Placebo analytics

BOSTON -- You already know by now that Jeff Van Gundy has been one of the darlings of the weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He’s the contrarian sage, the Shakespearean jester -- if you don’t know which side he’s on, you know he’s telling the truth.

His presence Friday on the Basketball Analytics Panel was a welcome inclusion, as he highlighted the difficulty the analytics community has in translating their wonkish data into usable insight while also showing how much the coaching community stands to gain from new insights. About halfway through the panel, Van Gundy unintentionally let slip the most enlightening thing he said the entire hour. In paraphrase, Van Gundy said, "If I have a stat, I use it. Sometimes, if I need a stat and I don’t have it, I just make it up."

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Laughter followed. Blogger types nudged each other and did that “Get a load of this guy” thumb-toward-that-guy gesture. My own reaction, initially, was "Oh, great. Here’s this respected coach, a man whose embracing of the analytics movement could be a substantial argument for progress, and he’s being so flip about the issue that he’s making up stats in the huddle." I can just see this coming back to haunt me in a thousand comments sections, all sorts of fans screaming about how coaches possess ineffable insight that analytics can never hope to glean. And then it hit me: Van Gundy had proven the need for stats.

When Van Gundy fudges a stat to players in the huddle, he’s using placebo analytics. Players, basically, want something concrete to back up their coach’s analysis; instead of “Chuck, that guy can’t go left,” a coach might say “Chuck, that guy is 1-for-8 going to his left.” The player gets a concretion, something he can use to focus his behavior. In short, players -- the community that analytics detractors most often cite as being the antithesis of geekery -- want analysis. They want facts. They want to know that the coach isn’t just acting on some whim and has some basis for his reasoning beyond being displeased with his players. In the moment, they get a piece of information from a guy who, if he’s good, they’re predisposed to trusting and know is smart. Isn’t this exactly what analytics advocates have been calling for? Smart people using analytics as part of a holistic approach?

Look, Jeff Van Gundy is not going to stop “watching the games.” He made it clear, time and again, that even if he finds advanced statistics and analytics “enlightening,” he retains a healthy skepticism. And that’s good. It’s that skepticism that makes it so credible when—perhaps without even realizing it—Van Gundy proves how much analytics have to offer the league.

Daniel Nowell writes for Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter (@DMNowell).