The Curious Case of Rick Carlisle

Posted by Ian Levy on October 20, 2011 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

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Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

For several Maverick veterans, last year’s championship run was the final component in cementing a legacy. It verified Dirk Nowitzki as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate and a top-five NBA player (I’m looking at you #NBARank). It was the capstone on Jason Kidd’s claim as one of the best point guards in NBA history. It helped shift the focus from Tyson Chandler’s injury history to his status as an every-night warrior and his strong defensive foundation. It validated the years of specialized and all-around production provided by Peja Stojakovic and Shawn Marion respectively. And, although it hasn’t been mentioned nearly as often, I believe it also established Rick Carlisle as one of the game’s elite coaches.

After his ninth season as a head coach, Carlisle has won a total of 443 games with a 0.600 win percentage. He’s led his team to the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons and has posted a playoff win percentage of 0.535. He’s achieved a great deal, but has also had the benefit of coaching some great players. In evaluating the worth of a coach, how do you examine team success and separate the contributions of coach from player?

During one his NBA Finals recaps, John Hollinger mentioned that one of the reasons the Mavericks pursued Carlisle was that their statistical studies showed he had a tendency to give the most minutes to the most effective lineups. This idea struck a chord with me. The biggest stumbling block in using statistics to analyze the performance of coaches is simply finding numbers which can be directly attributed to the coach.  The idea Hollinger mentions seems to me to be the one domain where just such a set of statistics exist. Coaches decide which players are on the floor and in what combination at any given moment. The effectiveness of those choices provides us with one quantitative measure of a coach’s effectiveness.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve used two different techniques at Hickory-High to try and examine this issue, both of which relied heavily on the statistics BasketballValue provides for five-man units. Their data only covers the last four seasons, which means that my analysis is restricted to that time frame. In my first piece, I ran a series of correlations between the effectiveness of each five-man unit, using their Net Rating weighted by minutes played, and the number of minutes they were played by their coach. This technique was an attempt to directly represent the statistical studies Hollinger mentioned, with the idea being that the higher the correlation is, the better job a coach has done of judging the effectiveness of each of his units and allocating minutes accordingly.

With this first technique, Carlisle came out looking very good, but not necessarily great. His individual season correlations ranged from 0.488 in 2009 to 0.645 this past season, none of which ranked in the top 25 of the seasons I looked at. Carlisle did stand out somewhat for his consistency. Many coaches showed volatility in their numbers from season to season, possibly a result of injuries, roster changes or even an irrational infatuation with a particular player or configuration. Carlisle’s cumulative correlation over the last three seasons was 0.585. Of coaches who worked multiple seasons over the last four years, that number ranked 8th, trailing only Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson, Stan Van Gundy, Flip Saunders, Alvin Gentry, Byron Scott and Gregg Popovich.

In my second piece, I started with the same set of data but used a slightly different technique. This time I calculated the percentage of the team’s lineups that finished the season with a positive Net Rating, and then compared that percentage to the number of minutes those positive lineups were allotted as a whole. For the purposes of the study the difference between those percentages — positive or negative — is what we’re considering the coach’s ability to manipulate their lineups. This second technique may be a more blunt measure than the first, but I think it helps solve some of the inflation from stacked rosters that occur with the first technique.

With this second technique, Carlisle again stands out: not for his superior performance, but for his consistency. None of his individual seasons made the top 25. Over the past three seasons, 50.4% of the Mavericks lineups which played at least five minutes together have had a positive Net Rating. Those positive lineups have played 65.5% of the possible minutes, an increase of 15.1% over a random distribution of minutes. That number ranks fifth among coaches who worked multiple seasons over the last four, trailing only Jackson, Van Gundy, Rivers and Gentry.

The two techniques I’ve put together are not exact and not comprehensive. However, I think they do give us some quantitative information, general though it may be, about a coach’s ability to optimize their lineups. As with any question of basketball analysis, if we are left with questions after an initial look, the task is to find more data and narrow the focus. The numbers I’ve put together show that Carlisle has been among the league’s best at managing his rotations. For the skeptics out there, I was able to find some more specifics on how those rotations shake out.

I started by combining all of the lineups Carlisle has used during his three-year tenure in Dallas, trying to find some natural groupings for them based on the number of minutes played. I settled on these categories and general (subjective) classifications:

  • Over 145 MP – This group represents the primary starting lineups for each season and the go-to bench rotations.
  • Between 82 and 145 MP – This group represents the deeper bench rotations, and situational lineups.
  • Between 40 and 82 MP – This group represents deep, deep bench rotations, extreme situational lineups, and some accommodations for injuries.
  • Less than 40 MP – This group represents garbage time lineups, minutes scraped together for rookies, and strange experiments.

For each of those categories I counted the total number of lineups Carlisle has used in Dallas. I also calculated the cumulative Net Rating for all the lineups which fit into each category.

CategoryNumber of LineupsNet Rating
>145 MP12+10.4
145-82 MP12+10.1
82-40 MP38+1.7
<40 MP329+1.4

The way his numbers worked out are unique on several fronts. The first is how many lineups were found in each of the first two categories. With 12 lineups in each category over 3 seasons, we find the Mavericks under Carlisle using an average of 8 lineups a season which play more than 82 minutes. There is absolutely no pretense of riding a formidable starting lineup into the ground. The Mavericks’ most played lineup last season, Barea-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Haywood, logged just 350.45 minutes. That mark was eclipsed by 25 lineups from 21 different teams. Instead of relying on one dominant lineup, Carlisle is able to spread the minutes around in many combinations. But the most important factor is how effective those combinations are. With cumulative Net Ratings over +10.0 for both lineup categories above 82 minutes played, Carlisle is able to maintain a first tier level of performance among several lineups.

As the advanced statistics movement trudges forward, there will continue to be a vocal segment searching for a one-size, fits all, comprehensive measure, a number which says definitively that one player is better than another. To be honest, I find that search to be counter-productive. A visual observation can usually tell us who the best players are. For me, the benefit of advanced statistics is the increased ability to delve into details. I don’t want one number to explain everything. I want all the numbers. When it comes to looking evaluating coaches with statistics, I see similarities everywhere. A single numeric representation of a coach’s ability is certainly out of reach at this point, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s needed. The fun is in the thin slices, in digging into the specifics and unique situations to try and find some answers. These techniques I’ve put together aren’t meant to be a step toward that single unifying theory of evaluation, they are meant to be another thin slice. They are meant to answer a few questions, and hopefully raise just as many.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 122, Los Angeles Lakers 86

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 9, 2011 under Recaps | 9 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas92.0132.674.019.220.020.7
Los Angeles93.540.923.230.617.4

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • That, ladies and gents, was one of the most dominant performances in NBA playoff history. Dallas posted an effective field goal percentage of 74.0% — seventy-four percent! — which, according to Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus, was the highest mark in the playoffs by any team of the past two decades.  The Mavs won by 36 points, but the actual margin was even larger; if we adjust the final totals of both teams to the 100-possession standard, Dallas was actually 39.1 points superior on a pace-neutral scale. That’s an absurd, gaudy dominance that nears Bambi vs. Godzilla territory.
  • It was all possible because of the ball movement. Dallas did such an incredible job of finding open space and making the right passes in this series, and as I’ve noted on several occasions, it was that continued work toward the extra pass and the better shot that destroyed any hope L.A. had of mounting an effective defense. The Lakers embarrassed themselves with their inability to stick with the Mavs’ shooters, but they were only put in a position to fail because the passing was so crisp and the cuts were so perfect. Dallas — though they look absolutely brilliant at present — had fallen victim to their own stagnant offensive execution at various times during the regular season, but that’s not even a conceivable outcome with this team right now. Execution is playoff currency, and the way the Mavs created shots on offense was borderline magical. The Lakers were flummoxed by the sight of a moving ball, and incapable of defending pick-and-rolls, flare cuts, or really anyone at all.
  • Not that Dallas’ defense was anything to scoff at, either. Some of the same lethargy that haunted L.A.’s defense crept into their offensive game, but it’s not as if shots went up unchallenged or passes deflected themselves. The Mavs were true defensive aggressors, and forced the Lakers into a 17.4 turnover rate while holding them to a 40.9% effective field goal percentage. Kobe Bryant had a successful first quarter run, but that short burst aside, the Lakers had absolutely no continuity. They scored a bucket here and a bucket there, but the Mavs were scrambling so incredibly well in their half-court defense and demolishing one of the league’s most impressive offensive outfits in the process.
  • There should be no question that the better team won this series because frankly, when the Mavs play like this, they’re better than almost any team in the league. Dallas essentially played a perfect game to cap off an incredible four straight victories, and while there should be understandable doubt regarding the Mavs’ ability to sustain their current roll, the Dallas team of this series was a championship contender and then some.
  • Jason Terry (32 points, 11-14 FG, 9-10 3FG, four assists) was positively stupendous. This wasn’t “one of those nights” or the “hot hand”; on May 8th, 2011, Jason Eugene Terry activated his final Chakra. He reached out and touched the divine. He shifted into another state of consciousness, or was possibly existing simultaneously in two realms, his body a conduit for some greater power. This shooting display was a spiritual experience, the likes of which can change lives and convert men in their heart of hearts. The Lakers didn’t exactly put up much resistance, but the confidence and the consistency in JET’s jumper was otherworldly, or self-actualizing, or centering, or dimension-shifting. I’m not exactly sure which, but one simply knows when they’ve witnessed something miraculous.
  • Peja Stojakovic (21 points, 7-7 FG, 6-6 3FG, three steals) wasn’t too bad, either, and continued in his efforts to make me look like an absolute fool for wondering if he would bear fruit for the Mavs. Stojakovic was perfect from three-point range in six attempts, and like JET, his composure is admirable. He can fire off a corner three even against a hard close-out, and in those situations when he thinks the defense might get the better of him, he doesn’t hesitate to put the ball on the floor or swing it back to the top of the key. Stojakovic is a shooter, but he isn’t exactly consistent with the typical limitations spot-up shooter archetype.
  • The Maverick reserves scored 86 points, matching the Lakers’ collective total. Unreal.
  • Blowout losses do crazy things to people. Like Lamar Odom:

  • And Andrew Bynum:

  • I can understand the argument that Odom’s foul wasn’t quite deserving of the flagrant 2/auto-ejection, but Bynum’s is completely classless, uncalled for, and unacceptable. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t receive a multi-game suspension to kick off the 2011-2012 season for his momentary lapse into insanity. Bynum is typically a pretty reasonable, aware guy, but the sight of J.J. Barea getting yet another uncontested drive to the rim drove him into some kind of madness. Then again, he had mostly himself to blame for Barea’s previous effortless drives, so maybe he was just taking out his frustrations on a mini, Barea-sized avatar of himself. Or, y’know, he just lost his mind.
  • Bynum’s flip-out wasn’t wholly negative though, because it did help Barea (22 points, 9-14 FG, eight assists) — who shared the game’s tri-MVP honors with JET and Peja — score an elusive made bucket on a flagrant foul. Even after taking a huge forearm hit from Bynum, Barea’s floater went up and in, resulting in two points for Dallas, two subsequent free throws, and possession of the ball. Not exactly an everyday occurrence.
  • On a related note, it’s still baffling to me that the Lakers would commit so much pressure at the three-point line to the task of defending Barea with either Tyson Chandler or Brendan Haywood setting a screen. Is it so hard to roll under screens to encourage Barea to shoot jumpers while letting the big man sag in the paint? Chandler and Haywood aren’t going to catch at the free throw line and pop a jumper, and if J.J. concedes in order to take a three, that’s ultimately a good thing for the Laker defense considering the circumstances. Yet L.A.’s defenders got hung up on screens time and time again with Bynum hedging 20 feet from the rim and Pau Gasol unable to leave Dirk Nowitzki. I’m not sure who was responsible for the pick-and-roll blunders for the Lakers, but they empowered Barea as a creator and made him into a significant problem in this series.
  • But let’s take a moment to appreciate just how incredible Barea was in this game and this series. The pick-and-roll opened the door, but it was still up to Barea — who has often functioned as the Mavs’ built-in scapegoat, but has set that honorary title ablaze — to finish his looks and find his teammates. He scored over and around Bynum, he worked for creative passing and scoring angles, and had Terry not connected with an unseen power, he would have been the best guard for either team in Game 4, despite taking the court alongside two surefire Hall-of-Famers.
  • Also: attempting to defend Barea with Ron Artest was hilarious.
  • As were Artest’s offensive pursuits:

  • Gasol vs. Nowitzki used to seem like an actual argument, but that debate segued into Bryant vs. Nowitzki, and now Nowitzki vs. pretty much anyone. To the victor go the spoils of public opinion, and after championing the Mavs through their improbable sweep, Dirk is walking on sunshine.
  • I doubted the ability of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood to defend against LaMarcus Aldridge’s versatility, and then doubted their ability to defend against Bynum’s sheer size. I was horribly wrong, and both players have been defensive rock stars. Bynum scored six points and grabbed just six boards in Game 4, his second game in this series where he had both under 10 points and 10 rebounds. Bynum still had a pair of successful performances, but that’s the expectation. He played up to par in two games, and was held far below his expected performance in two others, including the final outing of the Lakers’ season.
  • Oh, by the way: the Mavs happened to make 20 three-pointers (in just 32 attempts), setting a new playoff record. No big deal, just making history over here.
  • Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook found one constant in the Mavs’ three-point shooting aside from the hard work of Terry and Stojakovic: the influence of Dirk Nowitzki. Yet another example of how the man makes things happen, even on a day where his statistical output isn’t quite what you’d expect.
  • Brendan Haywood made two consecutive free throws. That’s an omen of the apocalypse, right?
  • I’m still in disbelief over Gasol’s regression. Nowitzki did a fantastic job of defending him both on the perimeter and in the post, but even with that in mind, the degree to which Gasol was neutralized is startling. He’s been the most important Laker all season long, but throughout both of L.A.’s postseason series he’s failed to be aggressive, failed to execute, failed to make an imprint on the game in almost any regard. Basketball fans will again call him soft, but really, Gasol was just bad; it has nothing to do with his masculinity or his ability to grind in the post or something equally ridiculous, but simply an odd reluctance to assert himself. He was certainly too passive, but also underwhelming even when he did get touches down low or in the high post. I don’t mean to make the man a scapegoat — what ailed the Lakers went far deeper than Pau Gasol — but he was so unbelievably absent from this series.
  • 32 assists on 44 made field goals is pretty insane, as was the fact that the Mavs had assisted on 10 of their first 11 buckets, and had notched 20 dimes by halftime. This is truly unparalleled ball movement.
  • Dallas’ worst quarter in Game 4: a 9-of-17 third frame in which they played L.A. to a draw at 23-all. The Lakers started out the second half with some defensive stops, and for a matter of moments, looked like they actually belonged on the court on Sunday.
  • Jason Kidd deserves a round of applause for 1) his well-publicized ability to impact the game in a variety of ways, and 2) his tremendous defense against Kobe Bryant in this series. Kidd didn’t even rack up all that many assists in Game 4, but he was a contributor during some big Maverick runs (the 10-0 sprint to close the first half, for example) and did those mythical little things.
  • However, it was the Mavs’ additional defensive pressure that really threw Kobe off of his game. Dallas was somehow able to pull off the feat of committing an extra defender against Bryant overtly at times (direct double team) or more subtly at others (a floating defender, waiting to help), and yet still scamper back to cover the open man. Kidd, Stevenson, Stojakovic, Terry, and Barea deserve a ton of credit — they managed to hound Bryant a bit and recover nicely to avoid weak side exploitation.
  • For the sake of finding a silver lining, L.A. did do one thing relatively well: rebound. The Mavs should have dominated the raw rebounding totals given the incredible number of Laker misses. Instead, they took just a 40-39 advantage, thanks largely to L.A.’s 30.6 offensive rebounding rate. I don’t want to glorify a series of missed put-backs in a game that the Lakers essentially forfeited, but at least there was a slight display of effort in creating extra possessions off the glass.
  • Stojakovic was an oddly effective defender in this series. He faced a series of tough assignments created by weird matchups or on switches, but held his own against Bryant, Odom, Artest, and even Bynum and Gasol (via denying entry passes) on occasion. I’d settle for Stojakovic not providing opponents with a clear point of attack, but at various times in this serious he made legitimately beneficial defensive plays.
  • The same is true of Marion, but due to his superior defensive ability, I don’t look at his performance in this series in such rosy terms. Dallas clearly didn’t need huge performances from Marion due to their hot shooting, but he ultimately took the back seat in defending Kobe Bryant to Kidd. Marion still had effective stretches, but just wasn’t quite as good as one may have expected given Marion’s track record in defending elite wing players. Even at this age, he can do better, and if the Mavs play the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, he’ll have to.
  • The Lakers made five three-pointers in the entire game. The Mavericks made at least four pointers in each quarter, including seven in the second and five in the fourth.
  • I still don’t have the foggiest idea why we didn’t see more of Corey Brewer in this series. DeShawn Stevenson didn’t play all that well on either end of the court, and Brewer is definitely capable of shooting 1-of-5 from three but while providing better slashing, more energy, and better defense. Plus, when opponents are leaving Stevenson to double elsewhere, isn’t that enacting the fear of the offensive burden that Brewer might bring?
  • Haywood grabbed more rebounds in 17 minutes of action (eight) than every Laker except for Gasol (who also had eight).
  • Kudos to the folks running the entertainment at the American Airlines Center. During several rounds of the “BEAT L.A” chants that broke out in Game 4, the folks running the soundboard killed everything. They cut the music, the sound effects, the video clips — they let the fans unleash in support of their team with only silence as the backdrop. The AAC can be characterized by its non-stop audio-visual stimulation (sometimes to the detriment of the basketball experience), but these moments of unadulterated fan fervor were pretty awesome. I know it’s easy for fans to get psyched when their team is on the verge of sweeping the defending champs, but the MFFLs showed up on Sunday and the AAC entertainment staff let them scream to the rafters.
  • Terry’s rapport with the fans is tremendous. You know JET eats up the response to his antics, but the man makes a conscious, ongoing effort to keep the fans involved and energized, even when things like long TV timeouts take away some of the game’s natural momentum. Rather than loiter around the scorer’s table to wipe off his shoes an extra time or do a quick stretch, JET took the court solo to energize the fans. He stalked the sidelines and called to the Maverick faithful. Opposing teams, coaches, and fans may find him irritating, and I can understand their frustration with JET’s posturing. Yet there’s a reason he holds such a special place in the hearts of Mavs fans, and it goes beyond the timely shots and the fourth quarter performance.
  • More record fun: Terry’s nine three-point makes tied an NBA playoff record, but the lopsided nature of the game prevented him from securing that record-breaking three. Drat.
  • This was likely Phil Jackson’s final game as a coach, and it’s a damn shame that his players couldn’t have taken that into consideration when they were spacing on pick-and-roll coverage and practically rotating away from open shooters. Jackson’s the best there ever was, and though this loss likely won’t be even a footnote of a footnote of a footnote on his coaching career, it would have been nice to see his team go out with a bit more fight. For the record, I don’t think Jackson was a victim in this loss or this win-less series; there are a number of technical problems that held L.A. back, and that responsibility falls on the coaching staff. Still, Phil wasn’t supposed to go out like this, and even if the Lakers committed some strategic blunders, the biggest problem in Game 4 was the embarrassing lack of effort.
  • Predictable dynamic of the post-game press conferences: though plenty of questions were lobbed up for both Dirk and JET to answer (they took the podium together), Dirk remained silent while Terry offered his analysis and reflection. In several cases, Nowitzki didn’t even look up; he merely stared straight through the table in front of him during the question and the response both, allowing Terry — ever the talker — to handle every single question purposed for both of them to answer.