At his first chance to speak Friday, Brad Stevens tried to shed a label that he’s been carrying around for a while, a label he believes isn’t as true as most believe.
Sitting before a packed ballroom at the Hynes Convention Center, the rookie Celtics coach told the crowd that he “somehow got tagged as an ‘analytics guy,’ maybe fair or unfair, or right or wrong . . . ”
It’s no secret that Stevens is fond of advanced statistics.
After all, that’s why he was asked to join other basketball types — a former NBA coach, two former NBA executives, and Celtics executive Mike Zarren — on a panel discussion titled “basketball analytics” at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the top gathering of analytic-minded sports figures in the country.
But Stevens believes that reputation has been blown out of proportion.
“I value the numbers,” he told the Globe, “but I do think that culture is the most important thing.”
And of analytics? Well, consider “Moneyball,” the best-selling book about the Oakland A’s using analytics to build a competitive team despite being constrained by one of the smaller budgets in Major League Baseball.
Stevens loves the book and has read it multiple times. His Goliath-slaying teams at mid-major Butler University even drew comparisons with those A’s.
But when asked about “Moneyball,” Stevens paused.
“This might be a good window into me,” he said.
Stevens then explained that while the numbers aspect fascinated him, his favorite part of the book focused on a player (Lenny Dykstra) whose biggest strength (toughness) couldn’t be tallied on the stat sheet.
“That may speak to some of the things you can measure,” Stevens said, “but there’s not much you can measure there other than, this guy has got some mental fortitude to get a hit when it matters.”
Stevens’s answer runs counter to the folklore that he’s a math whiz who used analytics to become the winningest coach in NCAA history through his first six seasons.
It was a timely fairy tale as the statistics revolution has swept through the game and observers have tried to rationalize how a 30-something coach could lead a small Indiana private school to NCAA title games in 2010 and 2011.
Stevens has helped fuel this myth by once saying that he’d create a statistics division at Butler if money were no object, and by making the first full-time, statistical-based hire in the college ranks when he brought aboard Drew Cannon, a numbers guru who had been writing advanced analytics articles.
Of course, the numbers are important to Stevens, who has been open about how he pored through kenpom.com’s advanced statistics and Synergy Sports Technology’s in-depth scouting information.
Stevens also considered the detailed 10-page e-mail breakdowns that Cannon sent after each Butler game to be vital. (Stevens hired Cannon to work in a similar role with the Celtics, and Cannon still sends Stevens lengthy reports.)
But, colleagues say, numbers are just one tool Stevens uses to find a potential edge.
“Brad isn’t so much a ‘numbers guy’ as an ‘I want every piece of right information’ guy,” Cannon said.
“If you can explain it with video, with numbers, with something you heard the kid say at lunch — whatever is going to get him the best information.”
Numbers can overrule subjective opinion, but today, there is an ocean of data available, especially in the NBA, and much of it is misleading.
“There’s no substitute for watching film over and over and over again,” said former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy, who spoke at the discussion with Stevens.
At Butler, Stevens worked for six years under Todd Lickliter, who believed in covering every detail so that he could be as prepared as possible. Lickliter considered numbers useful, but not the Holy Grail.
“I don’t think the numbers alone would be very good to analyze,” he said, “and it wouldn’t be fair to Brad to say that he’s only a ‘numbers’ guy.”
A former Butler assistant once called Stevens a math savant like “Rain Man,” and others say he has immediate recall of phone numbers and addresses.
The edge that gives him in basketball, his colleagues say, is that he has a talent for quickly sifting through that ocean of data to find what he’s looking for — a talent he’s had dating to high school and through college, his teachers say.
Gary Lemon, an economics professor at DePauw University, remembered that his former pupil excelled at data analysis and in finding correlations between variables that helped explain, for example, why the housing market fluctuated.
“Brad was always really good at that,” Lemon said.
Josh Burch, a close friend and fellow DePauw economics student, said that he and Stevens worked on a senior year project that involved studying the stock market.
Stevens excelled at that, too.
“He’s able to wrap his head around numbers and understand theory and principles of why things move and behave the way they do,” Burch said.
Said Matt Broughton, who shared classes with Stevens at DePauw: “He always computes in his head pretty quickly. He’s a pretty quick, clear thinker.”
Stevens made the Dean’s List at DePauw and was a management fellow in its honors economics program.
He earned an internship at Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical giant based in Indianapolis that hired him upon graduating.
There, Stevens’s analytical mind helped him shine.
“When it came to statistics and evaluation, he was my go-to guy,” said Stevens’s manager, Chris Koumpouras, a senior sales executive representative at Lilly.
The Celtics embrace analytics, which is part of the reason they hired Stevens, but it’s not the only part.
“Who Brad is as a person is his greatest asset — just his own personal integrity, his ability to develop relationships with people, and who he is far outweigh the tools that he uses as a coach,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
“If he didn’t have any analytics [skills], he’d still be a fantastic coach, is what I’m saying.”
But he doesn’t believe his analytics skills will give him an advantage over other coaches who don’t embrace numbers as much.
“We’re talking about 29 other teams that have been in the NBA for years and years and years and they know more simply from experience than I’m going to be able to learn from film or a stat sheet in six months,” he said.
“I’ve got to catch up in a lot of ways.”
His talent with numbers should help — a talent that Mary Dixon, a DePauw economics professor, put in terms perfectly suited for the part of the country where her former student now works:
“Brad,” she said, “is wicked smart.”