Coaching and Scouting in The Journal of Basketball Studies

The work in the Journal of Basketball Studies was designed particularly for coaches, scouts, or any individuals responsible for constructing a team to give them tools to better understand what it takes to improve a basketball team. The statistical methods developed here are not meant to replace traditional basketball wisdom, but to help focus a coach's decision process by answering some general questions about the game. Decisions made in a specific game can be based upon the work here, but there is often information that a coach gains over the course of a game that can change that decision. For example, the traditional wisdom to go for the win at the end of a close game if on the road and to go for the tie if at home is true in general, but the same mathematics that support this also support the better, deeper team going for the tie. How a coach chooses to balance these pieces of information depends on whether he thinks his team is the "better" team.

Having been involved with the hands-on development of a team, I know that it can be difficult to incorporate statistical information into the traditional thinking of a coach. Statistics often do not reflect what a coach sees, sometimes because the coach is wrong, but more often because the statistics do not reflect all the important aspects of the game. I aim to change this with the methods I have developed. There is no reason that we cannot evaluate players and teams much better using some of the basic numbers that are publicly available. Unfortunately, most basketball coaches are not fluent in mathematics and most mathematicians are not fluent in basketball. Somehow, I ended up getting a Ph.D. in engineering heavy on math and science at the same time I was coaching and scouting collegiate basketball, so I have gotten used to the two subjects floating around in my head together. Hopefully, I have also learned to communicate my convoluted thoughts on these two topics.

Before I proceed, I should mention that there are a couple good sites on the web for coaches. Both the Basketball Highway and Sacred Hoops are providing good information on different drills and more traditional coaching routines.

I also particularly like Hoop Tactics, which has a lot on the different styles of offenses being played, such as the Triangle and UCLA offense. This site has great information on how to read the offense and how to beat it.

MWN Sports Enterprises has also done a few things pertinent in coaching.

How to Use the Research in JoBS

Much of the research I carry out is aimed at answering questions I have had about the game as a coach, scout, player, and fan. This includes many strategical questions and questions about how to evaluate talent. One of the difficulties in doing this is often framing the question in such a way that there can be a right answer. Usually, this requires the association of some action with improving your odds of winning. For instance, John MacLeod once said that a good offense has a lot of good passers, not just a single point guard. First of all what is a good offense? By my method of , a good offense scores more points per 100 possessions than the average team in the league. Now what are good passers? And what is a lot? I would probably translate this aspect of MacLeod's statement into a team that has at least three players with 200-300 assists. Perhaps that is not what he meant, but it is difficult to quantify his statement any other way. I then might set up a comparison between teams having several players with 200+ assists and teams having a single point guard dishing out an equivalent number of assists as the multiple players on the other team. There would probably be other constraints to prevent biases from being introduced into the study, but I can save the details for when I actually do the study.

Clearly what may come out of such a study is fairly general, having relevance to various levels of the game. However, by being general, it may not be appropriate for a specific team. If the study generally shows that teams with a single point guard yields better offenses than teams with multiple distributors, but your team's best players fit the mold of multiple distributors and your only possible point guard can't shoot from the outside, you have plenty of reasons to ignore the results of the study.

The best way a coach can use the research in here is to understand its strengths and weaknesses as well as he understands his own team's strengths and weaknesses. You have to be able to balance the fact that a press generally helps an underdog with the possibility that your underdog team lacks the quickness to play a press. You have to understand that a high variance player (like a three point shooter) can hurt you in the regular season but help you in the postseason as well as you understand that your high variance player is a senior who knows how to take the last shot in close games.

Articles Particularly Relevant to Coaches and Scouts

These are articles I particularly think are applicable to coaching and scouting:

Answers to Common Questions I Get About Basketball

Q. My ultimate goal as far a career wise is to become a coach. What can I do?

A. Getting a job in sports is as difficult as anything else I know of. But it can be easy if you do the right things. The best thing to do is to play, be good at it, and express an interest in coaching all at the same time. Of course, there aren't many people like that. Failing that, a sports management degree helps a lot, especially if you couple it with work (usually volunteer) for an NCAA team. Coaching comes of this only if the coach or coaching staff recognizes that you have an ability that helps them; this may be an expertise in weight training, an expertise in statistics, or just a good eye for the game. Generally, if you find a way to make friends with the coaching staff, you can make those contacts stick by working at camps, extending those contacts, and showing your enthusiasm for and ability in the game.

Few people outside of players and family of coaches get a chance at coaching big time sports. This is not to say that it is not possible. Starting at the high school level with a degree in sports management, education, or physical education (or history, I'm sure) is very possible in a world where high school educators and coaches are still in demand. Moving up to big time sports from high school is realistic, though perhaps not easy because it requires a lot of energy.

The Basketball Highway has a very good answer to this question and I'd highly recommend reading the advice of someone who has been fully involved in traditional basketball programs for more than twenty years.

Q. What is a good program to manage my statistics?

A. I have not really reviewed all that is out there and I'm sure I haven't seen or heard of many of them. However, one that appears promising is Assistant Basketball Coach. If you end up getting it, let me know what you think. Also, if you contact them, tell them I sent you. We may be collaborating on putting some of my work into the program. IBM also has something called Advanced Scout, but getting information about it is difficult. You can search CNN's site for a piece they did on it and possibly track it down.

Recently, I have taken a look at a program called BESTAT. It is a FREE DOS-based program for tracking a large number of stats during a game. It does take a bit of getting used to, but the amount of data it easily keeps track of (the keystrokes are short and simple with a little practice) is tremendous. The reports are pretty good, too. The program is written by Steve MacKinney and he is the person to write about support for the software. For the version of the program you can download from my site, you will simply unzip the file, then run the installc.bat file. You may have to modify the install -- I did. Contact Steve if you have problems, not me. This is his promo:

I'm using it again for Evangel University (NAIA Div 2) men and women and we have found that the team does much better with our freshman point guard in than with the junior point guard who started last year, even though the junior is shooting better and has less turnovers. They both seem to play good defense. The coaches are watching film to try to figure out why the team does better when the freshman plays. Without my stat program, the freshman who is playing so well would probably not get many minutes until the other point guard graduated and who knows how many games we might lose as a result. We are over 30 points/100 possessions better as a team when the freshman plays!

Q. I play basketball at a small college and would like to continue to stay involved in the sport. How can I do this?

A. The first person you should talk to is your coach. They can help you more than anyone. If you want to coach or scout, express your interest to them and they will appreciate it. It always helps coaches to have their players go on in the basketball profession. They also know your talents well. If you want to continue to play, they can usually point you in the right direction for professional leagues overseas or give you ideas on what local non-professional leagues are competitive.

Q. Can I help with The Journal of Basketball Studies?

A. My favorite question. Yes, I encourage coaches to write in with suggestions for work or, even better, who have solid answers for some of basketball's questions. If you have statistics, send them to me. If you have used statistics in your program, let me know how.

Q. What about the women's game?

A. Most of the work here is completely gender neutral in its application. The theories that I have developed for the game do not require men to be playing; there is no Y-chromasome in any of the formulas I've derived. Articles like What Strategies Are Risky?, Basketball's Bell Curve, and Shooters vs Dunkers are all very appropriate for basketball being played by anyone, whether it's men or women, pros or preschoolers.

What I have not been able to do is to apply my theories and methods to women's statistics. This is because these stats are very difficult to obtain. I have a few from games I have scouted, but they wouldn't tell people very much and I don't think they are enough to carry out a fair study. I am more than willing to accept statistics from women's games (and high school games and fifth grade Chilean girls basketball games, for that matter) because the methods apply there, too. Moreover, I believe that application of my methods to basketball at various levels will indicate interesting things about the structure of the game at those levels. Just from my limited work with women's basketball, I have seen differences in the structure of certain teams as compared to men's basketball. But I won't put that information out until I have more data to confirm it... Hopefully, the professional women's league that is forming will be generous with their data and I can carry out my analyses with women as well as men.

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