Sometimes it’s hard to get coaches, managers, and owners to speak up concerning the current goings-on of the team. Everything is played so close to the chest, and it’s almost like the media and the team stand diametrically opposed at times. Consumers of sports media want to know how things work — what went into making this decision, why this guy and not that guy, etc. — and ask the almighty “Why?” But the members of the team itself are also somewhat reliant on keeping that information internal. After all, you never know who might hear what, and specifics are, in this case at least, a team’s worst enemy.
But I applauded Mark Cuban’s willingness to talk about some of the Mavs’ decisions in the past, if only because it helps those of us on the outside to fill in the gaps. It’s nice to know why this or that was done, even if it’s a year or two later. And then again, sometimes when talking about decisions from the past, guys like Cuban still tip their hand a bit (perhaps intentionally). Read as much into this quote from Cuban as you’d like:
Sometimes [the players] need prompting [to figure out the best play], and the ones who don’t figure it out…I mean it’s true that’s a great point theres a subset of players that don’t figure it out, that cant figure it out, that don’t think. Those are the ones that are so blessed talent-wise that you try to make it work — like we had Gerald Green. [To the Celtics' Mike Zarren] You guys have had Gerald Green.
I just look at him and think ‘Oh my God!’ There are things that he’ll show you that are just ‘Oh my God!’ and then he just doesn’t understand the game of basketball and hopefully he’ll figure it out someday but you just keep giving him those chances. He ran out of chances (so far) this last time.
On its own, I think he’s just talking about the hyper-athletic Gerald Green and players of his ilk. But this topic was a recurring theme for Cuban in many of his panels: a guy that just can’t figure it out, that doesn’t think on the court, that isn’t a smart basketball player. Now, I could be mistaken here, but I seem to remember a lot of similar criticism being lobbed at a guy who played for the Mavs not too long ago. It would be completely unfair of Mark to take explicit pot shots at Josh Howard through media channels, but would I put it past him to perhaps offer a veiled criticism of Josh’s game? Not at all.
I’m not sure if Cuban was looking to send a message or just got stuck on a particular topic at multiple panels. But that doesn’t stop Green’s story from being any less of a condensed caricature of Howard’s career. I wouldn’t dare play team psychologist here, but from where I’m sitting, Howard’s troubles always seemed to be more mental than physical. It’s undeniable that he faced a lot in rehabbing and returning from various injuries, but the game within the game has always been to keep Josh on the same page as everyone else. He was fed shot attempts early in the first quarter, and there’s absolutely no doubt that he was treated differently than other players. That’s what it took to keep him functioning as a member of the team, and so its what the Mavericks did.
They hoped he would figure it out someday but they just kept giving him those chances. Josh just ran out of chances this last time.
Before this season began, I had the pleasure of chatting a bit with the Mavericks’ newly-christened stat head, Roland Beech. We haven’t had the opportunity to check in with him since, but Mark Cuban provided us with an update at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Marc Stein asked Cuban about Beech specifically during the keynote basketball panel, entitled “Basketball Analytics,” and here was Cuban’s response:
If we were going to get to the point where we were able to collect more data and integrate the coaching staff more fully into using it, as opposed to just getting daily reports that we could sit down and review with the coaching staff, I wanted to have somebody there…on site that they could talk to at any time. Even during the game.
He talks to the players, don’t get me wrong — Dirk will give [Roland] as much of a hard time about his haircut as he gives anyone else. But that’s the type of thing where you don’t want too many voices. So we work back through the coaches.
Beech is officially a member of the Mavericks’ coaching staff, and he sits near the bench, often alongside Cuban, during the games. But even more important than the capacity in which Beech is working with the team is the note that Cubes touched on at the end, and one that was prevalent throughout the entire conference. Having the right statistics is one thing, and finding the right way to utilize them is something else entirely. You can’t just hammer raw data into a player’s head through their ear, it needs to be broken down. It needs to be analyzed.
Mike Zarren, Assistant GM and Team Counsel for the Celtics, hammered that point home perfectly:
I don’t know what it would mean to a player to tell him that “Some guy’s adjusted plus-minus is plus four.” I mean, how does that change what he does on a particular night? It doesn’t mean anything.
The most important thing to remember with advanced stats in basketball is that everything is contextual. That’s where the power lies. It’s the decoder that translates measures of all kinds into something usable, something real. It’s what separates those with an understanding of how to use the data — those who classify statistics as tools and never assume any metric to be omnipotent — from those who do not. The measures provided are simply descriptors of what we’ve seen on the floor. There are assigned values, calculations, and analysis that go along with those measures, but that’s simply another way to make sense of the information available.
But somewhere between that “adjusted plus-minus [of] plus four,” and the players on the court is a process. It involves the aforementioned decoding, it involves lineup analysis, and it involves evaluation of situational effectiveness. And it certainly involves Beech, the man working behind the scenes to ensure that the Mavs don’t miss a beat in the statistical revolution. Dallas is among the first franchises to not only embrace analytical research, but to have a full-time advisor on hand. Take pride, Mavs fans, because while franchises around the league are cavemen that run in fear of fire, your team, and more specifically your owner, realizes the value and application of it.
That level of analysis is the future of professional basketball. As teams accumulate more and more data, the advantages will become even clearer. There’s just so much that a coach can do when they know what Rick Carlisle knows. If basketball really is a game of match-ups, then the Mavs’ brain trust gives them a huge match-up advantage almost every night out; few teams are as progressive as your Dallas Mavericks, and that’s something to hang your hat on.