‘Math Basketball’ and Numbers You Can Stick: David Joerger and Randy Wittman CoachSpeak
- Advanced stats continue to develop and, well, become more advanced. Today’s ‘wonder stat’ that compiles performance across metrics could be replaced by something much better tomorrow. Who knows where statistics via SportVU’s missile-tracking cameras will go, but they’ll likely soon provide much more useful insight than previously possible, perhaps rending some old theories moot, perhaps creating new, previously unfound theories. In another sense, there might never be a stat that can accurately measure confidence, intuition, and what drives player psychology.
- For players, at least in the present day, simpler is better. When the minds of players have been conditioned for years to react and think in certain ways during a game constantly in motion, you don’t want them trying to over-think natural actions by infiltrating their mind with advanced statistics. Much of the conversation about advanced statistics stops way before player knowledge and is more contingent on how coaching and player development chooses to make decisions predicated on what advanced stats might tell them. Who knows, maybe it will always be more ideal to keep a certain buffer between advanced statistical analysis and a player’s concept of production—there’s not an advanced stat that can tell us that yet.
- The midrange area is not a part of the basketball court that can simply disappear because advanced statistics calls it inefficient. The midrange is just as much a part of overall balance, offensive spacing, and quality looks at the basket as post-ups, spot-ups, and the corners.
According to NBA.com, the Wizards now lead the NBA in midrange shot attempts per game (28.0), but the rate at which they make them (37.3%), puts them in the bottom fourth of the league (seventh-worst). TAI’s Conor Dirks and John Converse Townsend have each recently investigated such via two posts: “Wittman’s Heart-Shaped Boxes: A Mid-Range Love Story,” and “Eat, Pray, Launch: A Wizards Mid-Range Love Story.”
Before facing the Grizzlies, I posed a question to Randy Wittman: ‘Is that something his staff thinks about when it comes to trying to get players better shots and looks at the basket?’
[After pausing to contemplate for a few seconds.]
“So you’re saying that a 15-foot open look is not good?
[Ed. Note: No, not totally … at least not that close.]
“You take open shots. You take open shots. Where they are is dictated by what the defense does. If you predicate what kind of shot you’re going to take not based on what you’re doing reading the defense, you’re not going to get good shots. I just worry about goods shots.
“You know what? Those numbers you can stick… Alright? You know, all you analytical people that take that… You take good shots, that’s the most important thing. Maybe we’re not taking good midrange shots, maybe we’re taking contested ones. I understand the numbers are there for a reason, we look at the numbers, but to sit there and… We got a good, open shot we’re taking, I don’t care where it is.”
David Joerger is in his first season as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. He took over for the well-liked and relatively successful Lionell Hollins. However, when Memphis hired ESPN’s John Hollinger as Vice President of Basketball Operations in December 2012, it represented a culture shift in that the Grizzlies front office would start to increasingly include stats into the decision-making process. Hollins fumed that Rudy Gay, a player that advanced stats have not traditionally favored, was traded. There was also a run-in between Hollins and Hollinger during a Grizzlies practice.
I asked Coach Joerger before facing the Wizards in Washington if, considering how Memphis’ front office has developed, he finds himself communicating the use of advanced stats more and more with his players.
“No, it’s not something that we talk about. You know, players don’t really care. They look at the wider scope, bigger picture stuff. So, like tonight, I don’t think it’s advanced analytics to say that Washington is really good in the first quarter. You know what I’m saying? It’s just stats… That word ‘analytics’ can mean like it’s just some ‘rocket science’ term. It’s just stats.
“But yea, some of that stuff I’ll use every night. But nothing really, really advanced. I don’t sit a player down and say, ‘You know, I’m going to play you more because the numbers are really in your favor’… You know, they don’t understand that stuff. Not saying that they don’t understand, they just don’t have a real interest in it … like we all do. It’s just easier to make it simpler than being intricate with them.”
Another reporter asked if ‘simple’ meant deflections or number of stops in a row, etc.
“Yea, just bigger picture stuff in terms of … ‘We’re last in the league in the number of times we’ve been fouled on 3-point shots’ … you know? A little nugget here or there and [the players] are like, ‘Alright.’ It just supports if you are trying to say something to them.”
KW: You hear about guys like LeBron James getting into some advanced statistics. Do you think that will become a trend, players being more involved with advanced stats and knowing what they mean?
“I think if the shoe fits, you wear it. If some guys like it, then they look at it more. [Some players are like], ‘Ahh… just tell me what I need to know.’”
KW: The analysis says that the long, midrange 2-pointer is the most inefficient shot in the NBA. But there’s got to be more to that than just a raw number. How do you assess that shot from your perspective?
“It’s just a math game. People that want to play math basketball. I don’t know how much you can stress to your team… There’s only so many things you can stress, you know? And so it has to really become part of your DNA of, ‘Well, we don’t take this shot.’
“I just think that if the shot is there, you gotta take it. It’s just basketball. How you get to that, say, ‘Let me make four, five, seven, nine passes,’ and we’re much more [efficient]… Naw, it’s, ‘Look, If we move the ball and you’re open, shoot it.’
“‘Oh, OK, I get it.’ “