Now that we know what the Raptors are doing … what are they DOING?

Over on Grantland, Zach Lowe gives the reader in-depth access to Toronto’s use of the SportVU program that’s slowly spreading around the league. With so much fascinating information in the piece, I wanted to branch off with a few thoughts of my own. Here are three things that I came away with after reading.

1. Discovering Sound Positional Defenders

In an era where finding the next undervalued asset is paramount, it seems like SportVU can have an immediate impact on identifying players who excel at positioning themselves off the ball on defense. The importance of this ‘skill’ is often overlooked (something that I recently tweeted back and forth with ESPN scribe Amin Elhassan about) and graded in a subjective fashion.

If the Raptors staff can include “ghost defenders” in their program, it’s probably not a stretch to think they can fashion a way to measure which players consistently get close to the ideal help positioning these “ghosts” suggest and provide a metric for their value. Perhaps players like Kyle Singler — who are constantly working off the ball to maneuver into great help spots — can be brought in on cheap deals and provide solid value with a skill that is currently very hard to measure.

2. Practical implications

Continuing along the lines of “ghost defenders”, there is a lot of talk in the analytics group about using the program to improve a team/player’s commitment to help defense. The problem is that such an emphasis seems like a pipe dream. Having the information of where the ideal spots are to help is great, but the NBA schedule doesn’t allow for the practice time to constantly get it right. Players need repetition at game speed in order to make their movement patterns on the court second-nature.

With only a three week training camp and some 50-odd practices during the year (most of which are lighter in order to avoid wearing players out) it’s impossible to rep the staggering number of situations that occur during NBA games. That doesn’t mean the information is useless, just that, with the current NBA schedule, there may never be a way to fully transfer it over to the place where it truly makes a difference — the court.

3. Was there a hidden agenda?

The question that kept popping up into my head while navigating Lowe’s column was, “Why in the hell would the Raptors be so open about their advancements with such a cutting edge resource?” Don’t me wrong, Lowe obviously did great work to acquire an overwhelming amount of relevant information on the evolution of a NBA front office, but that same exposure also made the organization look bad on a number of levels. Aside from the disconnect between the front office and head coach Dwane Casey that surfaced in the piece, it seems rather short-sighted to open up about such a huge competitive advantage for the sake of transparency.

NBA teams don’t really need the media to do much more than talk about, and thus promote, the games. All the other stuff — who doesn’t get along with who in the front office, which players aren’t staying healthy — is information most teams would rather no one know about. Even Houston’s front office, which is very media-friendly, almost never discloses specifics of its operation.

It’s a credit to Lowe that he was able to get all of this information, but from the team’s perspective, it’s hard to see the advantage. Perhaps it helps certain people in the front office defend themselves against charges that they are not doing enough. But the result is an insight into the front office’s dysfunction and a window into their cool technology that guys in Houston, San Antonio, Golden State and New York (who all have SportVu enabled) can climb through. At the same time, careful NBA observers are largely not impressed by the organization’s willingness to share. It’s sad that transparency is seen as weakness in the NBA, but that’s the case.

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