The Celtics, the 76ers and a Rivalry for a New Era

6179979946_e748ec371e_bThe NBA is in a rather strange age for rivalries. Anymore, conflicts amongst teams and their star players are waged across social media, with salvos of Instagrams raining down between the charging, incessant movement of 140-character cavalries. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets vie for control of their town as J.R. Smith and Paul Pierce launch missives through the media. Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade rehash old Gatorade commercials with beef so processed it puts pink slime to shame — and makes many question the legitimacy of the product being sold.

Yet not all rivalries must resonate among the upper echelons of the elite, as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers stand poised to demonstrate in the immediate future. Nor will this rivalry necessarily be one that takes place on the floor, though both teams undoubtedly strive toward the same, ring-laden goal. Were their burgeoning conflict to find its way to the court, so much the better.

But for Boston and Philadelphia, this new arms race threatens to be a white-collar battle.

Both teams invested heavily, both financially and philosophically, in the efficacy of analytics and importance of data. The movements by the 76ers this offseason more obviously underline their faith in numbers; the top-down reshaping of the franchise was led by the hiring of Sam Hinkie as the new general manager. Hinkie, as is well-known, is one of the sturdiest branches of the Daryl Morey management tree, a malus sargentii that spreads its limbs far and wide in search of the most efficient path to the sun. Hinkie has a well-established reputation as an advocate of advanced statistics; for as long as he runs the team, Philadelphia will seek proven methods while trying to ascertain solutions from outside the proverbial box to the vexing problems of roster construction and team management.

The Celtics, on the other hand, continue to be led by Danny Ainge. Ainge is far from alone, however, in the decision-making process in Boston. His comrade in arms is assistant general manager Mike Zarren, who’s cut from the same cloth as Hinkie. And, of course, the Celtics recently hired one of the hottest names from the collegiate coaching ranks, Brad Stevens, who is a man with an analytical mind in his own right. As this NESN piece from July lays clear, the Stevens hire represents an affirmation of Boston’s commitment to the analytical movement. No longer are analytics just for a front office evaluating personnel and potential transactions; in Stevens, the Celtics have brought numbers to the lead position on their bench. And Stevens himself brings with him the lesser-known Drew Cannon, his analytics guru at Butler. Truly, even without changing faces in the front office, Boston has announced their clear, numbers-based intent.

As these two teams entrench themselves in statistics, then, it seems fair to assume that they’ll come into conflict for resources and turf in much the same way that ten men on a basketball court fight for every inch of space and every apparent advantage. To some extent, it’s happened already — Zarren was reportedly offered the position that Hinkie eventually took with the 76ers. And that will be just the start of the competition for the cerebral between Philadelphia and Boston. Now that all 30 teams will be outfitted with the SportVU camera tracking system, the data gathered by said cameras will be more and more robust. The teams that use that information to their advantage will be those who can effectively translate raw data into actionable information, be it through ideas and concepts, visualizations or some approach to the game that might seem unimaginable in this nascent stage.

There are only so many people out there, though, that possess the skillset and mentality necessary for the task at hand. Undoubtedly, as the race to secure those employees accelerates, the competition to hire the best and the brightest stands to mirror the pitched altercations of the athletes. That pursuit of progress is one to which many teams endeavor, assuredly, yet the proximity of these two teams makes the potential for rivalry all the more powerful. And if the increased inclusion of analytics translates to on-court success, their status as members of the Atlantic Division can only amplify the conflict.

Boston and Philadelphia will be the dregs of the league this year (to some extent, by choice). But their upcoming dearth of victories should not be confused for complacency and a lack of competition. Even as they both bottom out, the war to be the best is on. For now, it simply takes place behind the scenes.

Image by FreeVerse Photography via Flickr

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.