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New Orleans Pelicans coaching staff sees, evaluates and knows better than basketball analytics

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Analytics has it’s place but can ultimately fail unless asked precisely the right question.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The minds of an NBA head coach and his respective staff are most likely a lot different and a hell of a lot smarter than what you believe.

A few days ago, I talked about how coaches are often misunderstood. The insight came from personal experience as I’ve worked with a collegiate coaching staff here in the Philippines. Although the workload varies significantly, the schedule probably doesn’t.

Just as with most people in the working class, coaches do 8-hour workloads plus overtime. The Pelicans practice may start at 10, but most of the coaches come in much earlier to handle various affairs like pre-practice — which is different from the pre-practice prep for the team. The biggest takeaway should be that every practice usually starts with a film session. I’m sure most fans would say “oh yeah, for sure,” but for the most part that’s something they casually forget when they remarking about a coaches intelligence during a game.

A big disclaimer: I’ve never talked or interacted with any coach who possesses NBA experience. However, I truly believe a lot of parallels exist between the league I love watching and the one I’ve held steady employment. I must admit I was blown away by the insights and mindsets of the coaches I’ve had the pleasure of interaction. Thus, it is probably safe to assume that NBA coaches are even more knowledgable than their counterparts from my own backyard.

This perspective stems from a podcast (a highly recommended listen) I recently heard. Here’s one example where the host, Kumar, asked a Pelicans assistant coach, Jamelle McMillan, about coaching and analytics.

“In line with that, obviously, these softwares provide you with stats, numerical outcomes of what happens when a player does X, Y, Z. Do you find your self starting from that vantage point or do you actually watch the film and see how they got to the results they’re getting? Is it more process-oriented or result-oriented? What is your thought process when you are scouting these teams?”

This was basically a simple question: how do coaches feel about the wave of analytics that’s currently overtaking the league? Coach Jamelle’s answer gave a sneak peek into how coaches usually think and part of his answer went as expected. He watches game film first, but then uttered words that probably a lot of intelligent listeners dread:

“I get analytics, but I’m not big on them. I think they’re really a reach to try to make a lot of stuff make sense.”

HE SAID WHAT?

Some of you were probably tempted to stop listening to the podcast right then and there, but coming from a guy who graduated with a masters degree in applied mathematics, hear me when I say: relax.

When I worked on the coaching staff, I was the analytics guy. I had heard some version of that typical complaint before and obviously had a similar reaction — internally, of course. But when Coach Jamelle was given a chance to explain, his reasoning became quite clear.

It’s too much information to make sense out of with just a few numbers

A denial of analytics is a pretty common and understandable response. For most people, numbers are simply defeating. It’s largely a cultural thing as math is considered some exclusive subject that only a few can really appreciate (which isn’t really true), but even to us “quants” — guys who have experience working with such things — at first glance, it can be overwhelming.

We just know ahead of time that the numbers are useless unless asked the right questions. That’s where coaches usually have a better grasp than us (and Coach Jamelle gave a lot of reasons for us to believe he’s one of the coaches who asks the right questions).

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Why does Kemba Walker take this type of shot? When Charlotte goes on an 8-0 run, what’s coming next?

Those are the right questions to ask instead of just pointing to Kemba’s shot profile.

What percentage does he take from each spot on the floor? What types of shots is he taking??

This is where their “analytics guy” — I seriously hate that name because I was called that too — should come in and answer those questions. And although there are some old-school coaches who never really use quantitative analysis, most coaches are now most definitely receptive to it.

Take for example this exchange I had with my coach. He wanted our team to play at a fast pace so naturally I gave him a breakdown of the team’s pace (possessions per X minutes). The numbers said we played at a pretty average pace (even after considering whether this was tempered down by offensive rebounds) so he asked me to check on a couple of things:

What time were we crossing the court to start plays? How many passes did we make between crossing the half court to shot? How many actions on the ball did we make? How many actions off the ball did we make? What was the shot clock when the shot goes up?

Since SportsVU remains only a dream for me, I had to track all of this data live during the game and then re-check it post-game. True enough, although we were playing at “slow pace”, the average time my team crossed the court was high (~18.5), the number of passes (4+) , the number of on-ball actions (2+) and off-ball actions (3+) we made per possession was solid, but the shot clock at shot was average (somewhere around the 5~10 second range). My team also took a pretty high number of uncontested field goal attempts (%FG).

Combining all of these results made his idea — the team was playing a good pace a ton of credence. Our team finished comfortably 3rd (out of 12) that year in offensive rating and was a few percentage points from 2nd with a below average pace (i.e. possessions per X minutes), but all those things the coach wanted me to track were all indications of a team that played “with pace.”

Coaches notice the little stuff

As was said the other day, coaches are meticulously detailed about the game of basketball. While most of us see just a “hand up” as a “good contest”, coaches consider so much more: the angle of a body, the positioning of feet, the lead foot, the speed and control of a closeout.

If you found out something interesting about the Pelicans (or your favorite team), odds are they know it already. Coach Jamelle’s best example was Dante Cunningham: he knows DC has led the team in 3PT% for most of the year and he shot better from the right corner (50%) versus the left corner (31%).

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Another good example revolved around Jrue Holiday. Coach Jamelle knows how many times Jrue goes over the top of a screen instead of rejecting it, how many times he makes backside passes, how many times he passes to the corner guy, how many pocket passes he makes, how many possessions he goes without scoring or looking to score. They notice all these little things and probably more.

Also, because they notice all these little things, they’re not looking to just abandon things if they’re failing. Instead of trying something different and always tinkering, they’re looking at “why is he failing?” and “How can we make him better?”

Take for example Dante. Coach Jamelle specifically talked about why Dante has such a big discrepancy in 3PT% between the two corners: he shoots the ball three different ways when he shoots from the left side (!!!), compared to the right where he consistently shoots it the same way. I didn’t know that and never noticed it. But the coach sure did.

So, don’t think that Alvin Gentry and his guys miss Jrue turning the ball over a lot, they don’t know Solomon Hill is usually a poor 3PT shooter or Anthony Davis doesn’t really excel in post-ups.

They do.

Timeouts

The last thing I must touch on are timeouts. Timeouts and coaches are intrinsically linked together because coaches usually stop the game in pivotal moments to give input. Timeouts are a coach’s time to shine. Coach Jamelle mentioned how there’s a guy on the staff who charts the success rate of certain sets.

I was also that guy for our team. I charted data specific to play sets (frequency, points scored, who scored, where did he score, what type of shot did he get, how open was he). I did the same thing for defensive sets.

What surprised me most was the coaches I worked with could usually predict the data I charted. They almost always knew which sets resulted in the most points, which sets by opponents killed us, and which specific plays resulted in good shots for every player. It wasn’t some fluke one-game occurrence too! They predicted it each time when asking for the data during halftime, pre-game or post-game. It was like they had an internal counter to go along with those DVR’s in their heads!

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

So when ATO sets go awry, I never understand why coaches get the bulk of the blame every single time. Often times, they know which sets to run and which players should be involved. Yet, nearly all onlookers fail to realize that it’s usually a player missing a little detail (Player X set the screen too early, Player Y cut too late) that causes the play to fail. Mind you: nearly all out of bound actions are are repeated ad nauseam during practices.

Fans like to announce coaching staffs have no clue what they’re doing during timeouts when in reality the decisions they make are probably calculated, helped both by the quantitative data they were given and the qualitative knowledge they have (which often times, match with the quantitative data).

Coaches are smarter than you or me

Coaches are not exempt from criticism, but they do know more about basketball than most of us and have used analytical thinking in some form long before today’s too easily excitable generation. Coaches almost always make smart, calculated decisions. Some work, some don’t.

Now, this isn’t a “let’s keep Gentry” call (Hey, I would still like him to be replaced), but more of a call to fans that coaches deserve more respect. They aren’t lazy, stupid bums that don’t know what they’re doing. They are smart, hardworking, insightful people who are usually fall victims to fit, luck and circumstance. To make them seem grossly unprepared or ill-equipped based on the result of the five players responsible for the action on the court should be somewhat infuriating.

I’ve witnessed firsthand how intelligent and dedicated coaches work, and this is coming from an environment where coaches are involved in a far less lucrative, and far less intense, business. This is why I’ve maintained that most coaches are on the same level and what makes a coach better than the next candidate are things like experience (how many years has he spent in a particular league), how well he can command the respect of a locker room, how well he can communicate what he wants to be done to the players and how receptive he is to quantitative analysis.

So, if one remains intent on replacing Alvin and the Gang, be sure the incoming candidate performs strongly in these facets and other areas besides simply wins and losses, fan disdain and the like.