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When the Wizards fired Randy Wittman as head coach and hired Scott Brooks to fill the role, I made some dismissive jokes about how they’d just traded one white dude in glasses for another, and then I assumed the Wizards would proceed to be mediocre as usual.
Instead, the team just clinched a division title for the first time in 38 years. It has been fun to watch, has been winning games, and its young stars—John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr.—have finally been performing like stars.
All three of those guys were with the Wizards last year when the team finished at exactly .500 and missed the playoffs. Wall was very good but only transcendent in flashes; Beal performed well enough to earn a max deal but not so well that everyone was sure he deserved it; and Porter was still a rising young prospect. All three are now having career years.
So, naturally, I reversed course and decided that Scott Brooks was a genius polymath, solely responsible for everything good about the Wizards this year.
I tend to consume sports through a narrative lens. I’m not one of these lunatic flat-earth, anti-analytics truthers, but I know what I don’t know, and that tends to include a lot of math. So while I’ll eagerly read what the analytics guys say, I trust what makes narrative sense when I’m relying on my own sensibilities.
(Like, for example, Brooks being a similar coach to Wittman because they have matching taste in eyewear. That kind of narrative sense.)
Kevin Broom has very little time for such whimsy.
Broom is one of those “analytics guys,” blogging about the Wizards at Bullets Forever and co-hosting the Becker & Broom podcast. (Full disclosure: I have been friends with the Becker half of the podcast for more than three decades.)
I presented my theory and asked if he could prove or disprove it using, you know, actual facts and numbers. He took a few days to think about it, and then decided … not really, no.
“I’ve tried several different statistical approaches to showing the Brooks effect,” he says, “but everything is so equivocal to be analytically meaningless.”
Turns out that it’s tricky to isolate exactly what’s making a basketball team play better and exactly which elements a head coach can directly affect. There are a few theories that make sense to me—Brooks’ schemes put his players in a better position to succeed! Brooks’ approach to practices has helped keep players healthy! Brooks is a genius of interpersonal relationships who has figured out how to motivate all of his players!—but none of them stand up to actual scrutiny.
The improvement for Porter and Beal is attributable mostly to improved shooting, something that can fluctuate between seasons regardless of external factors. “Maybe the better shooting is a product of Brooks’ design,” Broom says. “Or maybe it’s the offseason work Beal and Porter (especially) have put in on their own.”
In fact, Broom theorizes that the roster-building of GM Ernie Grunfeld may have been a major contributor to Brooks’ success. Not because Grunfeld is good, though.
“What if Ernie Grunfeld’s horrific job of GM-ing this offseason—building the league’s worst bench with all the resources that they had—actually helped Brooks?” Broom asks. “Because Brooks was forced into playing the one good lineup that he had. And he had to rely on those guys. He didn’t have a choice. Those were his only competent players.”
It’s a good bit. But it casts serious doubt on my hypothesis.
If Brooks is just playing the obvious lineup, and shooting is variable from year to year, and coaching schemes aren’t hugely important in the NBA (due to scouting, the number of games, the constant migration of assistant coaches spreading strategies and tactics, etc.), does that mean that the Wizards’ strong season is purely random? That Brooks is really just the guy in glasses who happens to be sitting there for a good streak?
Probably not. Broom did find one set of numbers—or a combination of numbers and narrative—that speaks to something Brooks has masterminded.
“Marcin Gortat, for example, is happy,” Broom says. “He’s touching the ball less, and he’s happy with his role in the offense. Earlier this year, he had a quote to the effect of, ‘It’s so nice to get more opportunities in the post,’ when he’s actually getting fewer opportunities in the post. So Brooks is doing something to create a good atmosphere.”
A change in team atmosphere—especially for this franchise’s cursed, downtrodden culture—is a significant accomplishment, like the otherwise meaningless division title win. Even if that is all Brooks has done.
Of course, that Gortat story also demonstrates that even an actual player on the court might choose to believe narrative over qualitative data, so I’m not entirely alone.