that is only a good thing when it comes down to trying to make the best decisions.