When I first started working as a coach 25 years ago, one of my biggest jobs was to prepare scouting videos by taking VHS tapes of games and editing the highlights. It could take a whole day without sleeping. Now, as soon as a game is finished, you just switch on your computer and everything is there straight away, already analyzed and available to be shared with whoever you want at the click of a mouse. This is an example of how the last couple of decades have seen a revolution in data, an explosion in information, and it has made a fundamental difference to the job of a coach and how we prepare our players.
Basketball is a sport full of numbers and it’s important for players and coaches to learn how to read the data. Of course, the use of information is much more complex and subtle than simply saying: "Well, he scored 25 points so he must be a good player." It’s not even just about rebounds, assists and turnovers, but all the different combinations you can have from those numbers.
A lot of statistics are never published, but are kept on the bench by the coaches. During every game, I have four assistant coaches and each of them is responsible for tracking certain statistics.
One of the coaches is the live scout: he sits at the end of the bench connected with his computer, following the game live and tracking certain parameters we’re interested in. For example: how are we defending the pick-and-roll, how we are defending the low post, how is our transition game, how many points are we scoring or conceding off turnovers? At halftime we have that live data and sometimes we’ll put it on the TV in the locker room so we can show it to the players.
Another of my assistant coaches is responsible for defense, so he’ll keep a count of the points we allow from pick-and-rolls, the points scored against us down on the block. Another coach will keep a record of the offensive rebounds and the ratio between rebounds and points, and our scoring from turnovers and steals. And the other coach will keep a broader view of our offense, how our offense is working so we can continue to use some elements or maybe modify it during the game.
So, we always have a lot of data available for our use during games, and it’s the same not only on a gameday, but also on a daily basis, because we can now access a huge variety of information about our players and the range of factors that can affect their performance.
Our strength coach, Kostas, who is one of the best in Europe, has a daily plan, which measures all the players every day – how much they are sleeping, what they are eating, how much work they have done in the weight room, how they’re feeling, what’s going on in their heads.
Basketball has developed in physicality over the last few years and players need to protect their bodies against the pressure they have in the games. The career of a basketball player is not very extended; it’s not like some sports where you can keep playing until you’re 50. You need to have healthy legs, body and mind to be explosive and the more data we can get, the more we can help our athletes and approach them in the right way.
As coaches we are using data every day, but these days there’s so much information available that the most important thing is to use it the right way. Now if anything, there is too much data; there’s so much information out there, you could never hope to use it all.
You can’t go to one of your players and blow his head open with all this data, so I have to filter the information and decide what is important enough to enter the eyes and ears of my players. We may have a lot more white information that we could use, but it’s been calculated that players only need short bursts of information. So the coaches may watch three hours of video, but the players will only see 10 minutes of that. Players can’t be truly focused on watching film for more than 15 or 20 minutes – any longer than that, they might still be in the room and they might still see the video, but they’re not really watching it or understanding it.
And that’s something very important for coaches to remember whenever we are using data: players are human, they’re not machines. And I don’t want robots, I want people who can use their intelligence to act or react in certain ways during games.
Statistics are important and they can tell you a lot of things, but basketball is a physical sport of technique. To play well, you also have to be intelligent and be prepared to think fast. You have to make adjustments in a short amount of time, maybe just half a second, and in a small physical space, sometimes just a few centimeters. So you need to have certain human abilities and that should never be forgotten.
It’s the same with an area like player recruitment. Whenever we are considering signing a player, we will gather as much information as possible. Not just game stats like his shooting conversion rates or how many rebounds he grabs, but also things like how is his family, how he was raised, what difficulties he might have faced when he was a child, what are his habits and manners, both bad and good. Before I sign a player, I will collect as much information as possible, and these days there is more information available than ever.
But then, before anything is agreed or signed, I make a phone call to the player, and everything comes down to the personal element. I want to talk to the player and explain to him about the club, the pressures, demands and expectations he will face as a CSKA player, and give him a chance to ask me questions. Signing a player has got to be a mutual understanding, because you would never want a player to feel that he’d been forced to join you, so having that kind of personal contact is always so important.
And that’s a great example of how even though the data revolution has given us so much more information, which can be very useful in many ways, basketball is still a human sport and those human qualities will always be the most important.