While Lebron James and Anthony Davis played a big role in the Los Angeles Lakers reaching the NBA’s conference championships last season, Phil Chang ’15 can also take some of the credit — although you won’t find him on the court.
Since 2017, Chang has been in the background, using his Princeton engineering degree to transform the team through data. As director of basketball analytics and research, a role he’s held since June 2021, he provides information to the front office and coaching staff that helps inform their decisions, from which players to put into the game to roster construction and player health initiatives.
But as a kid growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, Chang never thought about combining his love of basketball and his aptitude for math. An opportunity as a student studying operations research and financial engineering at Princeton changed all that. When Chang first heard about the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT, which gathers industry professionals and students to discuss the increasing role of analytics in the global sports industry, he thought it was a great intersection of his interests. And best of all, the University was willing to fund his trips to the conference all four years.
“Part of what makes Princeton so great is they provide the resources for students to pursue their passions,” Chang says. “It’s an invaluable experience to go to a conference pertaining to something you’re interested in and meet with luminaries and peers. This conference was my first exposure to the field, and even now as a professional, it’s a nonmiss event. I’ve attended almost every year.”
But while Chang found the field of sports analytics interesting, he didn’t consider it as a career. Today every major sports team has multiple staffers working on the analytics side, but Chang says that when he was a college student, it would’ve taken a lot of foresight to predict the field’s potential.
“So like any good Princeton grad does, I took a job in finance,” he says.
Chang worked as an analyst at BlackRock for a year before a contact he had met at the Sloan Conference offered him a job with the NBA. Working with the strategy and analytics team, he focused on researching the structure of the game of basketball, including potential rule changes, officiating, and the timing of trade deadlines.
“It was a different way to view the sport I grew up watching and playing,” Chang says. “Instead of rooting for a team, I was looking at how out-of-bounds calls affect win probability. Seeing the game from 10,000 feet was a great place to get started working in basketball and begin to understand what the business of the game is all about.”
When his boss at the NBA went to work for the Lakers in 2017, Chang followed, excited to learn even more about the sport through a new role in the basketball ecosystem. Today, Chang and his team serve as advisers to the Lakers’ staff, providing information that helps improve the team. During the season, for example, they look at the degree to which their on-court team outperforms opponents.
“Are the shots or looks we are getting or giving up due to luck, or are they due to reliable strategy initiatives?” Chang says. “Specific stats may be misleading, and our decision-making takes place with a mosaic approach, looking at a variety of different statistics, including the tracking data provided by Second Spectrum and Hawkeye, which track coordinate data for the players and teams to provide a rich, complex dataset that [provides] insights about team performance.”
The team also manages a suite of internal team metrics to advise on player health and progressions. And they examine broader trends and performance-based statistics for players across the league and other levels of competition as they consider roster construction.
“Nowadays, there are so many data-generating parts of a professional sports team, and I think it’s hard for some people to put those numbers and trends into context,” Chang says. “Our team is a custodian of all that data. Our job is to make sure our colleagues have support to do their job. We provide that solid reasoning and logic so that data is the backbone of the decisions being made.”
Thanks to his gig, Chang has been able to witness some awe-inspiring basketball moments in person, like when James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record in February. And even though the pandemic impacted the 2019-20 season, having the opportunity to see the Lakers win the NBA title that year proved to Chang that the work he’d done was starting to pay off.
“I love that my job allows me to touch each level of the team,” Chang says. “And it’s just fun to work in sports in general, to participate in an organization and an industry that brings joy to people.”