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After the Wizards defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in November, NBC Sports Washington sideline reporter Chris Miller showed Bradley Beal a stat sheet from the game. Beal responded with a sarcastic smile: “I don’t look at the stat sheet man, it’s just numbers. I’m not an analytics guy.”
Beal’s dismissal of analytics is not uncommon among NBA players and fans. Some view the analytics barrage as counter to simply watching and understanding basketball based on what they see from their own eyes and the box score.
In 2015, ESPN ranked the Wizards in the bottom 10 in the NBA in its analytics ranking. The article labeled the organization as skeptics of analytics due to the team’s willingness to take mid-range jump shots under previous head coach Randy Wittman.
But the culture is changing. Leading the way is Brett Greenberg, the team’s director of basketball analytics who was promoted to his current position before the 2013-14 season. In four years on the job, Greenberg has helped close the gap in the amount of analytics information that the Wizards basketball operations staff is using. He has also improved the lines of communication between his analytics department and the coaching staff and players.
“The Wizards have greatly improved their shot profile this season, as they are getting more field goal attempts at the rim and from three point range,” says NBA analytics expert Kevin Broom of SB Nation.
Greenberg has been with the Wizards since 2010, starting out as a video coordinator. He previously worked with the Miami Heat as a video intern and as a student manager for the Duke men’s basketball team. The Baltimore County, Maryland native often walks around the Wizards practice facility in Ward 8 or at Capital One Arena with a binder of printed data or his laptop, ready to breakdown statistical trends on a moment’s notice.
He is also tasked with relaying information to team president Ernie Grunfeld, helping him make decisions about which players to sign in free agency or trade. Head coach Scott Brooks can use Greenberg’s information to think through lineup decisions and style of play.
During a media availability two seasons ago, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis made it clear that the Wizards are attempting to do better when it comes to analytics.
“I think for us, of course we can do better,” he said. “I don’t think there is any team that can’t execute and do better. As the state of the art continues to improve around analytics and then there is more innovation, yeah, I think what we’re doing today is innovative. I’d like to see more teams, additional teams do it, but you can only do it if you have an organization that goes, ‘That’s cool. We probably can learn something.’ If they’re open-minded.”
Advanced metrics can improve the product on the floor by analyzing trends, team performances when certain players are on the court versus when they sit, and shooting efficiency. But some players remain skeptical.
“I’m not really an analytical guy, so y’all asking the wrong dude,” Beal told reporters during training camp when asked about cutting down his mid-range shots for this season. “I don’t give a damn about how many threes we put up, as long as we win the ballgame. If that’s what’s going to win ballgames, we’re going to do it but I just want to win games.”
Even Brooks has said, “The only stat I care about at this point is wins and losses.”
Three major tenets of playing smart analytics-based basketball are shooting more three pointers, attempting more shots around the basket, and getting to the free throw line. Washington has undergone a lot of changes to ensure that the team no longer takes inefficient “long twos.”
Starting point guard John Wall, who will soon undergo season-ending surgery, mentioned early in the season that Brooks has told the team to avoid mid-range shots when possible.
The Wizards are shooting 67.8 percent of their shots at the rim or behind the arc, compared to just 55.3 percent last season. As a team, Washington is shooting significantly more three pointers this season (32.9 three point field goal attempts per game as of Jan. 2, which ranks ninth in the league) than they did last season (26.5 per game, which ranked 23rd in the league.)
“If it’s an early shot clock situation, try to shoot threes, not deep twos,” Wall told reporters. “So trying to get situated with that. A couple of times in practice I’m like, ‘Oh, am I supposed to shoot this shot? Am I not supposed to shoot this shot?’ I think all of us are just trying to get adjusted to that style of play.”
The Wizards have made strides in adapting to the current trend in the NBA, but the shots have not been falling.
One reason Washington has not shot well from three point range this season is because its best statistical shooter over the last three seasons, Otto Porter Jr., has missed significant time with a variety of ailments. Porter’s current knee injury has kept him out of the Wizards’ last ten games as of Jan. 2. The Wizards are 4-8 in the 12 games that Porter has missed this season.
While Porter has drawn the ire of fans because of his lack of aggressiveness and flashiness on the court, he has vocal supporters in the analytics community who label him one of the most efficient players in the NBA in recent seasons.
The best metric to evaluate someone’s efficiency as a shooter is true shooting percentage, which describes the rate at which a player turns any shot into points, taking into account two-point field goal attempts, three-pointers, and free throws. Over his career, Porter has a true shooting percentage of 58.3, including shooting 62.8 and 60.2 the previous two seasons, making him one of the most accurate shooters in the NBA over that time.
With Porter out, the Wizards leaned heavily on recently acquired forward Trevor Ariza to supplement some of the Wizards long-range shooting. Ariza is no stranger to the world of analytics.
During four seasons playing for the Houston Rockets, Ariza had an opportunity to see up close how the analytics movement has been able to decrease the statistical margins of error and give a team the best possible chance of winning.
Ariza admits that he’s still not a fan of analytics in terms of putting together a team or determining whether or not there is chemistry between the people on the court, but that he uses certain data to understand a player’s tendencies.
“I use it as a scouting tool,” he says. “I want to know some of the trends and tendencies of my opponents so that I can better defend them. If there is a guy on the other team who is not a good shooter according to the numbers, I know I can go under a screen or [play help defense] more than I can with a good shooter.”
The margin of winning in the NBA is razor thin and every tenth of a point matters. The Wizards are attempting to mitigate their poor performances on the court through an increased focus on analytics.
At several games below .500, the results have not been as promising as the team would like. But at least the franchise can say it is moving, however slowly, toward the future.
Second photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.