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TGS HOOPS COVER STORY...THE SIXERS AND HOOP ANALYTICS UPDATE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Watching a practice session of the 1984 Olympics team he was coaching, Bob Knight was sitting in the stands with Stu Inman, an old friend and then the GM of the Portland Trail Blazers. The NBA Draft was to be held in a few days, and Inman's Blazers were picking second. It was general knowledge that the Houston Rockets, picking first, would take U of Houston center Akeem (before he added the "H") Olajuwon.

Following, courtesy of the excellent biography entitled Knight, by Bob Hammel, is Knight's recounting of the brief discussion that followed with Inman, who had just told Knight that the Blazers were leaning toward taking Sam Bowie of Kentucky.

"Stu," I said, "you've got to take (Michael) Jordan."

"Bob, we need a center."

"Well, play him at center! Nobody could guard him. He's the best player there is. You have to take him!"


Of course, we know what happened a few days later. Portland took Bowie, and the Chicago Bulls, drafting third, took Jordan.

We can assume, three decades later, that the Bowie-over-Jordan pick in the '84 draft had something to do with the basketball analytics of the day. Those calculations have changed a lot in the three decades since.

But then, as now, and as Bob Knight would likely remind us, great players make great stats...not the other way around.

******


At about this same time last year, we ran the preceding passage as an introduction to our review of the "basketball analytics" movement. Seldom have we seen a stats-based model overwhelm a sport and cause a division between the new-wave thinkers, many with MBA (that's an "M" as in Master's degree, not "N" like NBA) training, and the "old school" basketball lifers. Not even Oakland A's GM Billy Beane and his well-publicized "Moneyball" approach would turn MLB inside out as has the hoops analytics movement in the NBA.

Though the Oakland baseball strategy can also trace its roots to Beane's former assistant GM Paul DePodesta, it was Beane who was the driving force behind the baseball stats revolution. Beane had also been a one-time ballyhooed prospect and MLB player. But the similar "guru" of hoops analytics couldn't even make his junior high team. Moreover, he's barely old enough to vote, or to legally have a drink.

The name Muthu Alagappan is to new-wave hoops analytics almost what Orville & Wilbur Wright were to the airplane. And to illustrate the newness of this movement, consider that Alagappan is all of 25 years old.

In truth, basketball analytics began to formulate before Alagappan became a household name for basketball junkies. An early disciple was Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who had previously expounded a qualitative analytical approach to stats and roster-building. It was Muthu, however, who would really turn the hoops world on its collective ear.

"Muthu-ball" first burst upon the scene at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, an event that had been held for several years and originally attracted a collection of sports nerds. The conference, however, quickly caught on in popularity and would have to move to a convention center in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood to accommodate an attendee list that would eventually number over 2000 and include all manner of sports executives and administrators...as well as the usual collection of wonks.

Muthu, then an undergraduate at Stanford, would be one of eleven speakers in a 2012 breakout session entitled "Evolution of Sports," or "EOS." He would proceed to steal the show. Muthu's concept, through extensive statistical analysis, consisted of new positions for basketball, discarding the old five "normal" positions of point guard, off guard, small forward, power forward, and center in favor of a new blend.

Alagappan believed there should be at least ten different and distinct positions on a roster. "The positions are kind of the alphabet by which everything around basketball revolves," Alagappan said in a San Jose Mercury-News interview. "If we can redefine the alphabet in terms of these 10 or 13 positions, then we can hopefully change all of the strategy that the game is built on."

Alagappan's formula breaks down basketball positions thusly (using examples of players who were all active in 2012 when Mutha would propose his new ideas).

Two-Way All Stars...Think Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant

Inside/outside scorers...Think Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons

Jump-shooting ball handlers...Think Damian Lillard, Steph Curry

Defensive ball handlers...Think Ty Lawson, Kyle Lowry

3-Point ball handlers...Think Steve Nash, Ray Felton

Low-usage ball handlers...Think Trevor Ariza, David Lee

3-Point specialists...Think Steve Novak, Shane Battier

Mid-Range big men...Think Brandon Bass, Big Baby Davis

Scoring rebounders...Think Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins

Paint protectors...Think Larry Sanders, Joakim Noah


Muthu would support his concept with examples of teams that better reflected the proper mix of the above components. An example of a team with a preponderance of ballhandlers but zero scoring rebounders (the 2010-11 T-wolves) was offered in comparison to a team with a balanced concoction including scoring rebounders, paint protectors, and a variety of ballhandlers with complimentary skills. Muthu's example of the latter, to no one's surprise, was the 2010-11 NBA champ Dallas Mavericks.

Alagappan's further refinements to hoop analytics are on top of changes that have been preached by Morey and other GMs as a style that incorporated application of these new-style hoop metrics to alter the way the game is played in the NBA. Scoring is now expected to move either closer to the basket (low risk) or beyond the three-point arc (high reward). Players whose bread-and-butter has been a mid-range jump shot increasingly find themselves on the bench...or out of the league. For example, a star player from the '70s like former Bull Bob Love, who lived on the mid-range jumper, might find it more difficult to locate a situation where he could flourish in such a manner today.

The hoop analytics movement, and the "Muthu-ball" model, has definitely infiltrated NBA front offices, too, with at least 26 teams employing someone to help apply the concepts to personnel and roster construction. As for much of the give-and-take between the new and old-school thinkers, it was outlined in our extensive editorial last November, entitled "Making Sense of Basketball Analytics," still available on our website homepage.

But there is one hoops analytics experiment in the NBA that has put the "movement" under the microscope more than any other.

That involves one team in particular...the Philadelphia 76ers.

Sixer GM Sam Hinkie, hired prior to the 2013-14 season off Daryl Morey's Houston Rockets staff, has sought to completely remake the Philly team in the model of modern hoops analytics.

Like Alagappan, Hinkie is a Stanford product, a graduate of the School of Business who cut his professional teeth at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm. Hoops, however, was his love. Sources have told us that Hinkie is likely to applaud a Sixers' missed 3-point shot from the corner that ends up as an opponent rebound, while groaning when a Philly player connects on a semi-contested mid-range jumper. Hinkie's reactions are because he watches the game and judges every action based on probabilities...what should have happened, not necessarily what does happen.

Last year, we ran comments from one of our hoop scouts, former Hope International (NAIA) head coach and AD, and respected regional basketball consultant, Greg Pappas, who made a bold prediction on what might transpire with the Sixers. We'll let you be the judge about the Pappas projection.

"The Sixers will probably trade two of their three best players in Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes because they played for the previous coach and front office," said Pappas last year. "Playing them will take some of the steam out of the new analytics system that (Sam) Hinkie brought in.

"Hinkie will fly his plan with the Sixers into the side of a mountain. The analytics guys will die in defending their own system."


Not to pile on the Sixers, but after a brutal 19-63 finish last season, they now sit winless at 0-11 three weeks into the 2014-15 campaign. Maybe it is too early to make final judgement on the Hinkie formula in Philly, but we do know that so far, Pappas, at least, was spot-on with what he predicted would happen to the Sixers (including the departures of Turner and Hawes).

Twelve months later, Pappas still has plenty to say about the nosedive in Philly.

"(The Sixers) may be the worst team in NBA history," said Pappas earlier this week. "Nerlens Noel is two years away at best. They really are a D-League team. All the rookies in the league are hurt or struggling. So the Sixers being so bad with young free agents is going to be a disaster. Hinkie is almost peddling the fantasy league mentality of selling a dream."

Hinkie's supporters might claim that the current Philly performance is secondary to the long-range Hinkie plan (which, to be fair, could still include last June's draftees Kansas rookie C Joel Embiid, the top pick whose recovery from a broken foot might keep him out all season, and Euro F Dario Saric, who is currently playing in Turkey). But beyond G Michael Carter-Williams and perhaps Noel, there is no one else on the current roster who is likely to figure into Hinkie's long-term personnel plans. And Hinkie's role players haven't exactly stepped into the breach. Sixers fans, already impatient before Hinkie arrived, are now asking themselves if being saddled with perhaps one of the worst teams in NBA history is worth Hinkie fiddling around with his analytical concepts on how to build a team.

Greg Pappas is far from the only Hinkie critic. Ex-Sixers such as former star player Charles Barkley and former coach (and current SMU HC) Larry Brown are among others who have sounded off in recent months against the ideas of the Sixers' Stanford-educated GM.

Sir Charles, in particular, had little positive to say about Hinkie or the Sixers in a recent interview with the one and only Howard Eskin on venerable 610 WIP in Philadelphia.

"If I'm a coach, I would want to have some say in the draft," said Barkley. "These are all Sam Hinkle's (sic) people who they drafted this year. He traded one of the better point guards in the NBA; yeah, I have a problem with the way the Sixers are running their organization right now. Listen, Howard, you know I don't believe in that analytical crap. If LeBron James couldn't spell cat, I want him on my team. I always tell people, give me a dumb guy that can really play. Don't give me no smart guy.

"The guy (Hinkie), he came from Houston. When did Houston get good? When they went out and paid James Harden all that money and Asik, and now they went out and got Dwight Howard. That's got nothing to do with analytics; that's got to do with paying really good players to come to town."


Ex-76er coach Brown pulled no punches, either, in a recent interview for the Philadelphia Inquirer, especially when the subject turned to the Sixers possibly tanking this season in order to have the best shot at the top pick in the upcoming draft.

"No, I wouldn't do it. We wouldn't lose. Brett (Brown, the Sixers' current HC) can coach; he's one of Pop's (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, under whom Brett Brown worked) guys," Brown said. "But what they are doing to that city to me is mind-boggling. That's the greatest basketball city in the world with its fans, and you want them to sit back and watch you lose.

"Can you imagine telling Allen Iverson that this is a rebuilding season so we're going to be bad on purpose?"
Brown continued. "I love [Nerlens] Noel, I love Joel [Embiid]. But you can't put that stuff into them. Again, it boggles my mind. I understand you have to get assets to get better. You get assets by developing young players, draft picks, and moving contracts. But how much teaching is going on?

"These analytics, they don't mean squat to me,"
Brown added. "Throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. To say that these analytics guys have the answer is crazy. It doesn't apply to basketball. Everybody uses the data you get, but that's what coaching is. Maybe it will work; I don't know. But it's a shame what those fans are going through waiting to see if it will.

"I hate what's going on in Philly. They don't have a basketball person in the organization. It makes me sick to my stomach."


Once the Hinkie defenders make themselves known, we'll let you know what they say. For now, however, they remain not-so-curiously quiet.

By us, basketball remains a game of playing together, playing smart, playing with skill, and playing hard. Good luck in measuring every aspect on a spread sheet. We have even viewed the standard bearer of analytical stats, the "+/-" calculation, with some suspicion for many years. One bad rotation can distort such numbers, which even at their most illuminating were always going to be static, as are all of the basketball metric calculations (and all stats, for that matter) that are simply finding various ways to measure past results. The circumstances that created those numbers, however, are always bound to be in flux.

We're not completely anti-metrics, however; indeed, we believe the one stat calculation that is particularly illuminating is the 3-point shots made + free throws made number. And the old "+/-" and many of the Hinkie-favored equations have some merit.

But to construct a team completely upon the analytics model, as Hinkie has done with the Sixers, seems pure folly, just as it would be building a modern team without referring to any of the advanced hoops metrics. As in most endeavors, some sort of balance is always a good idea.

Although, in the end, the one calculation that works 100% of the time in basketball is simply scoring more points than the other team.


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