San Antonio Spurs’ Data-Driven Approach to Win Games

The San Antonio Spurs were recently named "Best Analytics Organization" at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. How has the big data revolution impacted the NBA and how has it helped the Spurs in creating value?

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At the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the San Antonio Spurs were named the “Best Analytics Organization,” and Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his work in this space of using advanced analytics to improve team and player performance.

The Spurs are an organization in the National Basketball Association, where team performance is a critical determinant of financial success. Value creation in this creative industry is a complicated and competitive process of finding and developing talent, then coaching that talent to success in winning games. Winning games is critical to capturing that value with lucrative media contracts and selling out tickets. Teams are always looking for ways to gain an edge, and as the wave of digital innovation swept through the NBA, we began to see a rise in the use of analytics.

Sports organizations have always utilized statistics and simple data to determine team and player performance, but analytics take it to the next level. Sports analytics were popularized in the 2011 film, Moneyball, which features how the Oakland Athletics revolutionized how baseball teams are put together using more advanced analytics.

All NBA organizations are now using in-depth analytics in some form, but they differ on how and when the data is used and how valuable it is perceived to be. Just like any organization in other industries, NBA teams have a really hard time discerning those valuable, key insights in the ocean of big data.

Analytics are certainly not the holy grail for any organization trying to create and capture value. Spurs Head Coach Greg Popovich commented last season on the Spurs’ use of analytics:

“I think most of the things we find out from analytics pretty much are logical. Things you already have a pretty good feel for. Sometimes they prove what you were thinking ahead of time. Now and then, there might be something you need to look at because there’s something that might be happening that you didn’t notice. So there’s a use for it. But we don’t walk in everyday and say, ‘give me the analytics.’ It’s just one of the tools.”

While this quote may imply the Spurs use less analytics to guide their decision-making than is perceived, the organization does have a history of being the leaders in this new wave big data in sports. They were among the first teams to install SportVu cameras that now exist in every NBA arena. SportVu Cameras follow the ball and every player on the court in real-time, which is then translated into a mound of digital information. You can now know fast and how far a player runs, how many times he dribbles, where he takes shots, how he defends, and much more. The Spurs were also among the first teams to have an analytics department, which is also now much more prevalent in NBA organizations.

SportVU cameras, analytics departments, and the use of digital technology to capture and interpret detailed data all fit into this NBA era of Moneyball. Analytics help organizations get an edge in an extremely competitive environment. They are especially valued by teams in smaller markets with more limited resources. For a team like the Spurs, which does not have the money or glamour of the bigger NBA franchises, data-driven marginal improvements can be critical in achieving success. Spurs Director of Basketball Analytics Gabe Farkas recently said, “I think analytics have grown in popularity because it can give you a competitive advantage if you do it well. Games are decided often by a point or two, which can come down to an inch or two. Every little bit helps.”

The Spurs certainly do not share exactly how they use their analytics (to maintain that competitive edge), but they’ve been among, if not the, best teams to find and develop hidden talent. They were among the first-movers in the NBA analytics revolution, and now they are known to be among the best in applying the analytics.

Of course correlation does not equal causation. The Spurs are not one of the best NBA franchises solely due to analytics, but even old-school Popovich (who does not even have a computer in his office) admitted the analytics are an important tool in either ratifying their instincts or the more rare event of discovering hidden insights. Much to Charles Barkley’s chagrin, there’s certainly good reason why every NBA team is embracing digital innovation and technology in this new era of analytics: it is another tool that helps teams create more value. Some teams have used that tool to create more value than others. This past summer, Spurs were publicly recognized for just that.

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Student comments on San Antonio Spurs’ Data-Driven Approach to Win Games

  1. Cool post! I wrote about the NBA broadly introducing data. Interesting to see a post on how a specific team is leveraging it as well. I’m curious if there are any examples of traditionally less successful teams using data to get better though. The Spurs have been awesome for almost 20 years so seems less surprising or causal that they keep doing well. Do we know of any teams that haven’t done well for a while but are seeing improvement?

  2. Interesting post! This certainly drove home for me the idea that to prevail as a data-driven organization it’s as much about culture / ability to properly harness the data versus just the actual capabilities and technologies available (particularly now that so many teams are searching for ways to leverage data to their advantage). The SportVU cameras, for example, offer the potential to capture so many metrics….Popovich and the rest of the coaching staff needs to be conscious of how to best apply it and which datapoints to ignore (i.e. to what extend should real time data drive in game decision making?). Popovich’s quotes above suggest he’s taken a fairly balanced approach – using data where helpful but still relying on his experiences and intuition.

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