Stack’s Stats: Tired Refs, Fewer Points
The schedule grind for refs, teams scoring less and Kobe being Kobe.
Seven Questions Or Less
Roland Beech, Dallas Mavericks, Director of Basketball Analytics
SLAM: Did the extended off-season allow you to delve into any particular topic more than you would have?
Roland Beech: Sure, yeah. The thing about my job is there are always new ideas I have or that someone else will bring up as a thing to investigate. There’s no shortage of things I can look at in any particular moment. In fact, during the day-to-day practices I always have a piece of paper and a pen so that if I see something or hear something or something occurs to me, I write it down and I log it as a potential research topic. So, yeah, there are always more ideas than you actually have time to track down.
SLAM: What are your main duties in your job?
RB: I’m kind of a stats coach. There are people you hear about in the League who work for a team who are labeled as ‘stats guys’ or are much more on the front office side. I’m very much on the coaching side. I am basically with the coaching staff and the players full-time. I’m at all the practices, the meetings, I’m in the locker room and I’m behind the bench during games. I’m essentially a coach who’s an analytical coach. Often, I’m kind of trying to bring what people are asking me for. So, if Rick (Carlisle) or Terry (Stotts) has a number they’re looking for or are thinking about something they want to address with the players and they want some stats to support their message, I’m definitely there for that.
I also do my own proactive stuff where I look at our team, what’s happening, commenting on that. I’m very fortunate to be with the team I’m with because I think we have such a great setup. Rick and the other people are so receptive to ideas and other things like that that it’s definitely a great realm for this kind of stuff to be used.
SLAM: That’s where the added value is for you in traveling with the team versus being back in Dallas is that you can communicate things to coaches instantly?
RB: Yeah, oh yeah. A lot of it comes up kind of spontaneously. We’ll be talking at a meeting about an upcoming opponent or the last game or something, and then there’ll be this kind of idea or concept of something to look at or a question that comes up that statistics can provide clarity to or whatever. I really believe in this role. I actually consulted with the team for a number of years before I came and was kind of part of the staff. That was different because you don’t, or at least I didn’t because I don’t have a traditional coaching background, I didn’t really have a great sense of what was important to them, what kinds of things they were discussing or thinking about. So, being here every day is critical.
SLAM: What kinds of goals do you set for yourself and your staff? I’m assuming you have a few people under your direction.
RB: Some. I’m much more focused about our own team than being reactive to the other teams in the League and what they’re doing. So, I’m pretty heavily skewed in our own stuff. I watch our own games. But, yeah, I have other people who do more of the League-wide kinds of things.
Your goal is to be in line with what the organization’s goals are and obviously with the Mavericks, it’s winning another title. It’s focused on that. If you’re in a different organization, you might have an emphasis on developing your young players or things like that. I don’t necessarily set a lot of personal goals. For me, it’s definitely been the case that when I got here I had to overcome credibility concerns. I wasn’t, quote, a basketball guy. It’s been a process where I’ve had a lot to learn. I still do. You’re always learning new things. That was part of the personal side, was just becoming accepted and influential, or contributing.
SLAM: In what ways have coaches and players become more receptive to quantitative analysis each year you’ve consulted and then worked for the Mavericks?
RB: I think they’ve been surprised at the kind of data I can bring forth. I think a lot of times coaches have wanted to see certain kinds of data and just believed it wasn’t there or it wasn’t possible to get it. So, I think the joke we have often is, ‘I don’t know where you’re coming up with these stats. You’re probably just making them up and 20 years from now we’ll be at the bar and you’ll just admit that.’ No, you see more people using Synergy (Sports Tech) and these funky little stats websites that are getting noticed by coaches and other people around the League.
It’s a part of the whole package of how Rick and other people are making decisions. They have this extra stats-heavy side they can look at and bring into whatever other factors they’re looking at. It’s still an evolving process in that with any given coach there’s going to be different kinds of emphasis on what they value and what they like to see. A lot of it is delivering information in the right way. I think now there is definitely a sense that a lot of these areas of stats have become important in evaluating what’s going on with the team.
SLAM: Has there been one statistic that you’ve had a tough time convincing people is valuable?
RB: One of the challenges is always what’s a good or a bad shot. There’s often wide divergence on that. The players, themselves, think that their go-to move is really a great thing and statistically you may be able to show otherwise, or maybe not convince them that that’s the case [laughs].
When you get into the subjective areas, there’s always going to be some trickiness there. You can always evaluate things a lot of different ways. Maybe on a pick-and-roll, you’ve been using a certain defensive tactic and I can produce stats that say we’ve been giving up too many points per possession on this tactic. But that wouldn’t inherently suggest the tactic is bad. You could say it’s the execution or the communication as the play is unfolding. There are other mitigating factors that contribute to it. The difficulty is in isolating things enough to where you can say conclusively this is ‘X’. Most of the time I find that I can really get almost any stat I want with enough effort.
The difficulty is sample size; often you don’t have the sample size to have something you can really talk about. But I think the stats are accepted when they’re legitimate and that helps to then take action. It may not always be the clearest thing like we’re going to change tactics. What makes basketball fascinating to me is that it’s a very complicated, nuanced game like football. Both those sports have so much interaction between players – it’s great – whereas if I was a baseball stats guy, I wouldn’t be quite approaching things in the same way because baseball is such a one-on-one game that it’s a little different in how you assess things.
SLAM: What’s a popular stat that is more flawed than most other popular ones?
RB: Ironically, plus-minus. Which is funny because when I was launching my website (82games.com) years ago, it was one of those stats that drew attention to the site. And it’s certainly something I look at but I think plus-minus numbers take a lot of interpretation and you find some people think they’re really the bond, particularly when you get into the regression-based adjustments and things like that. I think you have to be very careful with how you use plus-minus stats.
Almost all stats have a story to tell. It’s almost the skill in interpreting them, I think, that comes into play.
SLAM: Is there a stat for 2012 that you think fans will start to understand better, similar to how plus-minus stats were received in 2010 and 2011?
RB: The problem is most of the stuff I use, to an average fan, is esoteric and nuanced and not available. What we do now is proprietary. The 82games site continues on but it’s by no means anything I spend a whole lot of time looking at in my own work. What I’m doing is very different from that. There are incredible stats that I use and other people in the League may be using, but they’re not really out there for people to see and talk about.
The Synergy stuff is starting to open up a bit, so you hear people talking about that. Clearly, the defensive side has very poor basic stats. The box score doesn’t tell you much at all about the defensive side. That’s where, five years from now, or two years from now, there may be a public venue for giving that side of the ball a lot better. I think that will probably be the next big thing. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen this year. I don’t think there’s anyone really publishing, publicly, a lot of information on that yet.