Wayne Winston: Mark Cuban's Stats Expert Isn't Bashful, Part 3

October, 2, 2009
10/02/09
2:20
PM ET
Wayne Winston is a professor at Indiana University and for the last nine years he has been Mark Cuban's stat guru for the Dallas Mavericks. Winston's recently published book "Mathletics," explains much of his work -- complete with formulas and spreadsheets. The first few posts have generated a lot of discussion, and an apology to Troy Murphy, on TrueHoop, Wayne Winston's personal website, and the foremost basketball analytics discussion board. In this installment, Winston begins by discussing Tim Thomas and Danilo Gallinari.

Here's an example of a guy I think is really underrated, and if he's healthy can help the Mavericks immensely: Tim Thomas.

Last year, every good lineup the Knicks had included Tim Thomas. They traded him. I don't know why.
Danilo Gallinari
Winston says Danilo Gallinari was the key to the Knicks' good play for a stretch last season. "The guy just can shoot with his eyes closed. And he's not a bad defender."
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

The Knicks had a streak last year where they were pretty good, right? The way they were pretty good was they put [Danilo] Gallinari, Thomas and [Al] Harrington on the floor. They spread the floor and they were unguardable.

Gallinari ... his effective field goal percentage was like the best in the league. The guy just can shoot with his eyes closed. And he's not a bad defender. They were really making a playoff run and than he got hurt and that was it.

And they got rid of Thomas and they didn't have that lineup anymore.

Some coach told me that "there's ice cream among the s---." That's what you're looking for with the lineups. If the players are bad, there's probably a couple of combinations that work.

The amazing thing is, teams play lineups that don't work.

Like the Bulls. The five lineups they played the most last year were all bad. I mean, how dumb can you be? 82games.com has some of this data. How you can not look at how your lineups perform is beyond me. It really is.

But the lineup stuff, I really think we're good at that.

I really think I can look at a playoff series, and look at that data, and I can basically mine that stuff. I think the Mavericks are one of two teams to win 50 games nine straight years and that's how long we've worked for them. I think that's part of it. A very small part obviously. But I think they have better information than most people, with what we do.

What's the process? You're in Indiana ... How do you inform the Mavericks what's going on?
Oh e-mail. There's a website that Mark [Cuban] gets, and it has all the player ratings and the lineup ratings, and a scouting report for each game. I send a lineup calculator that breaks down how each combination of players does in and out of the game.

I haven't talked to Mark on the phone. Ever. I have met him in person a couple of times, but it's all e-mail. That's how Mark is. I don't have his cell phone, I don't know his number. If he decides to call me, that's great.

The only game I went to, it was horrible, I went to that Game 6 double overtime when they got eliminated by Phoenix. They had a 13-point lead in the third quarter, and as soon as they put Alan Henderson in I knew it was over because he was terrible that year.

Then it came down to this big debate. Do you foul when you're up three? They let Steve Nash hit a 3 to tie that game. Almost no coach will foul until there's five seconds left in the game. I think that's something we don't know the answer to. But that's something we could study.

You should definitely go for 3 at the end of the game if you're down two. I think there's no question of that. Most coaches don't. The only team that did that, that I know, was Reggie Miller and the Pacers. They always did that. They always let Reggie take that shot. They would want the buzzer to go off with the ball in the air and it worked a lot of times.

I feel like I've seen Kobe do that.
Yeah, I mean Kobe's probably done it too. But the math is solid there. If I've got the ball and I can take the shot with the horn going off, you should go for 3. You only win the overtime half the time. Suppose you have a 50% chance of hitting the two. So you make a shot half the time, and then you win in overtime half the time, you win the game just 25% of the time.

But if you shoot the 3, you've got at least a 30% chance. That's all you need to know.

[Houston GM] Daryl Morey, I guess, never talks about what he does. That article about Shane Battier, though, you know the one I'm talking about? A lot of that was adjusted +/-. They have their own adjusted +/-, I guess.

The dataset we use is every minute of every game -- who's on the court? That's really, to my mind, where the game should be.
Greg Oden
When Greg Oden played in Joel Przybilla's place with Portland's starting lineup, Winston says the team was far less effective.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

I hate fantasy football, for instance, because it totally wrecks the whole point of the game, which is to win. When the quarterback throws the pass, and you have the running back, you get mad. Well if it's your team, you shouldn't get mad. Oh it's horrible. It's not why you like basketball or football. I mean, Adrian Peterson is the best player in fantasy football and he didn't even help the team, hardly, last year.

If you had unlimited minutes, adjusted plus/minus would be a perfect metric. We don't, so sometimes it'll mess up. When it does, there are little adjustments that we make, that I don't want to talk about, but I think that's why we do a better job than some of the other people.

There are some problems with the data analysis that can make it difficult to analyze a player. Most people who are running plus/minus are using canned stats packages like SPSS or SAS. And I think if you do that you can't make the adjustments very easily for the players whose numbers will be screwed up by the normal process.

But that's like our secret so we don't talk about that much. The lineup stuff ... after a bunch of games you can really see the three-man combinations that work. You can see that others don't work. Things pop out.

Are there teams that have great lineups that they just don't know about?
Oh yes. You see all kinds of things. For instance, in the Bulls/Celtics playoff series last year, everyone talks about Kevin Garnett being out. But if Luol Deng had been healthy, the Bulls would have won. I'm pretty sure.

The average team plays something like 4-500 lineups a year. Amazing.

In Portland, the lineup they played the most was pretty good. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Steve Blake, Joel Przybilla and Brandon Roy was 14 points better than average. Put in Greg Oden for Przybilla ... it's one point worse than average.

For the Blazers, there are some great lineups I see to close games. Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake. They played 167 minutes and were 32 points better than average.

That's the starting lineup with Rudy in place of Batum.
Right, so it's 17 points better with that one substitution.

There are a lot of minutes here, so that's a lot of data.

The key to the Lakers -- it doesn't take a genius to figure it out, is you close with Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant. If you do that, you can't really go wrong.

You take out Bryant and leave Odom in, they were good. You take out Odom and leave Bryant in they weren't good. That's why I say Odom was better than Bryant.

OK, this is what they closed with: Trevor Ariza, Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. That's 18 points better than average. And isn't that the one that closed every game? That's a good lineup, and they played that one the most.

Artest will be interesting.

Another good lineup is if you take that same thing, but put in Luke Walton for Fisher. Or Walton for Ariza. That's just as good. Doesn't make any difference.

This lineup is off the charts, and didn't play much: Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Luke Walton and Shannon Brown.

That lineup won by 55 points a game. They played 50 minutes together.

There's things like this on every team. Let's look at Houston. They should know everything. I had dinner with Daryl Morey once when he still worked for Boston and I showed him what we do. So he knows what we do. I don't know what he does, but I know he does a lot more.

I'm happy for him. He's a really nice guy, he's been very supportive of my book and he's good for the math people. He's the "Moneyball" of the NBA.

The Rockets six lineups that played the most, five of them are ten points or more better than average.

The only bad one was Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Tracy McGrady, Luis Scola and Yao Ming, and they won't be playing that one this season.

More to come from Wayne Winston on Monday.

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