The stories behind a trade are not enough. It’s 2016, and you know analytics and technology play a huge role in how teams improve their chances at a championship.
In his book Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion, former Sports Illustrated writer Andy Glockner takes an intimate look at the modern NBA. To the extent that teams will talk, he explores how numbers, health and good old common sense all play a role in the management of a team.
Let’s look at some of the most intriguing stories in the book.
How to build a champion
Golden State has become the marvel of the NBA. The Warriors won the 2015 NBA championship and won a record setting 73 wins the following regular season.
Steph Curry gets most of the headlines because of his ground breaking shooting, and deservedly so. However, Glockner points out that the Warriors “have up to a dozen players with wingspans of nearly seven feet to rotate among the shooting guard, small forward, and power forward positions.”
Chasing Perfection also has another interesting nugget about the Warriors. Assistant GM Kirk Lacob admits that they are “not at the top of the league in terms of either personnel or resources thrown at data analysis.”
And maybe that’s ok. To win a title, it helps to have Steph Curry develop from above average guard to Most Valuable Player. It also doesn’t hurt to have the greatest talent evaluator in NBA history, Jerry West, as an advisor.
How not to build a team
If the Warriors are drinking champagne in the NBA penthouse, the Sixers are crawling through the sewage pipe below the building.
Sam Hinkie brought analytics and new ideas when he became the general manager of the Sixers. As documented by Pablo Torre of ESPN, one of those ideas was to draft players with a long wingspan.
You can teach a player to shoot a basketball, but you can’t teach length. Just like the Warriors, the Sixers collected a stable of long wing players. Then they hoped that these players would make Kawhi Leonard type improvements in shooting.
It didn’t work. The Sixers have been the worst team in the NBA since Hinkie’s arrival. While the defense has been serviceable, the offense has been atrocious.
And it gets worse.
Glockner writes the Sixers took most of their shots from three or near the rim. Since these shots have the highest efficiency, this seems like a good strategy. Not for the Sixers, who have finished a distant last in points scored per possession in each of three seasons of the Hinkie tenure. From Chasing Perfection:
While on a normal team, you might criticize the coach for consistently creating shots his players couldn’t convert, the idea was backwards with the 76ers. (Coach) Brown wanted to create these decent shots, and then have his players (or new ones) learn to make them.
This is utter stupidity. The Sixers set up their players for failure. It’s the opposite of the Spurs strategy, which seeks to maximize the ability of each player.
In April of 2016, Sam Hinkie was fired.
The technology revolution in the NBA
The most interesting part of the book details the technological revolution in player health.
For example, the comany P3 (Peak Performance Project) has an apparatus to measure the force in each leg and make a movie as a player jumps. If you find that one leg produces 20% more force than the other, you predict an injury could be looming for the player.
P3 took their technology to the 2014 NBA pre-draft combine. After testing all the players, they ranked the top 60 players by their likelihood to get hurt. They also predicted the location of the injury.
While Chasing Perfection doesn’t provide any details, P3 said the list “ended up being very predictive.”
P3 also helped Hawks guard Kyle Korver. In a chapter devoted to the sharp shooter, Glockner tells the story of how Korver went from a broke down player who thought about quitting to the healthy, valuable player for the Hawks.
Health analytics played a role in this recovery. P3 showed Korver how one of his knees bowed every time he took a shot. Horrified, Korver got a program to strengthen his body and fix his problem.
This all seems so logical. Players benefit from balance and symmetry in their muscles. With technology, P3 can identify potential problems and get players on a program to fix this muscle imbalance.
The details of P3 also shed light on a cryptic quote from the book Soccernomics
by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.
AC Milan’s in-house medical outfit found that just by studying a player’s jump, it could predict with 70 percent accuracy whether he would get injured. It then collected millions of data on each of the team’s players on computers, and in the process stumbled upon the secret of eternal youth. (It’s still a secret: no other club has a Milan lab, and the lab won’t divulge its findings.)
There’s no doubt that the Milan lab had similar technology to P3.
Best analytics nugget
Jon Nichols, who now works with the Cleveland Cavaliers, did an interesting study on which college basketball statistics best predict NBA performance. He found that block rate translates best, even more than rebounding and assist rate. The correlation is surprisingly strong.
Tom Penn spent 11 years as an NBA executive before moving to ESPN in 2010. He said the following about the adoption of analytics:
Every team over the last fifteen years – doesn’t matter whether they believe in it or not – they do this in order to cover their tail and to demonstrate that they are sophisticated.
Teams do analytics just for show. I wish Penn said things that hilarious and insightful on ESPN.
Most unbelievable story from the book
Buzz Williams, the coach at Virginia Tech, gives his players a weekly talk to make them comfortable with data. The topics range from personal finance to brain science, but they happen each week during the off season.
Holy shit, that’s a huge commitments to the well being of your players. Williams, a long time believer in basketball analytics, may have made a strange move from Marquette to Virginia Tech. However, he deserves recognition as one of the more innovative minds in basketball.
For the hard core hoops junkie, Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection gives an inside account of how NBA influencers incorporate data and analytics into their decisions. Of course, it doesn’t tell all, since teams didn’t spill everything to Glockner.
However, the book contains many fascinating anecdotes that reveal the inner workings of basketball. I could have written another thousand words telling the stories like how Ben Alamar’s analytics convinced Oklahoma City to draft Russell Westbrook.
However, it’s best to let Glockner tell those stories in Chasing Perfection.