I was preparing a mild-mannered little game and stretch-run preview this morning when I read an article by Jordan Brenner of ESPN the Magazine that brought my writing to a needle-on-vinyl halt. It’s an in-depth profile of the Blazers’ newly beefed-up analytics operations, and Terry Stotts’ role in them. It has been widely known, or at least widely whispered, that Stotts is at the cutting edge of pro hoops in his adoption of advanced metrics, but Brenner’s article articulates exactly how uncommon that is, and how uniquely the Blazers translate data to the hardwood.
Brenner’s piece is online in full for Insiders, but there is one passage that stuck out to me in particular. The Blazers’ basketball analytics manager Ben Falk is discussing how to create a game plan against the ferocious defense of the Pacers, when the Blazers find an unlikely source of points:
“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.”
Stotts goes on from this realization to develop a practice around big men taking mid-range jumpshots off the “half-roll” rather than going hard at the rim—a seamless translation of data to actual practice. But the real reason I’m so drawn to this anecdote is that it shows a total, heartening disregard for dogma on the part of organization. In the constant climate of disagreement that forms online, stats loyalists and more metric-skeptical observers rarely move outside their trenches and beyond their strawmen to discuss the pragmatism of analysis. Lionel Hollins and Doug Collins are taken to the shed on Twitter for their stubbornness about analytics, while the other party crows about the deficiencies of catch-all metrics. Brenner’s article is a reminder of how pointless that debate is.
The Blazers don’t look like the face of analytics, unless you want to say that Terry Stotts looks like a tall CPA, in which case I agree with you. They have “retreads” on the bench and a GM who does not carry the sexy MBA outsider shininess of the Cult of Morey. They are, in fact, built around a player in LaMarcus Aldridge whose mid-range proficiency seems to make him a kind of analytic Kryptonite. But as the article shows, the proper use of analysis is intellectual flexibility, not rigidity. It’s not as if the slide-ruler half of the organization is crowing at the personnel half to bench the guys with lower WARP; this is an entire organization dedicated to augmenting its talent with analysis. Yes, you want shots at the rim or from beyond the arc, but nimble minds use what they have at their disposal to find the shots that are actually available on the court, and sometimes those are seventeen footers.
It’s almost comical how refreshing I find this article and its lessons. But it also goes some distance toward demystifying the Blazers’ performance this year. Analytics devotees and their detractors alike have conistently marveled at Portland’s over-performance this season, but the fluidity with which the team approaches knowledge explains why the organization isn’t so surprised. Most coaches, players, and fans are ideologues of one sort or another, but the Blazers know better, and they’re the only ones who saw this season coming.