Phil on new basketball common sense

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
11:30
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Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Phil Jackson
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
Phil Jackson's coach, Red Holzman, preached lessons that sync with today's stat geekery.


Praise be, in this confusing new world of basketball evidence, to those few special hoops topics with clarity. Talk to the most honest coaches, the smartest players, and look at what teams tend to do when they're winning, and once in a while some profound truths emerge. I call this stuff the new basketball common sense.

Three examples I gave, writing about it the other day: managing minutes, shooting 3s and getting the ball to the open shooter. On balance, those things all work.

Phil Jackson's reaction:



Great to hear from you, coach. And first off: When Red Holzman and SportVU agree, that's a beautiful thing. That's as good a definition as any of what interests me. What an endorsement that you, the winningest coach, have long been inspired by principles I'm calling timeless.

As for it not being new ... naturally. We agree there, too. The example I offered, remember, was eating vegetables. Your grandma always knew it was good for you and your doctor always suspected the same.

But there were all kinds of health theories back then. My grandma didn't just believe in vegetables. She also believed heartily in the long-term health benefits of butter. What's new is that medical science has dug in and the vegetable thing has ascended from one of many theories to a bright shining fact. Some age-old lessons look smarter than ever, glowing in a hail of affirmations.

And butter for health? Well, time has been a little rougher on that one.

This new basketball common sense business is about identifying those last theories standing, those happy conclusions that are here for the long haul. I assume neither the coaches nor the stat geeks are correct on every point. They should and do test each other. But here and there the conclusions overlap and agree in interesting ways.

Hit the open man
This open man thing is a wonder. Red knew to hit the open man. You knew to hit the open man. The video says to hit the open man. The stats scream to hit the open man. For all these reasons, I call hitting the open man common sense.

And yet the interesting part is how many plays don't, even when old and new signs alike point that way. Some, in fact, including the Thunder with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and even your own Lakers in crunch time, run plays that are designed to get a covered guy a shot.

Call it analytics if you want, or just watch the video, see who's open and count the makes and misses, wins and losses. Count enough plays and the argument for the open man is killer.

Of course you know this; you tell us in books you battled Kobe on this for years.

Indeed, the selflessness of great teamwork is the theme of your excellent "Eleven Rings," in ways I found truly inspiring -- right down to reading and writing about the phenomenal Sebastian Junger "War" book you recommend. Junger calls combat "a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men." Then he writes: "The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what's best for him, but on what's best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat."

The most obvious hoops equivalent, of course, is giving up the rock. You hurt your box score stats, highlights and endorsements. You help your team. You've been making this case all career long. I'm here with some good news: the deeper the stat geekery, the more it has your back.

The Jazz make an extra point
Then there's this point about the Jazz. For starters: This team is a total outlier, an oddity, a cherry-picked example. You can't find three more like it; nearly all the best offenses are 3-focused these days. Of course a team with John Stockton and Karl Malone, probably the best pick-and-roll combination ever, was efficient. They both had conservative shot selection. The whole squad carefully worked Sloan's system to find easy looks. And boy did they ever know how to draw fouls -- those teams got a mind-blowing percentage of their points from the free throw line. Those are enough ingredients to make a great offense whether you shoot a lot of 3s or not.

This is like my grandma. She ate tons of healthy stuff and walked her dogs hours a day, seven days a week. That she lived to a ripe old age -- it probably wasn't the butter, you know? It was the other stuff.

Despite all that, as I'll explain, even your handpicked example still demonstrates my point that an uptick in 3s can help almost any offense.

In the first five years Jerry Sloan coached Stockton and Malone, the Jazz offense typically ended the season as the league's eighth-best. They were good.

Then things went crazy.

The Jazz went on a four-year run starting in 1994-95 when they averaged almost 114 points per 100 possessions, a big improvement. In this period they never had an offense worse than fourth. In the final year of that run, before age caught up to them, they didn't have their best offense ever, but they did have the very best offense in the league. This production carried Stockton and Malone to their only two Finals appearances, in 1997 and 1998.

What made the Jazz offense so special in those four years? The most obvious innovation, to my eyes, was the arrival of marvelous shooter Jeff Hornacek. He came from the Sixers at the end of the 1993-1994 season, and by the time they worked him into the offense the next fall, the Jazz started scoring like water.

Now opponents would pay for crowding Stockton and Malone.

And, importantly: Now the Jazz, at long last, whether in deference to Hornacek or the league's three-year dalliance with a shorter 3-point line, dramatically increased the number of 3s they shot. In Sloan's first five years, when the offense was merely good, his Jazz attempted an average of 504 a season. In the four seasons the offense peaked, they nearly doubled that number, averaging 847 a season. They went from an average of 505 points a season from 3s, to 946.

Today, teams shoot twice as much as that, and even then the Jazz lagged the league.

But nevertheless the truth is their offense took off when they did exactly what I'm prescribing: embrace the 3.

Which is common, and probably could have happened a lot more. You say it's about personnel, and of course you're right. But the Jazz had the shooters. In 1997-98 Hornacek made 44 percent of his 3s. Stockton was at 43 percent, with Howard Eisley at 41. Wonderful numbers! This is a team that led the league with 113 points per 100 possessions, but on plays when they attempted a 3 their rate soared up around 130. I don't know why they were so conservative with them, but I know those were almost certainly the team's best plays, and it's a cinch to suggest the Jazz could have scored more by doing more of that. Assume diminishing returns from tougher looks and you can still pencil in a few more points per game, not to mention more space in the paint for Malone to operate.

In the Finals that year, the Jazz lost games to your Bulls by one, four and five points.

That teams have been too conservative with 3s is not just an idea of analysts. Coaches have ever so slowly, three-and-a-half decades after the shot arrived, come to the same conclusion. Seven 3s per game was typical in the 1980s. Now that number is around 20 and rising. The green light is coming on.

What took those coaches so long?

One big part of it, I believe, is that people in the NBA, like everywhere, just don't have much of an appetite for change. You've written about this as much as anyone. Even your blatantly effective triangle, bedrock of 11 title teams, hasn't become mainstream.

But blending the right lessons of the past with the right innovations from the future can come with big rewards. And that's why some of today's basketball wisdom sounds old, and some of it sounds new.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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