Computerized reports have
fast become a prerequisite of postseason planning
by Jackie MacMullan
Posted: Thurs May 26, 1998
If the Utah Jazz should meet the Chicago Bulls in the NBA
Finals, the Jazz won't have to look far to get a read on the
Bulls' tendencies. Since Chicago's key players haven't changed
since last year's championship series, all the Jazz needs to do
is pull its scouting reports from the 1996-97 archives. There
the Jazz staff will find individual breakdowns of Bulls players
that reveal that forward Scottie Pippen's favorite move on the
left block is a righthanded hook to the middle; that when guard
Ron Harper penetrates the lane, he shoots the ball 83% of the
time; that reserve point guard Randy Brown likes to crossover
dribble from right to left to shake his defender; and that 17%
of Michael Jordan's offense comes on isolation plays, during
which he tends to take two or three dribbles before pulling up
for a jumper.
"For the postseason, this kind of statistical analysis is
paramount," says Orlando Magic assistant coach Tom Sterner, who
helped IBM develop Advance Scout, a so-called data-mining
system, for the NBA. "You are playing the same team five, six or
seven times in a row, which means tendencies become evident. And
the more information you have, the more valuable your
Pro teams are relying more and more on computer and video
scouting, which can tell them which five players constitute
their best rebounding unit, which way a player prefers to turn
in the low post, what an opponent is likely to do with the shot
clock ticking down in the first half and which big man will kick
it out of the double teamand which won't. Boston Celtics coach
Rick Pitino is so enamored of the technology behind this
scouting that he recently ordered nearly $400,000 worth of video
equipment from Avid Sports, which provides a digital video
program to 17 NBA clubs that enables them to instantly call up
the image of any play they have videotape of. The Houston
Rockets' Rudy Tomjanovich and the Indiana Pacers' Larry Bird are
among the coaches who can't get enough of this stuff. Budding
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant finds the information so
valuable that he requests new statistical analyseson himself
and the players he will be guardingalmost daily.
Brendan Brown, who handles computer analysis for the New Jersey
Nets, is convinced that this scouting technology has helped to
decrease field goal percentages and overall scoring throughout
the league. "We've gotten to the point where we've charted
everything so extensively that it's rare we see something from
another team that surprises us," Brown says.
The Jazz is hoping its analysis of the individual Bulls and of
Chicago's legendary triangle offense will give them a slight
edge if the two teams meet again for the title. (These analyses
figure to be very similar to the ones by Jordan Cohn scouting
service accompanying this article, which were used by the Jazz
during last year's Finals and obtained by SI from a team
insider.) Knowing, for instance, that Jordan prefers to run the
pick-and-roll on the left wing and will foot-fake to the middle
and drive baseline when coming off the pick might help Utah
neutralize that play. The Jazz staff also can put together a
tape showing all the times Jordan has executed that sequence.
With the visual and statistical evidence before them, Utah
players can understand the importance of forcing Jordan into the
screen, away from the baseline and toward the middle of the
floor, where, 66% of the time, he passes off. You don't need a
computer to explain why forcing Jordan to pass off is good for
A dramatic example of the value of computer scouting came in the
first round of the playoffs last season, when Orlando found
itself down 2-0 to the Miami Heat, having lost those games by an
average of 26 points. When the Magic got home after the second
loss, Sterner spent three hours in his office plugging questions
into the Advance Scout program.
Shortly after 3 a.m. he unearthed a nugget: With reserve point
guard Darrell Armstrong on the floor, Orlando had outscored the
Heat by 15 points during the two games. In addition, the Magic
had shot 64% with Armstrong on the floor and 37% without him,
while Miami had shot 57% while Armstrong was out of the game and
45% when he was harassing point guard Tim Hardaway and his Heat
teammates. Sterner called up corresponding video footage, which
showed how effectively Armstrong had pushed the ball up the
floor in transition and created scoring opportunities, and how,
on defense, he had forced Miami turnovers and caused the Heat to
resort to tough shots.
Armstrong had played only 23 minutes in the two games. In Game 3
Orlando coach Richie Adubato played Armstrong 38 minutes. He had
21 points, eight assists and one turnover, and the Magic won
88-75. Rejuvenated Orlando also won Game 4, with Armstrong
contributing 12 points, nine rebounds and one assist. Although
Orlando dropped the deciding fifth game in Miami, the Magic had
been transformed from a floundering club into a team infused
with new lifenot to mention nearly $3 million more from ticket
sales, concessions and television revenues.
Few revelations from computer scouting are as dramatic as the
one involving Armstrong. More often, such analysis reaffirms
concerns that a team already has about its players. The Lakers
didn't need a computer to tell them that 7'1" Shaquille O'Neal
and 7-foot Elden Campbell didn't mesh on the court. The question
was why. Using data mining, Lakers video coordinator-scout Chris
Bodaken discovered that opposing teams' field goal percentages
were much higher with the two big men on the floor. When Bodaken
matched that to video, he discovered numerous instances in which
both Campbell and O'Neal were too slow in getting back on
defense, giving the opponent three-on-two or four-on-three
opportunities. "It's one thing to harp on what guys need to do,"
Bodaken says. "It's another to put it on a tape and show them
over and over again."
Different teams want different things from computer analysis.
Miami coach Pat Riley isn't as concerned with what opposing
teams run as with how opponents defend against what he runs.
Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl knew he liked having
veteran guard-forward Nate McMillan on the floor, even though
McMillan's statistics often were pedestrian. An analysis showed
that McMillan's plus-minus rating (how many points an opposing
team gained or lost with him on the court) was tops on the
Sonics last season.
Sometimes the numbers lie. A couple of lucky bounces can convert
two turnovers into baskets and cloud the data on the point guard
you are evaluating. The use of videoas well as common
sensecan help a team check the statistics.
There are circumstancesusually involving Jordanin which all
the information in cyberspace doesn't matter. After the Nets
drew the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs this season,
Brown prepared a 19-minute digital video on the tendencies of
the Bulls, with intricate details on the nuances of the triangle
offense. Yet the comprehensive report could not compensate for
the fact that Chicago was simply a better team.
SI asked a group of computer and video scouts for a few ways to
diminish Jordan's productivity. Their suggestions:
- Intermittently have a single player face-guard Jordan and let
that player forgo the help he would usually provide to his
teammates when Jordan is without the ball. (The Pacers have used
this tactic with limited success in the Eastern Conference
Finals.) However, warns one scout, don't do this more than 30%
of the time, or Jordan's teammates will catch on and counter by
passing elsewhere, at which time Jordan will spin backdoor and
set himself up for a layup.
- Run an extra defender at Jordan when he has the ball and the
shot clock is ticking down. Don't do it with a full clock,
because Jordan will hit Toni Kukoc or Steve Kerr for the open
- Try to prevent Jordan from running the "double out, step out,"
a play that calls for him to run down to a screen set around the
block, step out to the corner and shoot. Scouts say this is
Jordan's favorite place from which to stroke the jumper.
"Yet Jordan operates from so many different spots, you'd almost
have to come up with a separate defense for every place on the
court," says Sterner. "He's so intelligent offensively that he's
already solved every conceivable scheme opposing coaches have
come up with to slow him down.
"There's still really only one way to stop him. You have to
break his ankle."
Issue date: June 1, 1998