Will coaches listen to stat heads?

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics ConferencePhoto: John Marcus

Mark Cuban and Avery Johnson

It's one thing for an NBA organization to commit itself to collecting and analyzing advanced statistics, but it's quite another to get the coaching staff to buy in. Zach Lowe of Celtics Hub attended the panel on Saturday at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on coaching analytics. Lowe reports that much of the discussion on the panel focused on the Dallas Mavericks' playoffs successes and failures while Avery Johnson implemented the findings of Wayne Winston, who was working for the Mavs as a consultant:

Before [Avery] Johnson was hired in Dallas, he says, the basic box score “was my Bible.” He never thought beyond the basic stats -- points in the paint, field-goal percentage, free throw differential. But then Mark Cuban and stats guru (and ex-Mav consultant) Wayne Winston began peppering Johnson about advanced plus/minus and what it revealed about various lineup combinations.

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And Johnson listened, especially in the first round of the 2005 playoffs, when the stats showed Johnson the Rockets were killing Dallas by inserting Jon Barry at the four and going small. (Says Jon’s brother, Brent: “That’s the only time Jon ever hurt any team”). Johnson responded by pulling Erick Dampier and shifting Dirk Nowitzki to center whenever Barry entered the game.

Dallas won four of the next five and advanced past Houston.

But in the Mavs’ infamous first-round loss to Golden State two seasons later? “I got burned when following the advanced stats,” Johnson says. Winston’s numbers showed that during the regular season, the Warriors had smoked the usual Dallas starting lineup, which featured Dampier at center. In a decision he now regrets, Johnson adjusted his starting lineup for Game 1 by benching Dampier and starting Nowitzki at center. The Mavs lost. Johnson, though, stands by the decison. “It was the right move,” he insists. Still, he reversed course for Game 2 and went back to the normal starting lineup. Dallas won, and Johnson believes the Mavs played better because they were -- psychologically -- more comfortable with Damp at center. “Everybody had freaked out” at the Game 1 lineup change, Johnson says.

And that represents the closest thing to a consensus that emerged from this panel: The best decisions will be made when coaches consider advanced stats not alone, but alongside everything else -- what their eyes tell them, what the film shows and the psychology of each individual player.