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Cyber Scouting
Jackie MacMullan
June 01, 1998
Computerized reports, like the one at right and on succeeding pages that the Jazz had on the Bulls for the 1997 Finals, have fast become a prerequisite of postseason planning
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June 01, 1998

Cyber Scouting

Computerized reports, like the one at right and on succeeding pages that the Jazz had on the Bulls for the 1997 Finals, have fast become a prerequisite of postseason planning

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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 information becomes."

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 team—and 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 analyses—on himself and the players he will be guarding—almost 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 your team.

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 life—not 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.

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