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27-02-15


Are the Lakers stuck in the stone age?

Jeremy Lin remembers the packet. The Houston Rockets distributed it at season's end, an ocean of personalized data slimmed down to a few pages. It showed that the point guard was one of the NBA's best at driving and making plays at the rim, but that he also struggled shooting from the left wing and 3-pointers off the dribble.

"Things like that, I didn't know," Lin said. It helped shape his offseason training regimen.

Lin is savvy on the subject, one he has been interested in dating back to his playing days at Harvard. He said his agent even doubles as a personal analytics assistant. "I'm not going to overreact to some numbers," Lin said. "I want to know what they are, though."

The franchise catered to Lin's interests well. The Rockets are not only considered to be one of the NBA's most aggressive teams in the field, but also, perhaps, in any sport on any level.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's the team the Rockets traded Lin to last offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers.

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"[Byron Scott] told us a couple stats," Lin said, "but I don't know if they're necessarily that deep into analytics. They were stats about our efficiency when we score in pick-and-rolls versus isolations and some defensive numbers. But besides that, I haven't seen that much."

He's not alone. Although teams guard the inner workings of their analytics operations as if they were protecting nuclear missile launch codes, there's almost no public and little private information about what -- if anything -- the Lakers have done or are doing on this front.

"If you ask the analytics people who work in the NBA, 'Who does work for the Lakers?' Nobody knows," said Ben Alamar, director of production analytics at ESPN and a former analytics official for multiple NBA teams, including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers.

"It could be that they're being really secretive and that they're really good at being secretive. But they haven't hired anybody that anybody has respect for in the analytics community."

His point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams.

For years, the franchise has appeared afraid of change, or arrogant, or both. The Lakers didn't send a basketball operations representative for the first six years of the annual MIT Sloan Analytics Conference in Boston, the latest incarnation of which will be held Feb. 27-28. In 2013, they were the only team without a representative.

Lakers officials see it a bit differently.

"We sent people, but they weren't basketball people," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak contends. "Nobody has known about it. It's better to go under the radar, if you ask me. That's just the way we do it."

Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen acts as a liaison between the coaches and analytics crew. When asked how the Lakers' analytics operation compares to others from around the league, a smile spreads across his face.

"All I can say is this operation here is second to none," Madsen said.

However, interviews with those around the league and considerable evidence suggest that the Lakers' progress with analytics matches their record this season: almost dead last.

The staff
The Lakers say they have six people working on stats, four of whom focus on data provided by SportVU, the six in-arena cameras located in the rafters of every NBA arena that use Israeli missile-tracking technology to record the movements of each player, the referees and the ball 25 times per second every game.

Two of those SportVU people are based in L.A.; two others -- including the Lakers' top SportVU consultant -- are based in the home of the Lakers' biggest rival: Boston.

"Just so you know, he's born and raised in Southern California, not Boston," Kupchak said of their top SportVU consultant, whom we'll call Jack. (The Lakers declined to reveal the identity of their analytics staffers, provide much information about them or allow them to be interviewed.)

Jack attended graduate school at UCLA with Kupchak. "He's somewhat of a basketball fan," Kupchak said. They stayed in touch over the years and talked about analytics, eventually discussing the type of person an NBA team needs to hire for such a task. The topic came up as SportVU started to become more and more available; all 30 teams had access to it beginning in the 2013-14 season. "And then he was able to say, this is the kind of person that you need," Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he hired Jack about two years ago.

Jack keeps in touch with the two SportVU staffers in L.A. through conference calls and visits. The other employee in Boston, Kupchak said, is tasked with helping break down the data into a more digestible form. The Lakers' other two analytics staffers are former Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich and his son, Trey, both of whom are based in L.A. Kupchak said Rudy has worked in a "statistics-based analysis role" for several years with the team, working with more conventional stats, such as information found in box scores, and also using NBA.com's StatsCube, the league's official advanced statistical analysis tool.

Another element is Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss, who in a 2012 interview with ESPN.com said he has a "defensive rating, basically, that involves the offense, defense and then the impact depending on how much they play." It's a formula that Buss said then that he developed himself. "I'm up to all hours of the night doing numbers. Trying to tweak it. Trying to get it better. Seeing if it truly [corresponds]," he said in the interview. It's unclear what involvement -- if any -- Buss has with the Lakers' day-to-day analytics operations. (The Lakers declined to make Buss available for an interview.)

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