You would think a basketball purist like Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t be the type to buy into the new school of analyzing advanced statistics in order to give his team an edge. Somebody like Thibodeau is more the type to use his own acquired knowledge, traditional hoops philosophies and the good old-fashioned eye test when he spends countless time evaluating the game in his Berto Center office.
Wrong. Well, partially.
Advanced statistics have come into vogue with both basketball media and casual fans as of late, and the numbers, which track detailed stats that can’t be found in old-school box scores — such as win shares, which calculate how much players contribute to team success — can be overwhelming to those unfamiliar with the concept, but they are given increasingly more credence and don’t appear to be going anywhere. Thibodeau acknowledged the value in the basketball analytics that have come to the forefront in recent years, except he doesn’t consider it a new trend.
“It’s been around for a long time. Pat Riley was big on it 20 years ago and no one was doing it,” the coach recently explained. “A lot of guys, like [late NBA head coach] Bill Musselman, who I worked for, he was big on stats for both game prep and evaluating players. There are certain things that I’ve watched over the years, and my experience of 23 years in the league, and I know what numbers hold up, and what numbers mean things. A lot of that I got from Bill.”
[MORE: The Derrick Rose effect]
He also divulged that the Bulls’ front office is utilizing advanced statistics more these days, but while he’ll consult the organization’s new expert in the field, like scouting reports, Thibodeau, who routinely cites plus-minus statistics (a measure of how the team performs when individual players are on the floor), not one of the newer statistics, will also do his own research.
“We have a guy that we’ve hired that’s terrific, Steve Weinman. We’re using him for the draft, that sort of stuff. I’ve been big on it for a long time. I like to use Elias [the long-time stats bureau]. There’s a number of things that I look at that have been a big part of preparation for a long time for me,” he said, first noting that he didn’t “want to get into specifics,” so as not to key opponents in on his tactics. “I get a stat pack both on our opponent and on us for every game, and there is a lot of information. I think the important thing is to determine what you feel is important to either make you think about things or confirm things that you’ve already thought about.”
Bulls backup center Nazr Mohammed, the most experienced veteran on the team, agrees with Thibodeau’s sentiment. The Chicago native, who has aspirations of joining an NBA front office when his playing days are over, attended the NBA players’ association leadership program in Las Vegas over the summer and got a better understanding of how to effectively utilize advanced statistics.
“Some people put a lot of weight into it, some people don’t put a lot of weight into it and the fact that it’s been around forever — now, they just have advanced statistics — and all the GM’s, they pretty much told us the same thing: You use that as another tool,” Mohammed said. “It’s not the final tool, it doesn’t decide who’s going to win or lose the game. It doesn’t decide, if the game’s on the line, you should play this guy.”
Drafted in 1998, Mohammed is regarded as a positive locker-room presence and hard worker, but if he was judged solely by his statistics, there’s no way he would still be playing in his 16th professional season, let alone be an important rotation player for a championship contender. The Kenwood Academy graduate and college national champion at Kentucky said that while advanced statistics serve a purpose, there are simply some things that aren’t valued by the numbers.
“You’re not going to get statistics for setting a good screen. You’re not going to get statistics for getting the first pass, the hockey assist. There’s a lot of statistics that’s not going to be found on that. I feel like I’m one of those who can make a play — do a great job of blocking guys out, keeping a great rebounder off the boards — and no one’s going to notice. Like big guys who sprint the floor, post up and don’t get the ball, but they draw people — you can’t measure that,” he explained. “A league executive was telling us one of the biggest plays in the Finals was when Shane Battier blocked out Tim Duncan for a rebound, but that’s not going to be in advanced statistics. So they were just telling us to use it, but not totally rely on it for a cure-all.
“But it can definitely help, like in trades, for instance. A throwaway guy, you look at a roster and you know that your coach runs a lot of stuff for two-guards on the left side, a lot of corner threes, and you know that this guy shoots well from the corner. So you’re picking that guy for the throw-in, he might turn out to be a great player for you. It may help you, you may find guys that fit your coach’s system.”
Thibodeau concurred with that view, using the example of Tony Allen, the defensive stopper and Chicago native who he coached in Boston, winning a title with the Celtics. Allen, never known for his scoring ability, might not be a favorite of the analytics faction — ironically, he was re-signed by the Grizzlies, who have a front office known as advanced-stats proponents, in the offseason — but to a coach like Thibodeau, his intangibles benefit Memphis much more than numbers would ever be able to indicate.
“He has a skill that he does as well as anybody in the league, so he can impact the game with his defense and he’s a streaky shooter, but he’s a great cutter and if you turn your head on him, beside of him, he’s going to make you pay, and he can also make plays,” Thibodeau. “I think sometimes that gets overlooked. He’s a fierce competitor and he knows how to win, so I think he’s had great impact on their team.”
[MORE: Bulls off to encouraging start]
When asked to cite an example of how to correctly utilize advanced statistics, the coach went into the way-back machine, as well as his New England roots, discussing current University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino — not his reigning national champs or his title team at Kentucky, which Mohammed played for, or even his NBA stints with the Knicks and Celtics, but his first head-coaching job at Providence — and his use of the then-recently-introduced three-pointer on the college level.
“The utilization of the three, both how you get to it and how you prevent it…I saw first-hand when Rick Pitino went to Providence College,” he explained, without a hint of irony., not even mentioning the fact that seventh-year Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah, as well as rookie Erik Murphy, played for Pitino’s star player, Billy Donovan, on that 1986 Friars team. “He was shooting a lot more threes than anyone else in college. He was way ahead of everyone, and I think that was based on his experience in the NBA. From a math standpoint, you can tell how you can offset a talent disadvantage.”
The coach expressed no resentment toward the new breed of NBA executives who emphasize numbers and don’t have as much traditional basketball experience — such as general managers Daryl Morey and Sam Presti of Houston and Oklahoma City, respectively — but cautioned that statistics can be taken out of proportion if not used correctly.
“In Boston, we had [Celtics assistant general manager] Mike Zarren. [Celtics team president] Danny Ainge was a big proponent of using numbers. It gives you a different way to look at things. It’s all good, but I think you also have to determine what is important to you because you can sometimes be paralyzed by looking at all the numbers of all the different things that you can get numbers for. That’s why I think it’s important to determine what’s important for you in terms of preparation,” Thibodeau said. “[The media has] to determine what fact to admit. I’ve been reading about these numbers that I know of, like people are talking about the average of what somebody does and it’s based on 16 games.
“An NBA season is 82 games, and you don’t know if it’s home games or road games, you don’t know if it’s four [games] in five [days], there are so many things that go into it,” he continued, slipping into his well-worn spiel. “The biggest thing is when you’re looking at statistics is that you’re comparing apples to apples. Often times that gets overlooked. So there is a biased confirmation. You can go into it and say, ‘Okay, this is what I think,’ and you can get the numbers to confess to anything.
“[Winston] Churchill has a great quote that went something along the lines of that he didn’t believe in any statistics that he didn’t doctor himself. I think there is a place [for stats] in our league and I think it’s good. It may be getting overplayed somewhat right now. I think the trained eye is very important, but numbers are a part of the equation.”
Quotes from famous historical names aside, it’s clear that while Thibodeau has embraced the ever-growing development of advanced stats in basketball, like everything else, he’s going to do it his way.