Jun 10 2016

‘Chasing Perfection’ While Chasing Pingpong Balls

As much as it makes Doug Collins want to blow his brains out, the NBA has entered the era of Big Data. Gone are the days where basic counting statistics take precedence over shooting efficiency, per-possession averages and defensive metrics.

As Andy Glockner notes in his new book, Chasing Perfection, the league’s analytics revolution is hardly limited to players’ on-court output. In particular, teams across the Association are placing an increased emphasis on every aspect of player development and wellness, something which former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie prioritized during his three-year tenure.

In speaking with Glockner, Dr. Marcus Elliott, the founder and director of P3 (the Peak Performance Project), described the “idea of trying to perfect athletes in the NBA” as “the biggest sort of imperfect market that there is in basketball still, this piece that hasn’t been optimized yet.”

“They went from having no real training culture to saying this is maybe the most important piece that we have,” he added. “They’ve gone from zero to sixty in like three seconds.”

chasing perfection

Look no further than the Hinkie-era Sixers for an example of a franchise that placed an organization-wide focus on sports science. Immediately upon coming into power, Hinkie had every player wear a “fatigue-tracking GPS device” at practice, per ESPN’s Pablo Torre, and later began to monitor hydration and sleep, too.

After Joel Embiid underwent his second foot surgery in as many years, the team sent him to the Aspetar facility in Doha, Qatar—twice—as part of his rehabilitation process. Within the past year, the Sixers rounded out their training staff by hiring David T. Martin of the Australian Institute of Sport as their director of performance research and development and added former University of Texas strength and conditioning coach Todd Martin as their head of strength and conditioning.

That well-rounded focus on player health and development is especially critical given the Sixers’ heavy reliance on young players, if Chasing Perfection is any indication. Dr. Michael Clark, who helped create the Phoenix Suns’ widely renowned training program, explained to Glockner why sports science and preventative maintenance could be especially important to a franchise such as Philadelphia.

“In Clark’s opinion, the young players he has seen in the past five to ten years are showing worse and worse movement,” Glockner wrote. “Today’s budding basketball talents are building more strength and weight earlier in their growing process while also working on their basketball-specific skills, but Clark believes they are not doing enough proper stretching or figuring out the efficient way to move or jump.”

Adam Hewitt, P3’s assistant general manager, concurred with Clark. According to Glockner, “among the most surprising things they see in their data capture is ‘how untrained’ the major-college players are when they are tested. Their muscles are not developed symmetrically and they have dangerous movements that are putting strain on their joints and ligaments.”

By staying attuned to the strain players are putting on their muscles and joints, the Sixers are effectively protecting their investments as best as possible. While fluke injuries aren’t entirely avoidable—see: Paul George snapping his leg under a stanchion—Clark “believes 75 percent of all muscle-related injuries are preventable through proper training, monitoring, and treatment,” according to Glockner.

(Side note: There are several potential ethical issues—employer conflict of interest, privacy, etc.—attached to such use of player data, and there could be some Orwellian consequences, as discussed in this ESPN The Magazine piece by Torre and Tom Haberstroh.)

Those interested in how analytics are radically reshaping every facet of the NBA should check out Chasing Perfection. And if you’re a masochist who still isn’t over Hinkie’s fall from grace in Philadelphia, the following anecdote may entice you to chug the nearest bottle of cyanide (emphasis mine):

Given the chance to comment on the record, Hinkie predictably declined, but he was happy to chat for a couple of minutes. He even chuckled when I compared the 76ers’ rebuild to the famous internet story ‘One Red Paperclip,’ where a guy started with said paperclip and kept bartering for something else that had slightly more value, ultimately ending up with a fully paid-for house.

After two seasons of designed losing, the 76ers had traded up from a paperclip to something akin to a toaster, but with Hinkie’s moxie, the assets he has collected, and the patience of ownership that supports this controversial path, he may someday get that house. There’s no guarantee it will have a roof or indoor plumbing, but whatever it ends up looking like, you can be sure that the neighbors will be talking about it.

Don’t say you weren’t forewarned.

  • NoJNoProb

    A dream offseason for us, as I see it. Relying mostly on moving assets, as opposed to lucking out in free agency. Centered around two trades. Read my disclaimers before responding, please.

    Trade 1 with the Lakers
    #1 > #2 and D’Angelo Russell

    Trade 2 with the Celtics
    Okafor > #3 and Avery Bradley

    Now obviously, I’m not so sure these teams would accept these trades straight up. Assets I’d expect to lose, although I’m not sure which team exactly they’d go to, include #24 and #26. At this point we don’t need to stock up on young players, we need quality over quantity. I’d love to throw in Jerami Grant and Richaun Holmes somewhere, unless we hold onto Holmes in case of an injury to Noel or Embiid. Otherwise, those two wouldn’t really get any playing time so we might as well trade em away for these better assets

    The Lakers are likely pretty low on Russell after he kinda made everyone in the locker room hate him, and I think Ben Simmons is significantly enough ahead of Ingram to justify this. I definitely think it’d take at least one of those two picks I mentioned in the kate first round this year, if they wanted their 2017 pick back for this, I think I’d pass.

    The Celtics reportedly are interested in Okafor, and he’s worth more than #3 according to most sources. Bradley is probably a bit steep of a throw-in, but if we gave Grant and either one of this year’s first rounders or some future seconds, I don’t think they’d be averse to trading him.

    So then obviously the question is what to do with the picks. I’m assuming the Lakers pick Simmons (oh God would it be beautiful to trade down, acquire Russell, and still get Simmons, but alas, Mitch Kupchak is not Vlade Divac), so we pick Ingram at #2 of course. Now, instead of having 5 front-court big-minutes guys (Okafor, Noel, Embiid, Saric, Simmons), we have 3 in Noel, Embiid, and Saric. This gives us a perfect place to take the somewhat-consensus Best Player Available at #3, Dragan Bender, whose shooting is a great fit at PF in any lineup.

    In free agency, we could resign ball-dominant Ish Smith if we really want to, but I’d prefer we go out and sign Seth Curry to be an off-ball point guard. We let Elton Brand and Christian Wood walk along with Smith, and I really could care less about Isaiah Canaan; if we need a 15th guy, so be it, but I’ll assume we don’t resign him.

    Now, Bender is gonna take some time to get used to the NBA and Embiid obviously is coming off injuries, so I’ll put them both in a minutes restriction in this sample rotation. I’ll assume Grant and Holmes have been moved for future assets, or to facilitate aforementioned trades in some way (maybe to improve our picks so that they’re more enticing as trade bait, I don’t know).

    *Note* – players are not organized in order of skill. They are organized into a starting lineup, a second lineup, two bench guys, and roster fillers. Suggest minutes placed after the names.

    1 – D. Russell – 34
    2 – A. Bradley – 34
    3 – B. Ingram – 30
    4 – D. Saric – 28
    5 – N. Noel – 32
    6 – S. Curry – 10
    7 – H. Thompson – 10
    8 – R. Covington – 12
    9 – D. Bender – 20
    10 – J. Embiid – 16
    11 – N. Stauskas – 8
    12 – T.J. McConnell – 6
    13 – C. Landry
    14 – K. Marshall
    15 – Undrafted Free Agent/10-Day guys

    Is this at all even plausible that both trades would go through? I know that Infram is a better fit and he allows us to get Bemder, who I’m high on, but is it pretty stupid to pass up a chance at Simmons? Should we be letting Ish, one of the few competent players we have, walk, especially if we don’t get Simmons and could actually use a ball handler? Many questions, many questions. I do acknowledge that these trades may be rather optimistic… Regardless, please comment what you think. I’d appreciate a respectful debate.

  • NoJNoProb

    @ Bryan

    Do you think that Colangelo will follow/ Is Colangelo already following the path of analytics and sports sciemce? He seems to me to be more of a Doug Collins than a Sam Hinkie/Chip Kelly, but something about the way you phrase the article makes this all sound like it’s still continuing. Is Colangelo a man who possesses the same passion for data, is he simply continuing what was already happening, or am I reading it wrong and he secretly loves long, contested midrange jumpers and Shirley temples?

    P.S. I ask too many questions. You may not have all the answers.. I apologize. This is a well-written article, in any respect though,