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Will Coaches Listen to Stat Heads?

I attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference today as part of the TrueHoop Network. A bunch of us wrote on various panels. Here’s my contribution. Check out TrueHoop for pieces of the rest. It was a fascinating day. 

In an earlier panel today at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Mavs owner Mark Cuban said there would be “nothing worse” than having a coach who ignores the front office’s advanced statistical analysis about which line-up combinations work or which type of shot is most efficient for a particular player.

With Cuban’s remarks in mind, I was excited to hear a group of sports luminaries discuss the impact of advanced stats (like, say, adjusted plus/minus) on coaching strategy in 2010 and what that impact might look in like in 2020. The panelists: Avery Johnson, Brent Barry, Buck Showalter, Nate Silver (of Baseball Prospectus fame) and Kevin Kelley, the head coach of the Pulaski Academy High School football team in Little Rock, Ark. Why is a high school football coach on this panel? Because for the last few seasons, Kelley’s teams have (mostly) stopped punting. His team is 77-17 since 2003, and they won an Arkansas state title in 2008.

ESPN’s Ric Bucher moderated.

Listening to Avery Johnson talk about his coaching stint with Dallas from 2005 to 2008 is like listening to the brief history of advanced statistics in basketball–their power, the influence of stats-savvy owners such as Mark Cuban and the slight discomfort of veteran NBA guys with analytics.

Before Johnson was hired in Dallas, he says, the basic box score “was my Bible.” He never thought beyond the basic stats–points in the paint, field-goal percentage, free throw differential. But then Mark Cuban and stats guru (and ex-Mav consultant) Wayne Winston began peppering Johnson about advanced plus/minus and what it revealed about various line-up combinations. And Johnson listened, especially in the first round of the 2005 playoffs, when the stats showed Johnson the Rockets were killing Dallas by inserting Jon Barry at the four and going small. (Says Jon’s brother, Brent: “That’s the only time Jon ever hurt any team”). Johnson responded by pulling Erick Dampier and shifting Dirk Nowitzki to center whenever Barry entered the game.

Dallas won four of the next five and advanced past Houston.

But in the Mavs’ infamous first-round loss to Golden State two seasons later? “I got burned when following the advanced stats,” Johnson says. Winston’s numbers showed that during the regular season, the Warriors had smoked the usual Dallas starting line-up, which featured Dampier at center. In a decision he now regrets, Johnson adjusted his starting line-up for Game 1 by benching Dampier and starting Nowitzki at center. The Mavs lost. Johnson, though, stands by the decison. “It was the right move,” he insists. Still, he reversed course for Game 2 and went back to the normal starting line-up. Dallas won, and Johnson believes the Mavs played better because they were–psychologically–more comfortable with Damp at center. “Everybody had freaked out” at the Game 1 line-up change, Johnson says.

And that represents the closest thing to a consensus that emerged from this panel: The best decisions will be made when coaches consider advanced stats not alone, but alongside everything else—what their eyes tell them, what the film shows and the psychology of each individual player.

Brent Barry suggests that few NBA front offices and coaching staffs are ready to give advanced statistics the weight they deserve in that decision-making process. Barry finished his career with the Rockets, and he says his time playing on Daryl Morey’s team showed the benefit Houston’s armada of stat geeks brought to the team. “I saw these minions every day at the office slurping their lunch and walking back in a line to go to the front office, and you never knew what these guys were doing,” Barry says, drawing big laughs as he pantomimed slurping soup from a bowl. “But every game we had a scouting report that was Bible thick, and if there was anything you wanted to know about your opponent, it was right there.”

Barry says the old guard is holding back the statistical revolution in the NBA. He says only a few teams–he names Oklahoma City, Houston and Dallas–have a top-down commitment to using statistics. “We need more crazy guys Mark Cuban or we are not going to have the type of buy-in on the analytical side of things,” Barry says. He suggests that the older guard will have to retire before that will happen league-wide. Even if Erik Spoelstra, Miami’s young coach, wanted to leap head-on into adjusted plus/minus, Barry says, “The strings attached to Erik Spoelstra still go to Pat Riley.”

When the stat heads take over, will coaches always make the decisions the statistics tell them to make? Kelley, the high school football coach, suggests that coaches should (for the most part) trust the numbers. “People make bad decisions under pressure,” he says. “As much as possible, you want to take the human element out of it.”

Nate Silver suggests that numbers are crucial, but that in-game context matters. If the stats say a football team should go for it on 4th down and five 62 percent of the time, the crucial thing will be figuring out if a particular 4th down falls under that 62 percent. That might have to do with the personnel available, the health of the team, the weather and other variables, Silver says. “But if every time 4th and 5 comes up, you’re looking for excuses not to go for it, you’re probably not making the best decisions,” he says. (Silver in general believes coaches should experiment more with different line-ups. “You have some regular-season games against the Clippers,” he says, becoming at least the fourth person to insult the poor Clips today).

Back to hoops: It’s clear Johnson wants to learn from the Wayne Winstons of the world, but he believes such information should form just part of the decision-making equation. In Dallas, for instance, Cuban hired a full-time sports psychologist to talk to the players and attend every practice. Johnson thought it intrusive at first but grew to like the arrangement, because the psychologist–like Winston–gave him more information. “It gives me an edge beyond knowing what happens when Jason Terry gets the ball on the right side of the floor,” Johnson says. “What is he thinking in a pressure situation? How is his family situation? Is he tough enough mentally to fight through fatigue?”

The quest is for more information, and the best coaches, everyone seems to agree, will be open to all types of information.

Some other hoops tidbits:

• Johnson discusses the dilemma of whether a team should foul when up by 3 with five seconds left. (Is this still a dilemma?). Judging by a show of hands, 95 percent of the crowd thinks the team should foul. Johnson agrees, but says that during his time as a player in San Antonio, Dennis Rodman and Mario Elie flat refused to foul in that situation. He does not explain why.

• Of his championship-clinching jumper against the Knicks in 1999, Johnson says: “I was the last person we wanted taking that shot.” The play was built around an entry pass to Tim Duncan with the hope that if the Knicks doubled, they would drop off of either Sean Elliott or Mario Elie. They doubled off of Johnson instead. But Gregg Popovich, in a bit of proto-analytics work, had anticipated this and put Johnson about 15-feet away along the left baseline–not a customary spot for a point guard. “That was probably the only shot I could make,” Johnson laughs. Pop also stationed Elie in the right corner, because the numbers showed Elie shot well from there.

  • DRJ1

    Sounds like Avery did a lot of the talking. Did you get a sense of why he was such a lousy coach?

  • Daniel


    Avery Johnson’s W-L% of .735 is the highest of any coach in NBA history. He was not a lousy coach.

  • DRJ1

    @Daniel– Didn’t know that… didn’t look up anything about him, actually.

    I just remember how he blew it for the Mavs in the playoffs, three times. And some specific instances of very bad decisions… one of which was making the team travel in the middle of the night, completely disrupting their sleep, after which they had a horrible playoff game. Plus… there’s something about the way Avery talks that’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

    Sounds like you’re right, assuming that stat is right… probably wasn’t a lousy coach. Except, maybe, when it came to playoffs……

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  • Joel W

    @DRJ1 The thing is though, Avery basically won an NBA finals. He got completely hosed by the refs in ’06 and we all know it.

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  • Yes that game where the Refs screwed the Mavs and let Wade go off was basically the beginning of the end. You could tell it psychologically killed the team (including Dirk who I still believe lacks that killer top dog/alpha instinct like Jordan, Bird, Kobe types). The ’07 playoffs were horrific. But GS was legit the biggest match-up problem the Mavs could have had. Sometimes it matters not just that you make the playoffs but who you play in the ‘tournament’. I am dreading the thought of the Celtics having to go through ATL at all.

  • Temo


    The Arkansas coach, Buck Showalter, and Avery Johnson did the bulk of the talking, but as this is a basketball site, that stuff was left out (I’m guessing).

    Brent Barry mostly just provided a few quips here and there and Nate Silver only really spoke when spoken to, or when responding to Showalter (as he’s primarily a baseball guy as well).

  • @Temo/DrJ: You’re both right. I focused on the hoops talk. Showalter said some interesting (and contradictory) stuff, Nate Silver said very little and Bones made jokes (though I liked the stuff he said about Morey’s scouting reports and his “minions.”

    Temo: Did you go to the conference as part of an organization or just on your own? Did you enjoy?

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  • not much to protest about Avery Johnson…

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