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John Schuhmann

Number-crunching coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff grade each defensive possession using 54 different criteria.
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Q & A: Talking numbers with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra

Posted Jan 22 2011 1:21PM

When you bring up the statistical revolution in the NBA, the first person that comes to mind is Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. But almost every team in the league has someone, either on staff or as a consultant, doing statistical analysis.

For the most part though, NBA coaches are old school. They make decisions from what they see with their eyes more than what some computer program might spit out.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra is one of the exceptions to the rule. The man who is tasked with turning the greatest free agent haul in NBA history into a championship team is, at his core, a numbers guy. spoke this week with Spoelstra about his usage of statistics, as well as the trends that he's seen with his team thus far. In general, what role do statistics play in how you've coached the Heat?

Erik Spoelstra: I look at it to evaluate our team, to compare us to other teams, particularly defensively, where we stack up against the best. I also use it to make points to the team about things we need to improve. I use it also for scouting, when we're trying to come up with a game plan for the opponent.

More than anything, I use stats to either substantiate some hunches we have as a staff or to make us think more and to come up with more questions. What statistical tools do you use?

E.S.: We have a proprietary statistical database that we've had since I was an assistant coach. We developed it with our personal software writer for stats. He's based out of L.A. and his name is Shmuel Einstein.

When Pat [Riley] wanted to turn the corner statistically 10-plus years ago, he put me in charge of it with a blank canvas. So I figured he would be a good guy to hire since his name was Einstein. So Pat was the one who originally drove you into statistics?

E.S.: He always wanted to crunch numbers and look at different ways of doing it. So he met with me one time and said, "I want more information. I don't know exactly what. Find somebody who can write a program, and take it where you think it can go." And how much has it developed over time?

E.S.: Quite a bit. When I became head coach, I hired another guy that I've known for a long time, Bob Chaikin. He used to run a statistical database site and he runs simulations for me. So that's a little bit out of the box. What numbers are most important to you?

E.S.: Surprisingly, very basic numbers. I look at all of our defensive rankings. I want to see where we rank in overall efficiency, field goal percentage allowed, points allowed, 3-point percentage allowed, points in the paint allowed, and our rebounding numbers. Those are probably the numbers I look at the most.

Then we have our own defensive chart that we built under Pat. Stan [Van Gundy] used it as well and I continue to use it. We grade each defensive possession by 54 different criteria. What would be some examples of those 54 criteria?

E.S.: Proper coverage of pick-and-roll. For example, if we're getting over the screen, if the big is showing correctly, if our weak side protections are there in three different areas. We grade every situation, post-ups, catch-and-shoots, pick-and-rolls, transition conversion ... all of these, every single possession.

It is a very tedious and laborious process. I used to chart that for Pat and Stan. And the day that I finally graduated from that responsibility - and I've had many different responsibilities over 15 years - that was one of my greatest days with the Miami Heat.

So now Brian Hecker, who is one of our scouts, does that. And he's done it for the last five or six years. It's a very comprehensive report. It takes a long time.

So that's primarily for myself and the staff now. When Pat was coaching, he would give those grades out to the players. And that was always a point of contention, with myself or with Brian, because players didn't want to have their grades written on the board the next day. It was always contested, because a lot of it was subjective. So who has the best grades this season?

E.S.: We have quite a few impact guys. You can score more than one positive point every possession. It's weighted a little bit more in the bigs' favor, because you can impact more plays with your helps on the weak side on pick-and-rolls. But we have several guys that can rack up multiple points on one single possession, by doing a lot of different things right. And obviously, that would be Joel Anthony, Chris [Bosh], LeBron [James], Dwyane [Wade]. These guys rack up rack up a lot of points, a lot of positives.

For whatever reason, I don't give the grades out to the players. But I use the chart to find out where we've been weak and where we've been giving up the majority of points. It will show you, for example, we had 15 poor shows on pick-and-rolls, and they scored x amount of points off that. Or they scored x amount of points off one-on-one attacks, where we didn't contain the ball.

So after three weeks or three months, you find significant trends of where you need to improve. I imagine you also look at different player combinations and units.

E.S.: I think everybody in the league looks at those. We do that with our database, looking at individual or combinations of players. Also, which ones are our better defensive units, as far as field goal percentage allowed, points allowed per 48 minutes, 3-point percentage, everything that we can chart.

That I've used from time to time with the players, to say "This group has been our most active group," as far as plus-minus impact, which you can't deny, and also by our defensive chart, which is subjective. And from there, you can challenge the ones that aren't up to that level. Do players understand plus-minus?

E.S.: I think now they do, because it's much more prevalent than it was a few years ago. You see it on everybody's website. Journalists now talk about it more.

You can argue all you want about this or that, but at the end of the day, the most important statistic is the result on the scoreboard when you're on the floor. I think that resonates with players, so we challenge our guys all the time. Make your minutes a positive. Whatever minutes you're out there, don't let the score go the other way.

After each game, I have a big printout, about 30 pages, of different statistics. I don't look through all the pages, but there are some that I immediately look at. I'll always look at the plus-minus of individual players to start, but I think that can be deceptive. From there, you have to look at the combinations. Plus-minus should never be dismissed, but it always has to be taken in context.

E.S.: Absolutely. So I never look at just the player. I look at different combinations and all different layers. I probably learned that from Pat and Stan more than anything. You take all the data and you'll gain a lot more information than you had before. But ultimately, the most important thing it will do is get you to ask more questions and seek different answers.

So I think that's sparked more creativity with our staff, to not just be complacent with the status quo, but to search for other things that might be better. And numbers have been a big part of that thinking process for us. What have you liked most about your team thus far?

E.S.: I think there's been a buy-in of how important it is for us to commit to defense. I put up our rankings often. And when we were first in December in most of the defensive categories, guys saw the correlation to the result. Where we were not at that level at the beginning of the year, we had a 9-8 result. Clearly, one of the more interesting numbers thus far has been the plus-minus improvement when LeBron and Dwyane are on the court together. They went from being a relatively weak combination to a strong one.

E.S.: That resonated with them. That was something that they already felt, but that's what statistics do. Sometimes, you have a hunch and then you find numbers that substantiate that, it makes either the staff or the players say, "OK, let's fix that." And that's a perfect example of that.

I mentioned to them what the number was when they were on the court together. I said, "We're not going to hide from this. You guys are going to be on the court the majority of the time together. We've got to start the process of making those minutes more productive, learning how to do it, and making the game easier for each other." But it started with just the raw combination plus-minus number. So what changed specifically with the two of them on the floor together?

E.S.: A lot of that's time. They just needed time to learn each other's tendencies and how they can impact the game when the other guy didn't have the ball. They're both much more active participants off the ball than they were last year or earlier in their careers.

I used a pie chart at the beginning of December to show how each one of them were scoring. For both of them, their comfort level was at the top of the floor, high pick-and-roll with the ball in their hands. The problem with that is we can't have both of them running a high pick-and-roll with the ball in their hands at the same time. Pie charts?

E.S.: I had to find a way to explain that we need more balance and we need to find other ways to score. Each guy needs to get two or three layups or dunks or free throws in the open court, get two or three on cuts, get maybe one on an offensive rebound, get a couple on post-ups, get a couple of catch-and-shoots.

And then at the end of quarters, we'll run home run high pick-and-rolls. And they've really bought into that. They're such talented, high-IQ players that they like to be challenged. And I think that was a new frontier for them, and Chris included, to find a way to be effective and impact the game when the ball was not in their hands, something that they didn't have to do earlier in their careers. They've all taken to it and the way their personalities are, they want to master something new.

All of their pie charts have changed. Dwyane's has probably changed the most, where now he gets a potpourri of different ways of scoring. He does it in all the ways I mentioned. Finally, at the end of games, we'll get him in high pick-and-rolls, but he's doing a lot of other things to be engaged and involved when it's not a high pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands. Why does Bosh have the best plus-minus on the team?

E.S.: He is probably our most important player, especially early on in the season. He's our crutch. He's our bail-out. We're able to run the offense through him and facilitate ball movement through him, easier than anything else we do.

It's because of his skill set and because we can play our high-post offense through him, with our cuts and movement. We can play him out of the low post with cuts and movement. And we can get into our normal pick-and-roll game, either by running it with him and throwing the ball back to him; or running a pick-and-roll with somebody else, rolling that guy, and replacing with him.

So there's so many different things we can do where the ball ends up in his hands, and it will facilitate another action. That's why, offensively, he's had the biggest impact. It's really been understated how important he's been to making this whole thing work. You talked about points in the paint defensively, but on the other end, just 34 percent your team's points are scored in the paint, which is the lowest ratio in the league. Do you care?

E.S.: Yes. I got into that with our pie chart of how we're scoring in different ways, and just striking a balance of getting attack points in the paint, inside-out plays, and getting more variety in our offense. We're also third in the league in free throw attempts, so it is a little bit deceptive.

If we're getting our attackers to the free throw line, that's important. Settling for early jump shots is not a successful game for us. But we had much more variety in our offense in December, in terms of getting out in transition, getting points on cuts, offensive rebounds, post-ups and, of course, our pick-and-roll game. You also rank in the bottom five in assist rate (assists/field goals). How important is that to you?

E.S.: I don't want us to be last. The most important thing for us is that the ball is moving and our bodies are moving. When we become stagnant and it stays on one side of the floor or we're holding the ball, then we're not playing to our strengths.

Now, we're built a little bit different, in that we have attackers that can get all the way to the rim. And their greatness is their ability to individually attack a pick-and-roll or attack a favorable match-up, get all the way to the rim and score or get fouled. So we have natural home run hitters in our offense, but we also want to have the versatility to be able to hit singles and doubles, and get other people involved. Finally, how much of the numbers that you look at actually gets passed on to the players?

E.S.: I try to give the players five percent of all the data that I'm crunching, so that they can digest it. It's more for the staff to get us organized and to come up with a game plan for the players.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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