NBA Coach's Challenge: Know the Numbers, but Talk the Game

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterNovember 19, 2013

USA Today

Earlier this season, first-year Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens prepared and presented an analytics-heavy dissertation to his players on why they had so much trouble scoring their first basket in a game. After the lengthy presentation, shooting guard Courtney Lee had a suggestion. “Coach, you can just tell us not to take a shot unless we’re open,” he said.  

The exchange is both funny and telling—about the state of coaching in the NBA in general, the use of analytics in particular and, of course, the plight of a first-year NBA coach with no prior experience in the league. It also points to the biggest challenge of coaching by numbers, particularly at the NBA level: effective translation.

Telling a player or team that uncontested shots from three-point range produce an overall quota of more points, say, is all well and good, but that’s merely information. Knowing that makes you a bookkeeper. (Or, in some cases, an owner or general manager.) A coach is distinguished not merely by his knowledge, but also by how effectively he gets his players to apply what he imparts to them.

The use of analytics has become a hot topic outside the NBA because numbers extracted from box scores are utilized to buttress arguments about overall ability or talent of players and, in some cases, touted as being more informative than those who base their assessments on observation and firsthand experience.

The joke is that NBA teams are more mindful of analytics than ever, but they view the box-score numbers being analyzed by those outside the league as somewhat archaic and inadequate. They chart and track their own statistical categories by breaking down film. Their purpose is not to assess individual excellence or rank players as much as it is to help them acquire the perfect blend of them at the appropriate prices. A few other sciences—physical and psychological—also factor into the process, but within the league they’re all considered part of the analytics universe.

ONTARIO, CA - OCTOBER 8:  Executive Vice President of Player Personnel Jim Buss of the Los Angeles Lakers watches the game against the Denver Nuggets at Citizens Business Bank Arena on October 8, 2013 in Ontario, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
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“I’m a numbers freak,” says Lakers vice president Jim Buss, a fascination he shared with his late father and former Lakers owner, Dr. Jerry Buss. “I think in numbers, talk in numbers. We don’t share ours with anyone. (Coach Mike) D’Antoni loves looking at them. You can’t base any one decision on numbers. It won’t work. But if you have a mind like (GM) Mitch (Kupchak), it’s a great blend. More than anything, it helps in negotiations because it helps you decide what a guy is worth to you based on what you’re trying to put together.”

Dr. Buss was the exception in his day, but his son is the rule in today’s NBA as far as being in charge and seeing the game through efficiency models. It’s why so many coaches who have so little hands-on knowledge are getting a chance: Not only are they more amenable to working with the analytics-driven roster a GM and owner deem viable, but they also fit the new paradigm of what a coach is worth (i.e., they’ll accept shorter, far less expensive contracts).

None of this is a knock on Stevens, who has received as favorable reviews from scouts as any of the nine head coaches getting their first crack at running an NBA team this season. That some believe he could stick is impressive alone, considering the legion of successful college head coaches who were a major disappointment at the pro level. Or that the other eight current first-timers all previously played or served as assistant coaches in the league.

Why is that important? Because the hardest task of being an NBA head coach is getting his players to buy in completely to whatever it is he’s trying to get them to do. The system he runs is sometimes secondary to how committed his players are to running it.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 7:  Head Coach Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics meets with his team during a time out against the Toronto Raptors on October 7, 2013 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
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Anyone who saw Stevens at Butler University knows he can develop players and teach an effective system of playing basketball; at least at the college level. That he managed to lead the Bulldogs to two NCAA championship games proves he’s adept enough at selling what he can do for a kid to recruit high-grade talent. But what worked in the NCAA doesn’t necessarily apply in the NBA. Coaching kids who hope to become pros against men who have already made the grade and have a guaranteed contract to show for it is radically different. If the other eight have an advantage, it’s that they knew that before they took the job.

“Stevens has a chance to succeed as a college-to-pro coach because he didn’t bring an ego,” said one league executive. “The college coaches that have come in before all believed everything had to be done their way. It’s how it worked for them at the college level.”

He also didn’t have someone above him at Butler with ideas about what his most efficient lineup or mix of three-pointers versus layups might be. So Stevens took a crack at feeding his players the analytics that no doubt were provided for him. It didn’t work, and perhaps it lost him a bit of credibility, but he can take comfort in knowing he’s not alone on that tight rope; just about every coach in the league, no matter what his tenure, has GMs and owners who have numbers-driven ideas about how their rosters should be utilized on one side and players they must get to buy into those ideas on the other.

His job, then, is a bit trickier than that of Jim Buss: He can think in numbers all he wants. He just can’t talk in them.



OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - OCTOBER 15: Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots against Timofey Mozgov #25 of the Denver Nuggets during a preseason game on October 15, 2013 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User
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• If there was an extra bit of fire (and there was) between Thunder rookie center Steven Adams and Warriors veteran big man Andrew Bogut in last week’s all-around fierce battle between two of the West’s best teams, blame Greg Chappell, former captain of the Australian cricket team.

The sports rivalry between New Zealand and Australia goes back hundreds of years, but it went up another notch in 1981 during a rare one-day cricket match between the Aussies and Kiwis in Melbourne. As legend (and Wikipedia) have it, Chappell ordered his bowler and younger brother, Trevor, to close out the match by rolling the ball underarm on the ground, effectively preventing the Kiwis any chance of a comeback. (The equivalent, I believe, would be walking the last batter of the trailing team in the World Series if a game could end on a walk.)

“They cheated us from winning,” said Adams, who was born in Rotorua, New Zealand, 12 years after the actual incident occurred. “So from then on it just doesn’t matter how nice you are, if you’re an Aussie we’re not going to like you.” Adams entered the game last Thursday knowing Bogut had been born in Melbourne (three years after Chappell’s trickery) and acted accordingly; there was enough jostling that at one point the refs threatened to call technical fouls on both. “I search out Aussies and make it my job to make their lives miserable,” Adams said.

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Chauncey Billups #1 of the Detroit Pistons in a game against the Golden State Warriors on November 12, 2013 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
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• Chauncey Billups has long been viewed as a player who, much like Jason Kidd, could step off the court and directly into a coaching role. But seeing his former Nuggets coach, George Karl, fired shortly after winning Coach of the Year and his former Clippers coach, Vinny Del Negro, let go after winning a franchise-record 56 games, has given him pause.

“If I stay in the game, I’d rather put a team together,” he said. “That would be my desire. In my opinion, the coaching situation is just not stable enough. Not with Coaches of the Year and guys setting franchise records being let go.” Former head coach Jeff Van Gundy understands Billups’ trepidation. “It’s the era of the absurd,” he said. “You get fired if you lose or if you win.”

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 13:  Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns drives to the basket against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 13, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
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• Statistical nuggets to chew on, courtesy of Bloomberg Sports: Despite being several years past D’Antoni’s "Seven Seconds or Less" offense, the Suns, as of Monday, were averaging a league-high 23.4 points per game in transition. It’s not quite D’Antoni fashion, though, because they are not among the top 10 teams in attempting threes on the break. (The Warriors, no surprise, are first by pulling up for threes on 42 percent of their transition opportunities).

Also worth noting: The Heat, who lived and died by scoring in transition when the Heatles were formed, are currently scoring the smallest percentage of their points in transition (9.5 percent) of any team in the league.


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.