Advanced Stats Interview

January 9, 2014
By Alex Boeder

Right Turn

David Morway
Bucks Assistant GM David Morway

David Morway and Michael Clutterbuck made a right turn.

They walked down the tunnel on a path to a suite, three hundred something. The two were late to watch the game. It was 7:42 p.m. on a Saturday night in the first NBA city to watch three straight 60-win teams. The Bucks and Timberwolves tipped off at 7:34 p.m. or so, on 4th Street in Milwaukee.

Morway and Clutterbuck were late for the game because the interview ran long. The three of us had been in a room in the BMO Harris Bradley Center that we never knew existed, talking about things that will exist forever: family, Michael Jordan, the teams we watched as kids. Then we got to talking about advanced stats.

Morway is the Assistant General Manager for the Bucks. He arrived after 13 years in the Pacers front office, where as General Manager he presided one of the most prescient draft choices of the last 10 years: Paul George at #10 in 2010. He was also the Pacers GM when the team chose to draft Roy Hibbert at #17 in 2008, after most NBA teams decided otherwise. That duo, along with a masterfully assembled group of supporting players, now stands as perhaps the most legitimate threat to the dynasty of LeBron James and the Heat. The Pacers also have a home in Milwaukee’s division.

Michael Clutterbuck
Bucks Director of Basketball Analytics
Michael Clutterbuck

Clutterbuck is the Director of Analytics for the Bucks. Befitting the newest Bucks team in franchise history (newest, meaning, most new players), he has been with the team for just shy of three months. Aptly self-described as inquisitive, he brought up questions before they were asked, speaking fondly of Zach Lowe articles, how Blazers players use iPads on the bench during games to get an edge (Morway was also intrigued and said the team will evaluate this idea), and Toronto’s analytics-inspired ghost player system. Clutterbuck holds a degree with focuses in Economics and Math, and without getting too resumé-y, the man has a diverse background in statistics, including growth metrics and efficiency metrics.

Back at the stadium somewhere, hopefully Morway and Clutterbuck found their spot in suite three hundred something. Somewhere, hopefully one of those SportVU cameras up in the catwalks tracks give-and-go alley-oop dunks, like the one that Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo orchestrated down on the court at 7:46 p.m.

Somewhere, hopefully the Bucks have made a turn toward a 60-win season, but we’ll start with just a right turn.

 

Interview

Here is the first of 10 excerpts from the interview. Some of my thoughts follow each block of quotes.

“A franchise that thrives on as much information as possible.”

On the current departmental structure of the staff, and future growth:

Morway: We brought Michael on in early November (2013), and we’re in the process now of drafting a business plan in terms of how we are going to integrate advanced analytics, including the issue of staffing, moving forward. We are committed to it being a part of our information process. And culturally, what John (Hammond) wants to get done, and what I am committed to also, is a franchise that thrives on as much information as possible, in terms of making wise, disciplined, intelligent decisions.

Clutterbuck: We have two interns that are currently running the actual SportVU software during the games. Other than that, I am an army of one. The interns also help with watching game film and taking notes, which I do as well. They are responsible for watching and breaking down a lot of the other games in the NBA. They both have some basketball experience, having played college basketball, so they know the game.

Thoughts: Every home game, a row of analytics staff sits behind me on press row, so these people are real. This is not a group that just sits in front of spreadsheets and numbers. They watch the games. And some of them have played the game competitively. The team plans to grow the department, but they are still in a transition phase, with Clutterbuck having recently been added to the staff following the summer departure of former analytics lead Jon Nichols to the Cavaliers.

“Michael is an integral part of our basketball decision-making process.”

On collaboration and the integration of analytics within the organization:

Morway: Michael is an integral part of our basketball decision-making process. We work very closely together, and he works as closely with John as he does with me. As he integrates within our processes, he will work closely with our head coach as well. It is a process, though.

In order to make a full commitment to advanced analytics, you have to philosophically figure out exactly how you are going to integrate it within your franchise in a way that is going to impact not only your team, but impact your personnel decisions. And then impact your overall management organizational philosophy. So we are working together very, very closely. But that is sort of the culture of our franchise anyway.

Clutterbuck: Right away, everyone on staff was very invested in me coming in. And I really appreciated that. They really stood behind me. And especially, lately, we have been really cooking on things together, collaboratively. One of the things that he (Morway) did when I first met him was give me a binder of everything that he finds interesting. And he is a freak when it comes to that, but it is awesome. He has articles going back a year, year and a half, with things circled and underlined. And that’s the kind of thing that I really enjoy.

I come from a place that was more academic in nature, so there was a lot of discussion and collaboration. Everyone was very involved and respected. And I feel the same way about the Bucks right now. Everyone is really respectful and everyone is appreciative of each other’s work.

Thoughts: It was Hammond and Morway who together personally hired Clutterbuck, and they have empowered him to “run the division” as Morway put it.

“This doesn’t happen without John Hammond.”

On John Hammond’s involvement in the growth of analytics:

Clutterbuck: After a game we watch, John (Hammond) might say, Michael, take a look at this. Everyone has the SportVU data now, so I think it helps people in that position and across the league. He is always involved, and always asking questions, which is awesome.

Morway: This doesn’t happen without John Hammond. It’s interesting. When you are in the position John is in, you sort of drive what is important to you because there is so little time and so much to do. So John is a huge proponent of this. He understands the significance and importance of information.

And the fact is that John and I know that there is a lot that we don’t know. And it is a two-way street. We are always asking tons of questions. That is the exciting part of it. To be able to ask questions. We might ask the same question of Michael that we ask Dave Babcock (Vice President of Player Personnel), or Billy McKinney (Director of Scouting), and see how their thoughts compare or contrast. John is driving the direction of where we are going in this area.

Thoughts: A few years ago, I talked to Jeff Weltman, then-Assistant General Manager, about the growth of advanced stats in Milwaukee. You can check out part 1 here and part 2 here. Of course, Hammond was the GM at that time as well. Both Weltman and Morway are very much inclined to analytics, and it is no coincidence. Hammond clearly believes in analytics, and wants to be surrounded by people that will push the team to new frontiers in this realm.

“We are very integrated, and it’s important that Michael sees what the scouts are seeing.”

On the integration between the analytics team and scouts:

Morway: There are two ways to look at it. Organizationally and philosophically, you have to think about how you want to handle that. We are inherently a very integrated organization. Philosophically, John and I think and believe that you should all work together, share information, and communicate collaboratively.

For example, let’s say Michael develops some sort of statistic for us. But the stat doesn’t seem to reflect what the eyes (scouts) are telling us. When this happens, it fosters discussion and analysis. So it is a very collaborative process as we try to make great decisions.

Clutterbuck: On a more technical level, that is one of our organizational goals, to bring all of this data together. Right now, a lot of analytics data lives on basketball-reference.com, and is out there on the web. There is no really good, central system that you can go to. And I think that is one of the reasons I was brought in here, because I have experiences with databases, statistics, and how to put it all together. I think that is going to be very beneficial.

When our scouts can pull up a scout report, they will be able to see these metrics that we have created. It’s more of an efficiency thing than anything, without having to contact me or explain to them. It’s just going to be there for them. I am really excited for when we have that ready and filled out.

Thoughts: We can all relate the scattered nature of basketball data online that Clutterbuck references, and it follows that combining amazing information from SportVU, Synergy, basketball-reference, NBA.com, 82games, and the other statistical leaders into a coherent database would be a massive undertaking but a worthwhile one.

“Over time, the coaching staff is going to figure out what metrics are important to them, what they want to see on a game-to-game basis.”

On the integration of analytics staff and coaching staff:

Morway: You can have an effective analytics area where a coaching staff chooses not to use the analytics. That is probably not however, in terms of the long-term, an effective way to go. Michael was hired in November and we were already preparing for the season. Once the season gets going, it gets hard. So we are in the process of integrating Michael with the coaching staff right now.

Over time, the coaching staff is going to figure out what metrics are important to them, what they want to see on a game-to-game basis with respect to our team and the opponent. And they are going to start driving the questions, rather than Michael just giving them information. Because what ends up happening otherwise is that the information or data won’t be used.

So it's important that the information we provide the coaches helps them structure their game plans and ultimately helps win basketball games.

Thoughts: Before the season, Larry Drew gave me his take on advanced stats: “It gives you an opportunity to hone in on the numbers with, say, certain matchups, certain people on the floor, certain combinations. The league has really gone more to analytics. I support it. Anything that will give me information that allows me to possibly gain an edge somewhere. We used it in Atlanta last year. Everybody is starting to go in that direction. And I support it.”

“We now are able to give (players) that empirical evidence and data.”

On whether players should be aware of advanced statistics:

Clutterbuck: I think they are becoming more and more aware of it. You definitely now have players who will openly say, I’ve got our analytics guy building reports for me. Shane Battier was always the classic example, the one who started off this analytics thing. I think they are becoming more aware of it. In the end, I think players want to be better.

Morway: It’s not only knowing their own analytics, it’s the analytics of the players they are playing against, which is more important to them. Also things like shot charting we are paying a lot more attention to. What percentage of times does a player on the left elbow go left or right, does he pass or shoot? We now are able to give them that empirical evidence and data on these things, to help them play defensively. So I think those things can be more important than even their own numbers.

Thoughts: As noted in the intro, the team will be evaluating the idea of players using iPads on the bench during games. That is something that Blazers players are doing this season.
“Our expectation is to be at the forefront of what is going on in the league.”

On the three organizational areas of focus with regard to analytics:

Morway: The objective organizationally, is to be able to address issues in three areas.

Address issues with your team, game-by-game, month-by-month, season-by-season, as well as with our players individually. Address personnel decisions within the league and the draft. And address trending issues in the league, to identify and evaluate where the league is today and where it is going. With the idea being that our expectation is to be at the forefront of what is going on in the league, in order for us to make thought out, disciplined decisions.

Thoughts: Morway specifically highlighted the importance of developing projections for the draft. He also mentioned that people around the league are increasingly using advanced statistics to attempt to predict failure, as opposed to success, when it comes to college prospects. I thought that was an interesting distinction. Reminder: The upcoming draft of course could be a massively important one for the Bucks.

“Right now I have something in a beta form that I think is going to be really cool.”

On what other teams are doings and larger scale projects that the analytics team in Milwaukee is developing:

Morway: I know for sure that there a lot of things that are proprietary to teams, simply because there are things that we are developing that we are not talking about either. And we will certainly do that as we move forward. In this league, it’s a tough business to win basketball games. So any way you can gain an edge, whether it is in the area of analytics or how analytics applies to other aspects of your organization, it’s critical that you protect those areas. I call it an arm’s war. Teams can only spend a certain amount of money on players, for the most part. However, they can spend money on developing the resources in order to hopefully gain an edge, and that’s what we’re all trying to do.

Clutterbuck: I can’t talk about it, but I’ve got one developed right now that I showed Dave Dean (Director of Basketball Administration) that I have, a few ideas to address the oft-encountered statistical problems that you get with certain metrics. And these problems have been talked about at Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. I am always trying to think how to leapfrog over those problems. And in particular, right now I have something in a beta form that I think is going to be really cool.

Morway: That is where you want to get. You want to get to a point where you are creating data that can make a difference. That’s why I always throw things at Michael. Because maybe I saw something in an article that may or may not have some relevance. He can break it apart for us. One of the reasons we brought Michael to our franchise is because he is brilliant. He has an ability to see things in advance of it happening. And you combine that with his background in analytics, I think he is going to be able to help us quite a bit. 

Thoughts: With Clutterbuck only in the fold for a few months, I am really looking forward to re-visiting this subject next year. 

“We will certainly have a presence there (Sloan Sports Analytics Conference).”

On whether the team will be at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2014:

Morway: Michael will be there for sure. In the past, when possible I have tried to attend. We will see. We will certainly have a presence there.

Thoughts: Pleased to hear. For those unfamiliar, the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is the most prominent conference on sports analytics in the United States. It is held yearly in Boston. Notably, Larry Sanders was crowned the NBA’s best interior defender last season in a paper/visual presentation showcased at the 2013 conference.

“There is a piece we can’t tell you because we hope that it is going to help us make some really wise decisions.”

On what they don’t know and we can’t know:

Morway: There is a lot we can’t tell you because there is a lot we don’t know yet. So there is the unknown. And there is a lot going on that we probably can’t tell you because it is in the development and evaluation stages. Then there is a piece we can’t tell you because we hope that it is going to help us make some really wise decisions moving forward for this franchise.

Intrigue: Yes.



Alex Boeder

Writing and the Bucks. Two of my passions. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009. I started writing for the Bucks in 2012. Before that, I co-founded and wrote for BrewHoop. I have written for the Milwaukee BrewersSB NationESPN MilwaukeeSlam Online, and so on. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at adboeder@gmail.com.