When you hear the title: Manager of Basketball Analytics, what's the first image that pops into your head? Is it the actor Jonah Hill playing the role of Peter Brand, aka Paul DePodesta, in the 2011 film Moneyball?
You know the stat-nerd type. The guy that spends all day in front of a computer, eating Cheetos, and doesn't have the time or the desire to keep up appearances. The guy that could use a haircut, but won't spend over ten bucks to get one. The guy that has never had a pair of pants tailored or worn a dress shirt described as "form fitting". Well, that guy was Peter Brand in Moneyball, but that sure isn't Tommy Balcetis.
The Nuggets 6-foot-5-inch and 195 pound Manager of Basketball Analytics stole a lyric out of ZZ Top's songbook: he's a sharp dressed man. From his close cropped and neatly styled hair, to his tailor-fit dress shirt (with the sleeves neatly rolled), his shiny silver watch, black belt, charcoal pressed pants, even his dress boots (with a little designer pattern) all let you know that he puts thought into everything, especially his job.
"There are so many things that you can do [with analytics]," said Balcetis. "It purely depends on resources, time, and people. That's what my job is: figuring out the main projects that we want to do."
With Tommy as our guide, we are about to plunge into his mind. But don't think for a minute, that while he's granting us tremendous insight into his world, that he's going to be giving away any secrets.
"If somebody reads [this], we don't want to give away our strategies and things like that," said Balcetis. "But at the same time we'd like our fans to be informed. We are a very progressive front office, which I'm really happy about. We understand that analytics are just a piece of the puzzle. It's going to inform a bigger decision tree, it's just a branch. We have scouting perspective, we have ex-player perspective, we have Tim's [Connelly] perspective - who has been with the NBA for a while. So, we have so many different perspectives and I'm just giving them the numbers perspective."
"When I got that call from Tim, there was no doubt in my mind ... I did say, "Give me a day to think about it." said Balcetis. "But I knew right then that I wanted to be here [in Denver]." Tommy was born and raised in Lithuania. He began playing basketball when he was around seven-years-old; everyone did. "I don't think there is anything bigger than basketball in Lithuania," said Tommy. "There's a movie called 'The Other Dream Team'. Our assistant GM [Arturas Karnisovas] was in the movie; he was on the team. Basketball in Lithuania was already pretty big; we didn't really need the [USA] Dream Team to show us the way." Basketball took root in Lithuania back in the 1930s and hoops took root in Tommy too.
Even though Balcetis has one job title for the Nuggets, he wears many hats in his role with the organization and he keeps very busy.
"One thing that I do is I put together the pre-game and post-game reports for the coaches," said Balcetis. "That's something that analytically minded teams do on a consistent basis, and they do it well."
The Pre-Game and Post-Game Reports
"I started doing the pre-game reports for the coaches, which is essentially profiling the team that we're going to be playing and not just in terms of basic stats," added Tommy. "I actually don't think I include basic stats anymore: it's all about where they like to shoot from, which positions are they not good at defending, whether they like the corner three, whether they like the above the break three, whether they defend well from mid-range. All of that stuff is available, so I put together a summary for them like that.
"And then I profile a few key players for them, as well. Watching film on players is very useful, but there are certain things, in terms of numbers, that coaches and people don't necessarily see and it's really evident in their numbers," said Balcetis. "So, I put together a report based on analytics. What to do with Derrick Rose? What to do with Kevin Durant? There is not much you can do sometimes, but at least you can sort of get an idea of what they're not great at, maybe they're good at, but maybe not great at. It's all about getting that extra inch of competitive edge. If you look at numbers ... that's what I try to do."
"I went to the Marciulionis Basketball Academy the great Sarunas Marciulionis," said Balcetis. "I went to his basketball academy for 10 years. I played there, I had some success and played with some junior national teams." Tommy did so well at the Marciulionis Academy that high schools in the U.S. took notice, and when he was 18 years-old he left Lithuania and his family to pursue basketball in the States after being recruited. As his high school career went along Tommy realized he needed to make a decision. "I always wanted to make sure I had a backup plan just in case basketball didn't work out," said Balcetis. "I knew there was a good chance it wouldn't work out; I ran the numbers."
Once Tommy gives those pre-game reports to Brian Shaw, it's then up to the coach to decide what to do with that information and how to incorporate it, if he likes what he sees, into the game-plan for that night.
"[They] provide us with a daily report of where we're most effective, where our opponents are most effective, goals that we're trying to reach in terms of percentage of shots that we want to come from a certain area on the floor, whether it be: rim twos, corner threes or free throws, and if the style of play that we are playing is working in that regard," said Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw. "We work with them to shape [the reports] into a simpler form for us ‘not-so-smart-guys' to be able to understand it in layman's terms."
Is the trickle down effect of advanced stats entering into the players' minds?
"[Balcetis] has a job to do, breaking down stats and looking at stats; and I have a job to do, making shots and trying to help this team win," said Nuggets shooting guard Randy Foye. "Stats definitely don't lie, but I don't look into that stuff because [playing] has a lot to do with heart."
While Foye may not be looking at the stats, per se, he is, along the rest of his teammates, getting some of the information that Balcetis provides via the game-plan.
"I just try to go with instinct and go with the game-plan that coaches give us every day," said Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler. "They draw up a pretty good game-plan. Coaches give us strong and weak points of individual players, and it's good to get a visual on your own. Certain guys can do everything pretty well, so you try to make them do something they are not as good at; but it's still, for them, a good shot. You try to make them take the toughest shot possible; make them work for it. Like KD [Durant], he's a good player and he makes a lot of tough shots. So, sometimes you might play good defense and he might end up making the shot. You just gotta keep trying and trying."
Chandler hit on a key point when discussing trying to push a good player into perceived weakened position on the floor. Sometimes even the best information can't help you duplicate what you need to do out on the court.
"You can tell us you have a good chance to beat Miami if you can keep LeBron [James] and Dwyane Wade out of the paint ... okay, that's what the information says, but then going out and trying to do that is a totally different animal," said Shaw. "Trying to mesh the information with what you can really do with the personnel that you have is where the marriage is happening right now."
Going back after games and looking at the results of what just happened and seeing if the coaching staff used any of the information provided is key.
"I really try to do that - especially when it comes to actual players," Balcetis said, "When I say, "Kevin Durant doesn't do X," then I watch the game and I say, "You know what, that's actually true ... he doesn't do X." Or he's not great at a particular thing or maybe he's really good at something. So far, anecdotally, me just watching it ... it seems like analytics provide a version of the truth. I want to say it's never completely 100-percent accurate, but it's never completely wrong - that's for sure. More often than not, I see the numbers play out on the court."
Enter the post-game report.
"And the post-game [report] is how we did in terms of those things: in terms of the pre-game [report], in terms of our shooting," said Balcetis. "We have certain goals that we set in the front office with the coaching staff, and we want to make sure that we achieve those goals both offensively and defensively."
Balcetis attended and graduated from Harvard with degrees in Economics and Psychology. "At Harvard, it is kind of tough because there's a huge peer pressure, especially to go into more established industries like banking and consulting," said Balcetis. "The target industries after Harvard have never been sports, or at least I didn't see it that way." But he wanted to work in the sports world. So, he took an internship with the NBA his Junior summer in New York. Kanisovas, who Tommy grew up idolizing in Lithuania, helped him out with that role. But after graduation Balcetis accepted a job doing some consulting work, instead of pursuing the same NBA internship, to get some analytical and tangible skills under his belt. But his desire to work around basketball still burned within him.
Open minded coaches pave way for opportunities
"I've embraced it," said Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw of advanced stats. "For me, learning how to understand the information that you're getting was the critical part of it. Before that, myself included, a lot of the old school coaches were intimidated because they didn't grow up in a computer age with all these stats and things to deal with. Analytics have been a part of the game forever. We used analytics [during Shaw's playing days], we just didn't have the computer stats to really back it up or the numbers that we do now.
"You talk to any basketball purist," said Shaw. "Defensively if you keep a team out of the paint, you don't allow them to shoot wide-open corner threes, and you play defense without fouling, it's the same thing analytics tell us - with a stack of paper. "
One would think that it could be difficult to get NBA coaches to listen to a 27 year-old stats analyst on what strategies, strong-points, or weak-points their team may have.
"I think it's slightly easier for me because I played basketball," said Balcetis. "It's not like I came straight from a statistics school and just threw a barrage of numbers at them. I understand how the game is played, but not to the level that they do because they are the coaches and they get the big bucks. But at the same time, I understand numbers a little more than they do, so it's a complimentary synergy going on, if you will.
"They [the coaching staff] really have been excellent, I can't overemphasize that enough with how open they are," said Balcetis. "I hope that they use the stuff that I put together, I've been told that they do use it - which is great, but at the same time I understand that numbers are not everything. Sometimes the numbers can give them one thing and they have a different strategy, so I never take it personally. At the same time, if there is something in those reports that will help them ... then I did my job. It's all about getting that extra percent of probability that we're going to win the game."
One would think that in an 82 game season, running pre- and post-game reports would take up most of Balcetis' time. Think again. When he's not doing his day-to-day reports, he's focusing on front office projects.
After spending two years doing consulting work, Tommy decided he had had enough and wanted to pursue his passion: basketball. So, he left his cushy job and made the necessary sacrifices to move to London and work for the NBA - selling broadcasting rights to international markets. Just two weeks on the job (around August, 2012) would see him fly to Moscow for business, where a chance meeting would alter his career-plans. "That's when I met Tim [Connelly]," said Balcetis. "We ended up talking a lot about basketball and he said, "Why are you not more on the basketball side? Why are you doing the business side?" I was like, "Well, I have a business background so it seemed like the right thing for me to do." And he said, "You should consider going into the basketball side a little more." We kept in touch for a year, and then he got the job [with the Nuggets] and called me up to see if I wanted to join [him]."
Keeping tabs on the Nuggets and the rest of the league
"We try to track the development of our players," added Balcetis. "We want to see how well they did last year, how well they're doing this year, what's missing, what's lacking, and that's purely the analytical perspective. The coaches are obviously with those guys every day in the trenches. They understand how their minds work, and psychologically, they are there for them. What I do, I just look at the numbers and see, for example, whether somebody is not shooting as well as they did last year and why is that? Are they taking too many shots outside of their comfort zone? I look at those things, and those things, sometimes, are truthful. I share those things with coaches, and coaches do what they do with those numbers."
Like Tommy referenced earlier, his job is a branch that is a part of a decision making tree. He provides support to help make informed decisions. Part of that job is also looking around the league to see where the Nuggets fit in and at current and future NBA players that might some day be Nuggets.
"Analytics can be used in just so many ways because it's such a broad term," said Balcetis. "I do a bunch of projects - statistical and analytical projects on the percentage of making the playoffs [for example]. Some of that stuff is already available online, but we want to have our own view on it. Sometimes we put together our own models to see whether those models are true or not. We evaluate other players in the league, we also look at the draft. Whenever there is a performance analysis to be done, we do it. It doesn't have to be just our guys. We constantly try to make our team better, and we use analytics for that.
"Aside from performance analysis, there is team analysis: whether we are fast enough, whether our pace is on point," said Balcetis. "We are playing pretty fast-paced basketball right now: do we want to continue doing that or do we not want to continue doing that? Whether there are teams in the past 10 years, teams that won and teams that have been successful, have they played fast paced or not really?"
The newly hired Manager of Basketball Analytics for the Denver Nuggets was in for another surprise. "Growing up, since I was like 9 years-old, [Arturas Karnisovas] was my favorite player. I always wore no. 12 because he did," said Balcetis. "We actually played similar positions, some people actually compared us a little bit. My coach would be like, "Try to model your game after him." And I was like, "I always try to do that." Then I got to meet him my freshman year in college, it was awesome, and we stayed in touch and became really close. Funny story, I got this job before I knew Arturas was joining. Tim actually offered me the job, I accepted, and two days afterwards Tim called me and said, "I got the new assistant GM, it's Arturas." Unbelieveable! It's literally working with your idol, it's pretty cool. On the basketball court, we don't actually play, we shoot around every once in a while. He kicks my ass, unfortunately. I wish I could beat him at least once. He was always the guy who I looked up to."
SportVU - motion tracking cameras
With the advent of SportVU - motion tracking cameras - the amount of information that is going to be available to Balcetis, the Nuggets, and the rest of the league it staggering. Teams will be able to know what players are good in catch-and-shoot situations, what offensive players do when certain defenses are deployed (like double teams), how long players have the ball in their hands, and so much more.
The tricky part is going to be deciding how that information can be helpful to your team. Take this quote from a recent Dean Oliver piece.
"Every action on a basketball court is influenced by nine other players, not to mention a coach. For this reason, there is no 'holy grail' in basketball equivalent to baseball's on-base percentage." -- Chris Ballard, Oct. 21, 2005
How are the Nuggets going to be able to figure out which players will fit into their system? Are you sure that the data being provided is going to remain true once that player enters your program? Well, there won't be a shortage of information.
"It's good to have it available, absolutely," said Balcetis. "One thing that's happening right now, it's [SportVU] slightly overwhelming. Stats guys and fans can sort of get their heads around it and they can get drowned out by the data. There is so much information out there. I'm a fan of information. There is no such thing as too much information. You take what you need and draw conclusions from what you have. It's better than having no information. At the same time, there is so much of it that you can't possibly use every single thing that they give us. So, everybody is still on the early side of figuring out what they want to get from that data, and we're not an exception. We have used certain things [that are being tracked] and it has been really good. I would say we're still scratching the surface with what we can do with it."
Part of the problem, and part of the fun, is the competition that is sure to come with how teams are able to use all this tracked data. There definitely isn't a club for the advanced stats guys working for other teams where they can go and talk, but Balcetis conceded that it would be fun to have one.
"There is not club, but actually it would be kind of cool to put one together. I know a few guys who work on other teams and it's a funny dynamic right now. Everybody is trying to figure out the best way to contribute to their teams, so there's a lot of secrecy going on. We can't really share a lot of stuff that we do. We all try to be friendly with each other, obviously we're kind of colleagues in a way, competitors, but at the same time colleagues. There's not a lot of sharing of information."
Balcetis is excited about his role with the Nuggets, you can hear it in the way he describes his job and you can see it in the way he interacts with people around him. He's 27 years-old and working the job he grew to love through discovering his talent for numbers while at Harvard. "In college I started doing well in certain classes and I realized that stats, for some reason, came easy to me," said Barcetis. "Once something is a little easier for you, you actually start liking it. It wasn't the other way around, it's not like I liked it and then became good at it." And good at it he is. He does visit Lithuania a couple times a year to see family and friends, but Denver is his home now.
Where do we go from here ...
Could the NBA one day be headed for teams coached by guys like Balcetis? Well, some would argue that the closest we've come is when the Boston Celtics hired Brad Stevens this past off-season. He's a well known stat-head, but a proven success at Butler University. But there is so much more to coaching than Xs-and-Os. For now, guys like Balcetis are making a difference within front offices across the league. He is there to provide the franchise with a different perspective.
In a recent Tweet Balcetis sent out:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Mistakes will be made, but not because of lack of data, but because of lack of analytic power: <a href="http://t.co/0NvaNFumHK">http://t.co/0NvaNFumHK</a></p>— Tommy Balcetis (@TommyBalcetis) <a href="https://twitter.com/TommyBalcetis/statuses/401905357607272449">November 17, 2013</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
He expanded on those thoughts here.
"We would like to make informed mistakes. We always want to have enough information, and then make a certain decision. Analytical power is essentially: pretty much every team in the NBA right now has access to a lot of information, but the way you analyze that information and the conclusions that you draw are going to be very different."
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