Rockets, Spurs lead the way in NBA draft analytics

ByBen Alamar ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Houston Rocketsgeneral manager Daryl Morey is often given credit for leading the analytics revolution in the NBA, and he has certainly played a major role in utilizing analytics effectively and raising public awareness of it. Quietly, though, in terms of actual use of the tools of analytics, it's hard to overstate the role thatSan Antonio SpursGM R.C. Bufordhas played.

The proliferation of analytics tools in basketball decisions has grown to the point where every NBA team has some sort of analytics function in the front office. But not all analytics functions are equal.

The value of analytics is not all of the fancy math needed to turn the data into information, but rather the productive use of that new information in decision-making. And few have been more effective at doing that and teaching others how to do it than Buford.

One area in which NBA teams apply analytics is the draft. The draft is about projecting the future based on a variety of data sources -- and reducing the risk inherent in the process. As draft analytics have become more available over the past decade, models have become more complex and accurate, with the latest draft model from ESPN's analytics team utilizing five different data sources to create more accurate projections.

Given the advances of the tools, I polled a set of current and former NBA front-office executives and analysts to get a sense of which teams do the best job of incorporating analytics in an impactful way in their draft process. Some of the results of that poll were expected (Houston taking the top spot), but others were surprising and are evidence of Buford's influence on the use of analytics in the NBA. Here are the top six teams, ranked by the impact of their usage of analytics in the draft process:

1. Houston Rockets: No surprise here that the Rockets were the only team mentioned by every person polled. Morey has championed the use of analytics in all areas of basketball decision-making, and his colleagues throughout the league recognize the value he has created there.

2.Boston Celtics: The Celtics traded out of last year's top spot, allowing the Sixers to draft poorly projected Markelle Fultz and the Celtics to draft analytics favorite Jayson Tatum. That move alone makes them analytics legends.

3. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs were one of the very first teams to employ an analyst to build a draft model and were one of only three teams (the Rockets and Celtics were the others) to have representatives at the very first Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

4.Oklahoma City Thunder:Sam Presti, a Buford disciple, helped the Spurs hire their first analyst and hired his own as soon as he became general manager of the then-Seattle SuperSonics. (Full disclosure: That analyst was me.) The team has utilized analytics in its draft process ever since.

5.Brooklyn 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."

6.Utah Jazz: Since joining the Jazz in 2012 following his tenure with the (wait for it) San Antonio Spurs, general manager Dennis Lindsey has built a highly competitive team through the draft, including finding values such as Rudy Gobert (27th pick) and Donovan Mitchell (13th pick), as well as undrafted players such as Joe Ingles and Royce O'Neale.

Balancing analytics with all of the other information coming at a general manager in the weeks leading up to the draft is not easy. GMs are inundated with opinions from scouts, their own observations, interviews with the athletes and "background" information from teammates, coaches, trainers, team managers and other people who have some connection to the athlete. And they must weigh the opinions and input of the team's owner.

The general manager has to distill the truth out of all of that information, and each has his own process for doing that. Including analytics in a meaningful way in that process does not always come naturally to people who have been very successful in the basketball world without using analytics. It takes time, effort and thought to effectively use analytics in decision-making.

In a league where, according to the universal agreement of those polled, only 40 percent to 60 percent of teams use analytics in an effective way in the draft, Buford owns the third spot in our "rankings" and trained the next three GMs on the list. Buford has found an effective process for incorporating this information to provide the Spurs (and all of the teams that have been hired out of his front office) a competitive advantage.

For more from ESPN Analytics, visit the ESPN Analytics Index.