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Sixers hire Raptors executive Alex Rucker to head new analytics department

Rucker was instrumental in utilizing the SportVU tech teams know and love today.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers-Press Conference Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers hoped Sam Hinkie would stay on alongside Bryan Colangelo to head their analytics department moving forward, but the guru of The Process had other ideas. They might have found their replacement today, with the hiring of Raptors analytics maven Alex Rucker.

Word comes courtesy of Zach Lowe:

It should come as no surprise Lowe would be the one to break this news. He was the one who shined the brightest light on Rucker back in 2013, when he wrote a long feature on the league’s push for data supremacy. SportVU, a proprietary tracking tech that only half the league had adopted at the time, was the star of the show, and Rucker was there to illustrate the tangible impact.

Some choice cuts from that piece:

The system has factored in Toronto’s actual scheme and the expected point value of every possession as play evolves. The team could use that expected value system to build an “ideal” NBA defense irrespective of the Toronto scheme, but doing so today would be pointless, since part of the team’s job is to sell a sometimes skeptical coaching staff on the value of all these new numbers and computer programs.

You need that coaching perspective, Rucker says. But we are still looking for where the rules are wrong — areas where there are systemic things that are wrong with what we do on the court. But any system needs to comply with what the coaches want, and what the players can do.

...

When you ask coaches what’s better between a 28 percent 3-point shot and a 42 percent midrange shot, they’ll say the 42 percent shot, Rucker says. And that’s objectively false. It’s wrong. If LeBron James just jacked a 3 on every single possession, that’d be an exceptionally good offense. That’s a conversation we’ve had with our coaching staff, and let’s just say they don’t support that approach.

...

The analytics team argues that even sub–35 percent 3-point shooters should jack more 3s, and that coaches should probably spend more time turning below-average 3-point shooters into something close to average ones.

Player development and coaching are scarce resources, Rucker says. You only have so much practice time. At a very basic level, a guy going from 25 percent to 30 percent from 3-point range is far more meaningful than a guy improving from 35 percent to 40 percent from midrange.

One of the hurdles for Rucker and his team in Toronto was working with a set of players who don’t necessarily fit the vision of basketball strived for by his department. But there are some parallels to draw here — just as Rucker prioritized improved three-point shooting for a player like DeMar DeRozan, so too may the Sixers with a hyper-athlete like Jerami Grant, who have a stated preference to get him minutes at the three.

The bit about complying with what the coaches want and players can do is notable given the Sixers’ situation. They have a coach with a stated preference of playing fast, yet their blue-chip players (sans Ben Simmons) would mostly benefit from a slower, methodical style. Bridging the gap and establishing a coherent philosophy should be goal No. 1 for Rucker and the rest of the staff.

In other related staff news:

The Sixers also announced the following via a press release:

Additionally, the Sixers promoted Vince Rozman to Senior Director of Basketball Operations. The team also named Scott Epsley as Director of Physiotherapy and Clinical Diagnostics, Juan Jackson as Director of Team Security, Shea Dawson as Manager of Team Services and Kevin Owens as Basketball Operations Coordinator.

These moves reflect the outstanding performance of many within the 76ers organization and also addresses our desire to enhance and improve our internal processes regarding decision making, athlete performance care and team services. We are very excited about the future of this organization both on and off the basketball floor, said Colangelo.

Two holdovers from the Sam Hinkie era, Vice President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta and Vice President of Analytics Ben Falk, have parted ways with the team. That doesn’t do much to cut down on the VP quota within the organization — there have been at least four announced since May — and this seems more needlessly complicated than it needs to be.

In any case, this is truly Bryan Colangelo’s team and staff now. We’ll see what he does now that he has full rule of the roost.