Pie chart to the stars

January, 24, 2011
1/24/11
10:05
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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LeBron James and Dwyane Wade
Greg Fiume/Getty Images Sport
Better living through chemistry: Erik Spoelstra's data inform how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade share the court.

After going on Ryen Russillo's podcast last week and saying that -- gasp -- there are some players I'd pick over the inefficient Kobe Bryant to take the final shot of crunch time, I'm seeing about an 80-front attack from people who think I'm totally loco.

(I'll take it: Some sports journalists take radical positions just to get people talking about them, and reading. How great that I get to be sober-minded and evidence-based and yet have that desirable result of seeming edgy and dangerous? In any case, there is more, much much more, in TrueHoop's future on the topic of who does and does not kill it in crunch time.)

Over the weekend I was reflecting on all this, preparing saucy rebuttals, and one thought really hit home: People are just going to have to get used to the idea that some of the important stuff we know these days doesn't come purely from the things you see with your own eyes. They come from things that are measured and counted and analyzed.

That does not mean statistics can't mislead. That does not mean statistics can tell the whole story. That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of dumb ways to use statistics. But it does mean that when you're trying to be as smart as possible, quite often you'll find yourself analyzing data.

Even if you're a basketball coach. Or player.

Over the summer, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra inherited a magnificent problem: Two of the most dominant scorers of the decade, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, both on the perimeter of the same starting lineup, with expectations through the roof. Analysts of all kinds said they were both going to suffer from the presence of the other.

How to handle that?

As a Heat assistant in years' past, Spoelstra did a lot of data grunt work (for instance charting every single Heat defensive possession with a 54-category system developed under Pat Riley). He is not afraid of data, so he dug into the numbers.

The coach found was that both Wade and James could score all kinds of ways, but leaned heavily on one type of play: The high screen and roll.

That play is a problem, because unlike transition dunks, cuts, spot-up shooting and the like, only one player can be the ball-handler on a high screen and roll at a time. If you're trying to simultaneously maximize the threat of two elite perimeter scorers, this is not your play.

I don't know how many NBA coaches would have gotten as far as breaking down the two players' offenses by play type. I suspect Spoelstra is in the minority already. But he didn't stop there. Spoelstra tells NBA.com's John Schuhmann that he took the data tale to the player, with pie charts.
I used a pie chart at the beginning of December to show how each one of them were scoring. For both of them, their comfort level was at the top of the floor, high pick-and-roll with the ball in their hands. The problem with that is we can't have both of them running a high pick-and-roll with the ball in their hands at the same time.

Pie charts?

I had to find a way to explain that we need more balance and we need to find other ways to score. Each guy needs to get two or three layups or dunks or free throws in the open court, get two or three on cuts, get maybe one on an offensive rebound, get a couple on post-ups, get a couple of catch-and-shoots.

And then at the end of quarters, we'll run high pick-and-rolls. And they've really bought into that. They're such talented, high-IQ players that they like to be challenged. And I think that was a new frontier for them, and Chris [Bosh] included, to find a way to be effective and impact the game when the ball was not in their hands, something that they didn't have to do earlier in their careers. They've all taken to it and the way their personalities are, they want to master something new.

All of their pie charts have changed. Dwyane's has probably changed the most, where now he gets a potpourri of different ways of scoring. He does it in all the ways I mentioned. Finally, at the end of games, we'll get him in high pick-and-rolls, but he's doing a lot of other things to be engaged and involved when it's not a high pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands.

Spoelstra says he has tons of data -- more than he can use. But he absorbs most of it and looks for things that can be useful. In this example, it seems that the numbers, smartly applied, have inspired meaningful changes in how James and Wade collaborate on the court. That's something that can help a team win games -- and something that would have been a little tougher to pinpoint without data.

That's hardly the only way data is influencing the Heat. Spoelstra acknowledges the limitations of plus/minus as an analytical tool, while also stressing that he's eager for his players to obsess about it all the same: "You can argue all you want about this or that," he explains, "but at the end of the day, the most important statistic is the result on the scoreboard when you're on the floor. I think that resonates with players, so we challenge our guys all the time. Make your minutes a positive. Whatever minutes you're out there, don't let the score go the other way."

Henry Abbott | email

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