How analytics can help the Rockets

With ideas capable of upgrading organizations and making life easier for coaches, players, and team executives, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference is somewhat of a dream scenario for those who make their living in the business of sports. Words like “groundbreaking” and “innovative” don’t begin to do the presented research justice. But at the same time some of the separate findings contradict one another, making it difficult to weed through the results and select what might be constituted as the “right” way. One paper, titled “Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association”, suggests that keeping a starting five intact from year to year increases postseason win totals. “NBA Chemistry: Positive and Negative Synergies in Basketball” indirectly challenged these findings by saying if the New Orleans Hornets had traded Chris Paul to Utah for Deron Williams before the 2010-11 season, both franchises would’ve benefited.

Now, a quick disclaimer before we dive deep into what I’ve found that could be helpful to the Rockets moving forward: Just because cutting-edge data says probabilities increase within the vacuum of a given situation does not mean anything is guaranteed or promised. It must be kept in mind that these numbers were berthed when thousands of players participated in hundreds of thousands of possessions, and that everything moving forward is technically separated from everything that happened in the past. The purpose of analytics isn’t to find absolute answers—sports is an entity ultimately decided by human error—but to make the long road to a championship a bit less foggy.

Here are a few interesting Rockets related points I walked away from the conference with:

  • The ongoing problem team executives have with figuring out who fits well with who, and how that relates to turning a group of individuals into a well-functioning team, was a running theme in each of the basketball related research papers that were presented. The outcome of a basketball game is typically decided by the thousands of decisions players are forced to make in less than a second of time. It’s a sport dictated by constant actions and reactions, with the quickest thinkers holding a slight advantage over those who need to collect their thoughts before making a move. This makes non-verbal communication crucial. Reading another person’s mind is impossible, yet to be consistently successful on the court, basketball teammates are basically asked to do so. The more you play alongside another player, the better a feel you have for what he likes and doesn’t like to do, and the easier it is for you to make a personal decision. If the Rockets choose to stand pat at the trade deadline and hold onto regular contributors like Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and Courtney Lee, everything I just wrote should help comfort the fan base. The roster right now is far from perfect, but the guys in place are familiar with one another. They know each other’s tendencies, where they’re going to be, where they like the ball, what makes them comfortable/uncomfortable, and when they’re absolutely feeling it. This applies to the coaching staff as well, and how Kevin McHale has done a masterful job at game-planning with the group he has. Two nights ago against the Celtics, Houston went with a three guard lineup for a majority of the fourth quarter and all of overtime (with Courtney Lee playing small forward). It wasn’t the first time he’s done it this year; with a lack of multiple interior defenders to work with, McHale highlights his team’s strength instead of dwelling on its weakness. If the roster changes, so do strategies. Talking about the importance of experience in terms of a five man unit staying together, let’s look at the Oklahoma City Thunder for a second. Yes, they have two transcendental talents, but after making their deal for Kendrick Perkins (which, in a way also gave them James Harden), the Thunder have stood pat in their movement of players. They locked up Russell Westbrook despite the public’s outcry that he couldn’t co-exist in that environment. The Rockets are in an interesting situation in that while they’re in a likely position to make a move before the deadline, now that they have a growing star (Lowry) in their midst, and are exceeding expectations with the crew they have, maybe a monster shake up isn’t the best mode of action. Maybe they keep the starting five together for next season too, and keep accumulating young players who show great upside. Should they hypothetically acquire Pau Gasol, the shift that’ll take place regarding shot selection and both offensive and defensive style, would dramatically change, and there’s no promise it’d be for the better.
  • One of the more interesting points to emerge from the conference was the future importance of psychologically studying players. (One league executive went so far as to say it’s “the next frontier” in player evaluation.) In “Effort vs. Concentration: The Asymmetric Impact of Pressure on NBA Performance”, the argument was made that in-game pressure situations have the power to “distract, motivate, and generate too much self-focus” for a player, which can have a negative effect on performance. In their findings, the researchers found that when it comes to offensive rebounding, players at home tend to find more success than those on the road because their fan’s support makes them hustle more. With free-throws, they found that away players have an easier time at the line because there’s no pressure of letting the home crowd down with a miss. In watching Sunday night’s game against the Clippers, the Los Angeles announcers made an interesting point about the probability of Luis Scola hitting two crucial free-throws. They took his past—playing in World Championships and European League title games—into account in deciding whether the pressure of the moment would get to him. (Scola made both free-throws.) The point intrigued me in relation to the paper on concentration because measuring how nervous a player is could someday be of great value in determining whether bringing him aboard is the right decision. Some guys won’t let big moments affect their play, but others might. Figuring out a player’s “mental toughness” might be just as important as judging his ability to hit two free-throws in the first place.
  • Re-visiting the team-building theme from before, a paper titled “Big 2′s and Big 3′s: Analyzing How A Team’s Best Player’s Complement Each Other”, made a few intriguing points; most of them we may have already assumed but had never before had the available data to confirm. The Rockets currently have one major piece of the puzzle in place: a high-scoring, high-usage point guard. While it may appear as an obvious point, should the team acquire Dwight Howard via free agency or a trade (that doesn’t surrender Lowry), they’ll have acquired a second key figure, the high-scoring, high-rebounding center. (For those still not over Pau Gasol, he would certainly apply here as well.) However, the best two-player combination doesn’t involve the effective point guard (apparently he’s the third component), but instead, a versatile, three-point shooting wing. These are your Paul Pierce’s, Andre Iguodala’s, and LeBron James’ of the world. In other words, the rarest of the rare. They’re guys who can play defense on the perimeter, rebound the ball, pass, and knock down triples. The Spurs, with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, are the quintessential example, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve been one of the league’s most consistent organizations in recent years. In the case of Howard, Orlando saw its best days when Jameer Nelson (high-usage point guard) and Hedo Turkoglu (versatile wing player) were humming. For the Rockets, it may be that getting a player of Howard or Gasol’s caliber is unlikely, in which case they may best be suited to target the versatile wing threat. Obviously, this isn’t easy either, but neither is building a champion. Luck is an undeniable factor in the process, and without it, all the data in the world won’t do much.
  • It’s important to have players who buy into what the coach is saying, or else the whole point in using advanced analytics is useless. To find players who’re intelligent and willing to “buy in” and sacrifice for the sake of a well thought out game plan is critical. As a participant on the Coaching Analytics panel, former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy spoke a little bit about two different players: Tracy McGrady and Shane Battier. Mentioning a specific game from the past, where Houston held a three point lead with under 10 seconds to go, Van Gundy told his players to foul and put the opponent on the line. McGrady chose not to, and his man knocked down a game-tying three-pointer. Houston lost the game in overtime. In the heat of the battle, McGrady failed to execute a fairly simple coaching instruction based on analytical data by Van Gundy and his staff. There’s no doubting his limitless abilities as a basketball player, but this story makes you wonder if that had anything to do with his failure to succeed once the postseason came around; when each possession’s importance is doubled. Just like the serendipitous good fortune I mentioned in the last bullet, all the analytics in the world won’t save you if your players don’t listen.


Twitter: @ShakyAnkles

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