Data & Analytics, Leadership & Culture, Performance | May 8, 2018
Austin Ainge, the Celtics’ Director of Player Personnel, says that analytics provide his team with a useful series of checks and balances in the war for talent.

Austin Ainge, Director of Player Personnel at the Boston Celtics, spends considerable time thinking about the team’s roster. Whether he is watching video footage of draft-eligible student-athletes, taking in the games of potential recruits in Turkey, or casting an eye over NBA’s free agents, Ainge is continuously looking to strengthen one of the most promising teams in the league.

There can be hundreds of players on his radar at any one time and while the constant game-watching and reams of footage have sharpened his basketball instincts, Ainge also relies on analytics to inform his judgements. “It’s very important,” he emphasises, adding: “We look on it to provide check and balances for our opinions. We’ve invested a lot of time and money to gather as much data as we can and we’ve hired some very smart people to analyse it.”

Ainge, who is the son of Celtics GM Danny Ainge, had been speaking to the Leaders Performance Podcast about his role within the Celtics’ basketball operations when the conversation turned to the delicate balance between objectivity and subjectivity.

“The balance varies from person to person,” he comments. “But everyone on our staff uses one to support the other.” In his role, Ainge checks himself against Boston’s analytical models for predicting which young players will ultimately prove to be the best. “If our draft model says that this player is really good and I don’t think he’s very good, I will listen to that model, go back and watch the video again, and try to see what the model is saying – sometimes I’ll agree and sometimes I won’t. There’s lots of shades of grey in there but that’s the balance and the fight.”

Does this give Ainge the scope to go with his gut? “Yes, but ‘gut’ is probably not the right word. It’s more the thousands of hours of video we’ve watched and games in person or background information that perhaps the model or the statistics cannot see; and there’s things that the model can see that I can’t see. I try to use them all together.”

Ainge has noted that the data landscape in basketball has changed exponentially in the past decade alone, with considerable disruption still to come. For all that, basketball is populated with seasoned coaches and performance staff who rose through the ranks in different eras when analysis, limited as the data would have been, was restricted to the fringes. This has not proven to be a problem at Boston, where even in this ongoing Wild West phase for analytics, Danny Ainge and Head Coach Brad Stevens have been supreme advocates for the insights behind the numbers.

“The coaches come to our analytics staff with questions all the time that they would like to be solved,” Ainge explains. “For me, it’s more focused on the personnel side; they come to me often and say, hey, we need another shooter. That’s a constant thing.”

The players have also taken an ever-keener interest in their own stats when they can see that it is game or performance relevant. “We give it to them in digestible form – it’s not like we’re giving them spreadsheets of numbers – we’re telling them you would be more effective if instead of standing at 20 feet for a two-point shot, if you took one step back for 23-feet for a three-point shot, your percentages are equal from both those positions but you get a whole point more. Simple things like that are 101 for us in basketball.”

For the full interview with Austin Ainge, where he discusses the makeup of the Celtics’ scouting department, arguments with his father Danny, and working to ensure pipelines of overseas talents to the NBA, click listen below.

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