BY ERIK GUNDERSEN
Jordan Brenner of ESPN The Magazine released an all-access piece
on the Trail Blazers use of advanced statistics. The piece profiles Trail Blazers Analytics Manager Ben Falk and how coach Terry Stotts' use of the data Falk provides.
Brenner shows the balance the Trail Blazers use between being analytical but also allowing the players on the floor to not be slaves to statistics. Specifically, it shows how Falk's statistical analysis helped the Trail Blazers staff come up with a game plan that got them a win in January at home against the Indiana Pacers. The article is available to ESPN users with insider accounts and will be released in the March 4th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
On Wednesday night, as the Blazers host the Pacers, Falk's work is evident all over the court. You just have to know where to look. On Portland's second possession, Lillard runs off a screen and drills a jumper from the elbow. Then the 6'9" Hickson faces up and hits a baseline shot over 7'2" Roy Hibbert. On the next trip, Aldridge nails an 18-footer off a high pick-and-roll.
Normally the midrange two-pointer is one of the least efficient shots in basketball. An analytically proficient offense would instead generate attempts at the rim and open corner three-pointers (the corner three is a 39 percent shot over the past five seasons; other threes are just 35 percent). But the Pacers are the best defensive team in the league, particularly in the metrics that matter. They rank first in effective field goal percentage, allow the second-fewest shots at the rim and give up the second-fewest corner threes. Falk knows that basketball is a game of constantly shifting probabilities, so tonight the Blazers go against the stats. "Baseline percentages are only broad summaries," he says. "They may not always apply for a lot of reasons, including the other team's scheme and personnel. Against a team like Indiana, getting open shots for the right shooters, even if they are in midrange, can be a better-percentage play than forcing a tough shot at the rim."
The game plan was hatched at Tuesday morning's coaches meeting. Stotts leaned over a long table, slid his reading glasses over his nose and began reading Indiana's defensive stats aloud. "They're scary," he said. "So what do we have on offense?" Triano suggested pick-and-rolls on the plodding Hibbert. When guarding a ball screen, Hibbert tends to hang back, protecting the paint. That opens a pocket between the arc and the foul line that a good shooter can exploit.
Another metric-minded coach might have simply delivered that data to his players and trusted them to adjust. But doing so runs the risk of paralyzing players, especially young players, by asking them to think too much, rather than act. Instead, Stotts and his staff scoured their menu of plays, searching for the juiciest options to free a midrange shooter. Then at practice on Tuesday, Stotts dialed up a half-roll drill. The purpose of practice, after all, is to create habits. And as the Blazers big men worked on setting screens, then rolling to the foul line instead of the rim, Stotts was subtly adjusting their instincts for Wednesday night. Instead of just feeding them numbers, the coach found a more efficient way to force an adjustment.
Some other interesting tidbits in the article include Terry Stotts' nickname for Ben Falk and Falk's own journey to becoming the Analytics Manager. It also touches on Stotts' early days dealing with prehistoric spreadsheets in Seattle and how he learned to collaborate with more statical minds, like Falk, during his Dallas days.