TrueHoop: Stat Geekery

Penn Station: Thunder duo lack synergy

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
11:54
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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In a new feature, Penn Station, ESPN NBA analyst Tom Penn uses some advanced stats to show that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook are fantastic, but lack a certain synergy typical of championship duos.
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What the NBA can learn from other sports

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
10:50
AM ET
By Michael Regan
Special to ESPN.com
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videoMichael Regan is the head of sports science at Catapult, an Australian athletic tech company.

Athletes can have all the desire, all the technical ability, all the intangibles, all the game metrics, but if they are physically incapable of performing to their potential, how good can they actually be?

This is where basketball, among other mainstream sports, can learn from others. This is where the war between old-school and new-school is being waged.

Australian Rules to live by

Australian Rules football is a free-flowing game with no offside and incredible demands on the players. Athletes regularly cover 10 miles in a two-hour game and are required to participate in full-contact tackling and bumping, jump repeatedly, sprint very often and do it all once a week.

The current leaders for distance per game in the NBA (Chandler Parsons, Jimmy Butler and Nicolas Batum) move at an average of 127 yards per minute of game time. When you factor in all the stoppages -- timeouts, free throws, etc. -- it’s closer to 80 yards per minute. An elite NFL safety playing both defense and special teams works at about 50 yards/min, including stoppages.

An elite Australian Rules athlete is required to work at 140-plus yards/min, including stoppages.

Yet, despite the high toll a game takes on the body, Australian Rules football was for a long while stuck in an “old school” way of training. Coaches knew that players needed to run long distances, so preparatory sessions sometimes involved running half-marathons. Benches were used only in emergencies.

For the better part of 40 years, these beliefs went unchallenged and teams progressively pushed their athletes harder. But the advent of athlete-tracking technology changed all that.

Data clearly showed that instead of a sport in which athletes run for a prolonged periods at submaximal intensity, it was actually a series of moderate, high- and very-high-intensity runs. The days of half-marathon training were over, and the days of high-intensity training, recovery strategies, new interchange/rotation strategies and “shock-horror” resting players had begun.

Introducing new substitution strategies and the increasing acceptance of player resting have paid major dividends in the sport over the past five to 10 years, so it was a welcomed sight for Australians to see those practices implemented by the San Antonio Spurs.

The more revolutionary idea still to be embraced in the NBA, though, is shifting the way elite players are substituted. Instead of the best athletes playing a 25-minute continuous period, then getting the last five minutes before the end of the quarter to rest, Aussie Rules teams started to look at what would give an athlete the best chance to repeatedly sprint. Which means resting the player often, for short periods of time. By playing in shorter blocks, their physical capability could be increased at the end of the game by as much as 20 percent when compared to longer rotation strategies.

While this method is hard for some athletes to embrace, teams had proof that their performance was better this way, pointing to their increased distances, higher percentage of work covered at high speed and their increased output on the traditional stat sheets.

As more teams caught on, a wave spread through the league, to the point where the governing body had to slow the game down to prevent collision injuries and level the playing field.

Too much practice makes imperfect

What Australian Rules football doesn’t have is the same schedule demand.

European soccer, though, is setup pretty similarly to the NBA, with its athletes required to play multiple games per week with little to no recovery in between.

In an average week you can expect a European soccer player and an NBA player to cover similar distances. Training time is also limited in both, as full practices are eventually phased out and replaced by shootarounds (NBA) and pregame warm-ups (soccer) for technical/tactical preparation.

But teams have begun to quantify the demands of these sessions, which have historically been viewed as very low-intensity work. In both sports, some have been shocked by the pregame workload on some of their athletes, with some teams and players participating in workouts that amount to playing a quarter of a game.

Tracking data has shown that time on legs has a tremendous load effect on the athlete. Taking lazy jumpers for an hour and walking through plays might not sound all that arduous, but it actually creates a larger load than anticipated. The athlete is better off doing shorter, more intense sessions, and then being given more time to work through their recovery, nutrition and rest protocols in preparation for a game.

But the leagues approach this problem differently. English Premier League (EPL) teams have an extensive series of monitoring programs and protocols in place to understand the physical, emotional and psychological profile of the athlete and use the full picture on athlete well-being to inform decisions on practice and game minutes. If a practice lasts for 60 minutes, elite players with heavy game loads might be required for only the core team drills and be on modified training for the other parts of practice.

The future of basketball

So where does that leave basketball? The answer to that is that it is evolving -- and quickly.

Should teams be shortening rotation length? Teaching players to use recovery time in game better? Limit practice minutes? Rest players? Accurately monitor true physical performance in games?

Whatever the answer is, teams need to realize there isn’t some magic solution. Every human is different -- from their personality to their injury history to genetics to tactical/technical ability.

The truth lies in the balance of objective numbers, subjective coaching and the knowledge of the person.

Defensive value becoming harder to ignore

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
9:35
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Andre IguodalaRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesAndre Iguodala is used to being overlooked, but new metrics will make it tough to do so any longer.
What will happen when defense finally matters to basketball fans as much as offense does?

If we’re ever getting there, real plus-minus (RPM) and its defensive component (DRPM) make for a step in that direction. ESPN’s latest tool seeks to isolate a team’s performance when a player is in the game, placing equal value on offense and defense. This approach can lead to results that challenge what is “known” about a league that most view with an offensive gaze.

Andrew Bogut was once asked about SportVU’s player tracking technology, specifically how the defensive metrics showed Bogut to be a great rim protector. "I don't need to check that to know that," he joked. We might want to celebrate great defensive players with numbers that reflect their skill, but it’s hard to tell a great defensive player anything about his defense. Top defenders boast perceptive court awareness -- the ones I’ve talked to largely assume they have it all figured out anyway. You have a new stat? Cool. I see where everyone’s going on the floor like a casino camera.

Defensive specialists like Bogut have been long resigned to how much of their work gets ignored. It’s not about the credit. It’s about doing the job, helping the team and making a handsome living off the teams that value stopping the opposition. Credit and validation do not come with this gig. To quote “Mad Men,” “That’s what the money is for.”

So you’ll excuse wry, crusty Andre Iguodala if he views his impressive RPM with some suspicion. Asked about his top ranking among wing defenders, Iguodala replied, “They say numbers never lie. I’m the opposite of that; I think numbers always lie.”

Iguodala has, on occasion, mentioned the lack of credit he’s gotten for a career so focused on the defensive end. His contract in Philadelphia was the source of derision, despite his immense impact on defense.

Fans and even the stats themselves tend to obsess over who has the rock. "The stat sheet is geared more toward the ball and where the ball's at,” Iguodala says. “I'm more how the ball's being defended or how the ball's being impacted on the defensive end." Apparently we sports fans aren’t so different from the dogs we own: Show us a bouncing ball and we’ll be transfixed into noticing little else.

Iguodala, like Bogut, has expressed resignation when speaking of what gets ignored. He’s been in this game a long time, and ignoring being ignored has become almost a badge of honor.

He tells people not to call him “Iggy,” even if it’s an easy nickname that plays well in 140 characters. On that particular medium, Iguodala is cryptically vague. He intentionally cuts out the context when tweeting, becoming inscrutable to a vast majority of his followers. Sometimes it’s a Vine or a funny story that inspires Iguodala to broadcast unexplained phrases. “A word pops up in my head, and then I tweet it. No one has a clue what I’m talking about,” he says while laughing. “Some people figure it out though. Some people are pretty good.”

[+] EnlargeIguodala/Green
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesReal plus-minus is a big fan of impact defenders like the Dubs' Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
"I'm not really an attention whore. I don't always like doing media," Iguodala says while smirking to attendant media. "When you're younger, you're in the league first five or six years, you want the attention. You want to be known as this or that."

Draymond Green, Golden State’s young defensive ace, was more receptive to the new stat. He is second in defense among wings in RPM, behind Iguodala. Golden State’s video guys showed the stat to Draymond. Then he checked Twitter and saw a lot of fans praising him on his high ranking.

“I’m definitely happy to see it,” Green says. “A lot of times, [defense is] overlooked.”

New defensive stats are coming at just the right time for guys like Green. Building a defensive reputation isn’t easy. It’s nice to have stats on your side at the beginning of a career. It’s ammo in the arsenal of the agent, fan or TV pundit who wishes to defend your honor.

Iguodala lacked that kind of tangible defense early in his career. In 2012, Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “For 8 years, Philadelphia fans have been trying to form a relationship with 76ers forward Andre Iguodala. For the most part, it’s been like trying to grab a fistful of water.”

While Iguodala is suspicious of the numbers, he sees the value in what they might accomplish. “As a player, the whole analytics thing, you take the analytical side and the player's side, and there's that fence. And there's kind of a rift between the two. And I think for the game to evolve to become what everybody wants it to become, there has to be some kind of resolve between the two."

If the stats credit winning basketball, they just might help fans understand an NBA player’s job. If the stats credit winning basketball, they might just help people appreciate what they’re seeing.

The Truth about it

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
2:38
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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How have the Brooklyn Nets turned a Brook Lopez injury into the East's best record since January 1? Tom Haberstroh points to the power of Paul Pierce.

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Basketball Analytics Panel at Sloan

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
6:54
PM ET
By Staff
ESPN.com

Thinking outside the box score

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
9:34
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
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Los Angeles Lakers Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe NBA's next frontier can't be found on a stats sheet. Understanding the human body is the future.
When the first Sloan Conference took place eight years ago, it was held in unused classrooms at MIT. But after partnering with big businesses -- and yes, ESPN -- Sloan gained purchase in the broader hoops consciousness for its critiques of traditional box-score statistics. Even outside of the oceanic convention center that now houses the convention, those box-score battles now seem laughably antiquated. Rebel stats like adjusted plus/minus are now fully integrated tools of the establishment. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver, an early supporter of the conference and the advanced-stats movement, has not-so-subtly hinted that some of the numbers once relegated to the fringe will become part of the official box score of every game.

Silver comes into power at a time when many teams around the league are still working to realign their strategy with the tighter spending strictures of the 2012 collective bargaining agreement. The new set of rules is pushing teams to be smarter and more innovative than ever. What qualifies as “advanced” is always changing, and if every team is in an arms race to acquire the latest information and analytic techniques, Sloan is the premier gun show.

Part trade show, part job fair, all schmooze-fest, Sloan’s major draw is not hearing what someone like Daryl Morey has to say; it’s getting to follow up with him in the hallway later on. Sometimes the big questions aren’t answered in a paper available to the public, but in private conversations over a few beers. For all the cold-hard figures and formulas that get bandied about, at its heart, Sloan is a highly personal affair.

Fittingly, the most vital topic of inquiry among NBA executives in attendance will be data that reveal the mysteries of human biology. In the last couple years, it has become clear that the next frontier of sports analytics is the human body. For two reasons: Healthy players play better and unhealthy players cannot play at all.

Just look at the amount of money sitting in street clothes on the average NBA bench. For teams desperate to maximize the value of players, nothing could be more pressing than figuring out how to keep them on the court.

Forward-thinking teams like the Spurs are already investing, sometimes to the point of controversy, of fatigue management, and ESPN’s Henry Abbott has presented strong evidence that tired players won’t win titles. More and more teams are employing heart rate monitors in practices, and SportVu cameras in every NBA arena can log player movement in an effort to find out how much court time a player can handle and remain at close to his peak level.

Maybe the answer to player health is something as simple as sleeping more. In a conversation with ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Harvard professor Charles Czeisler will make that case.

Along with novel answers to old questions, NBA teams will also be looking for fresh talent -- programmers, coders and smart, young people who love sports so much they will forgo more lucrative applications of their talents in tech and finance to help teams find ways to maybe win a couple more games per season. At last year’s conference, dozens of eager applicants swarmed Celtics assistant GM Mark Zarren after he mentioned his team was looking for a programmer during a panel discussion.

The hunger of smart people with new ideas is palpable, and their desire in the presence of so many decision-makers lends the weekend an unmistakable intensity. When a presentation or paper hits the mark, as Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss’s "Dwight Effect" did last year, it can send a ripple of energy throughout the building.

The Sloan Conference is now an established brand. Though it has helped raise the profile of the NBA’s analytics movement, some have cast it as the embodiment of how mystery and beauty are being drained from the basketball conversation. Sloan has a rap for being the domain of number crunchers pushing their own orthodoxy. But in the end, the people and teams who benefit most from Sloan are the ones who maintain an open mind and are willing to question everything, the ones who hold no orthodoxy above the pursuit of novel ideas.

Rather than narrowing the game to something digestible in a spreadsheet, Sloan has dramatically expanded the scope of basketball knowledge. Perhaps the best thing about the conference is that for every mystery it solves, it presents five more. This weekend, the brightest, most serious thinkers in basketball will find out what they don’t know.

Memo to stat geeks

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
2:17
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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David Thorpe has a few things he would like the big brains at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to work on.

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Where's the love?

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
11:24
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Don't let the Timberwolves' record fool you. David Thorpe says Kevin Love is a top-shelf big man.
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Not the Heat we know

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
8:28
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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They have won titles with super-athletic, league-leading team defense starring LeBron James as defensive player of the year candidate. That's not how it's going down this year.
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James Harden is the new Carmelo Anthony

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
2:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
James Harden is an incredibly talented scorer, but David Thorpe says that comes with a lot of ball-stopping, and some questionable decisions.
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Not the same Tyson Chandler

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
11:53
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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The Knicks have one of the league's best defenders back on the court, but the effect is nothing like it once was. David Thorpe examines.

 


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Shoot the 30-footer

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
9:57
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Some NBA players can make it from out there, when left open. Does David Thorpe think it would be good strategy to let 'em fly?

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The BIG Number: KD's MVP month

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
11:47
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Tom Haberstroh goes inside the numbers to show us why January may be critical to Kevin Durant's first possible MVP award.

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Too many games hurt NBA's regular season

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
11:02
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Kobe BryantBarry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesThe NBA is better than ever! ... Right? The injuries, losses and forced rest are starting to pile up.
The NBA is winning. It's already a "global money machine," according to Forbes, and new TV deals will only make that sweeter.

Not to mention, it's fun! The NBA's young players include an embarrassment of promise -- not just "plenty years left" stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but also James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and so many others. This year and every year for the foreseeable future, the playoffs will feature one amazing showdown after another. Hats off to all involved.

So, it's time to rush out and buy a ticket to a game, right?

Well ...

"Listen, I do feel badly for fans," said Jeff Van Gundy, on the phone to The Herd from San Antonio on Wednesday. "I feel awful that we make them watch back-to-back games that often turn out to be, you know, low-energy affairs. I think the league has to eliminate back-to-back games, or at least reduce the number."

So sometimes you'll see a team that's mailing it in.

But what about if you go and see a primo team, a team thick with stars, like the Heat? You'd be safe then, right?

That's a little tricky, too. "Their performance over the last couple of weeks has been totally substandard, when it comes to championship focus and effort," Van Gundy said of the defending champions. He pointed out that this is hardly the first time the Heat have mailed it in. "Now last year they also were in a point of struggle, until they ripped off that 27-game winning streak."

In other words, there are times the Heat are the best team in the land, but it's in fits and starts, not every game. They save their best efforts for certain moments, and the regular season is iffy.

That's also true of many good teams, including last year's other finalists, the Spurs. They frequently sit their best players for part or all of regular-season games, in the name of rest -- something that's emerging as a trend among cutting-edge teams.

And, evidently, with good reason! Yet again this season, stars who play long minutes, going hard all regular season, seem to be getting hurt at a bummer of a rate. Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are all out for extended periods. Dwyane Wade is in and out of the lineup. Eric Bledsoe, Kemba Walker, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday are needle-moving players who are on the shelf.

It has been a decade since a team won a title with its top players playing heavy minutes, and that's a reality that contending teams wrestle with all regular season. As much as Erik Spoelstra may want to delight fans by playing Wade every night, doing so evidently hurts his team's chances in the postseason. What would you do if you were in his shoes?

And of course, we haven't even yet mentioned the biggest problem with the regular season: A lot of the teams don't even want to be there. Every season many teams have front offices who hope the entire 82 games go by in a flash, having created intentionally putrid rosters designed to lose now, with an eye on draft picks. This season, for a lot of teams, culminates not in title hopes, but in lottery hopes. The tankapalooza is on.

Injuries. Fatigue. Forced rest. Intentional losses. Buy a ticket to a regular-season NBA game, and there's an excellent chance one or more of these factors will keep you from seeing the best basketball in the world.

There's a unifying theme, there, though. A root cause: Too many games.

The promise of buying a ticket to an NBA game is seeing the best athletes in the world at peak performance. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose ... the best players in the world are the league's most precious resource. And they are as well prepared and competitive as humans get. But the facts on the ground are that their best efforts are finite, and 82 games appears to be too many times over a year to ask them to turn it all the way on. Whether limited by injury, fatigue, schedule or strange draft rules that reward losing, the simple fact is that 1,230 regular-season games is, evidently, and increasingly obviously, more than we can reasonably expect the NBA's 400 or so athletes to produce their best. All kinds of players and teams are limited in delivering their best level night in and night out.

One of the worst strategies you can have, in this ultra-marathon, is to go all-out every minute. That, as we'll be exploring more as the season unfolds, is exactly what fans rightly want on any given night, but it's not a good long-term plan in a game where injury avoidance and rest are paramount to title chances.

So, yes, the NBA is in fantastic shape, because of its global fans who delight in the hard work and brilliance of its players, coaches and executives -- and despite the excessive and compromised regular season.

The power of the 3

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
2:37
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan and Henry Abbott debate the power of the 3. This conversation is not over ...

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