Friday, November 16, 2012

Setting the Pace: What The Best Coaches Get And Why Mike D'Antoni Might Be In For A Long Season

In the numbers community, we don't often give much consideration to coaching. It, along with chemistry, clubhouse culture, and various pseudo-psychological tropes are the type of ambiguities we set ourselves in general opposition to. Even if the middle-aged guy in a suit standing by the bench had an appreciable effect upon the outcome of the contest, if we couldn't quantify or predict this effect, that knowledge wouldn't be worth a great deal to us.

Our respected colleagues at Wages of Wins put together an interesting and quite exhaustive study on NBA coaches and their impact upon wins.  The focus of this work, you will note, is the allocation of minutes; specifically which coaches 'get it' and which do not. While I do have a couple of follow-up questions for the authors (isn't is easier to decide between Michael Jordan and Jud Buechler than Calbert Cheaney and Tracy Murray?), I do think this is an excellent jumping off point and a fair description of the relationship between a coach and the success of his team.

As I see it, a coach has two chief functions: deciding who plays and how they play. WOW has taken a good look at minutes, and I'd like to share a few thoughts on pace. A coach is largely responsible for dictating the pace his team will play at- he installs the system, calls plays and sets, and issues directives and adjustments to both throughout a game and a season. Surely, some do this better than others...
Let's go the numbers.

When Gregg Popovich took the reigns in San Antonio, the Spurs were operating under a fairly dynamic offensive system. In Brian Hill's final full season, the Spurs were 9th in offensive possessions and 6th in points. With the addition of Tim Duncan, Pop ground that down to pace so stifled some commentators wondered if a Spurs dynasty might actually kill professional basketball.

From 1997-2008, the Spurs ranked 23rd, 19th, 24th, 19th, 20th, 19th, 23rd, 23rd, 27th, 28th, 26th respectively, an unbelievably consistent brand of basketball that perfectly reflected the strengths of those teams. In 2009-2010, the Spurs posted 50 wins, which was actually the team's worst winning percentage in a full season under Pop (that is so gross), Duncan looked aged, the wonder guards were having a hard time staying healthy, things seemed to be wrapping up.

Shifting on a dime, Pop added a whole bunch of shooters to a team that could already shoot, hoisted the 7th most threes in the league and hit the highest percentage of them of any team (39.8%). That 2010-11 team ran at the 14th quickest pace and won 61 games, the following year they won 50 in a shortened season and paced 7th. So far, the Spurs are 7-1 and running at the 7th quickest pace. Pop's Spurs have always had good players, heck, they've always had Tim Duncan, but the numbers show that Pop's teams were tightly pace-controlled.

I'll spare you a similar enumeration of the feats of the league's all-time winningest coach Don Nelson, well, because he coached for goddamn ever, but we similar trends with his teams. In Nelson's first gig with the Bucks he inherited a young team fronted by Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, and Alex English- gunners all of them. Early in Nelson's term, the team drafted defensive specialist and complete ass-kicker Sidney Moncrief and traded for big man Bob Lanier.  The team's pace dropped to that of a snail and Nellie would win 50 or more the next seven seasons. Not one of those teams would crack the top half of the league in possessions per game.

If you know anything about his later work in Golden State and Dallas, slow-ball is not the hallmark of Nelson, on the contrary, he probably would have preferred to run some of those Bucks teams like hell. Once again we see evidence of a coach both dictating and managing pace to great effect. Most of those 80's Bucks teams weren't exceptional at shooting the ball, but they posted better shooting percentages (3's and overall) than their opponents in all but Nellie's first season. They achieved this by going slow and D-ing it up. That is understanding your team.

Which brings us to Mike D'Antoni. His first two seasons with the Suns the team lead the league in possessions and never finished lower than 5th. And why not? Lead by Steve Nash, a young Amare, and a revolving cast of excellent athletes and shooters, how else were they going to play? Not many really questioned the D'Antoni system and frankly most thought Steve Kerr was in the wrong for bringing in Shaq and blowing up the fun and gun Suns.

D'Antoni would land on his feet, two seasons later with the Knicks. In New York, he inherited a team that couldn't shoot a lick and harbored first-rate chuckers Al Harrington, Jamal Crawford, and Larry Hughes. Would the coach run a system that would minimize the shooting deficiencies of his squad (fewer possessions) or make light of them (more possessions)? We of course know how that played out- the Knicks finished with the 2nd most possessions in basketball and lost 50 games and three lousy seasons later D'Antoni was back on the bread line.

In L.A., D'Antoni has a team that needs to run like it needs Kobe to take more shots. Last season the team ranked 2nd in rebounds, 2nd in points in the paint, and 26th in three point shooting percentage...AND THEN they traded for Dwight Howard. This team cannot play like the Showtime Lakers because they can't shoot like Magic and Worthy. Jesus, they can barely shoot like that Knicks team with Harrington and Hughes from the outside.

There are a couple pretty firm truths here, 1) teams don't play like those Suns teams if they don't have to, the VAST majority of champions look more like Duncan's Spurs than Nash's Suns. 2) A team's ability to make better usage of their possessions than their opponent is fundamental to winning the game. If you can run like hell, stick more shots than the other guys, and turn it over less, it behooves you to flood the game with possessions. Contrastingly, if you can grind a team to powder, then you don't want to give the other guys more shots with which to maybe get lucky. Mike Brown was probably a pretty good coach for this team, actually.

If D'Antoni can't have his Pop or Nellie moment, the moment where he decides to run the team he has rather than the team he wants, this is going to be a short and ugly experiment in L.A.


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