I recently interviewed Bucks Assistant GM Jeff Weltman at the Cousins Center on the subject of advanced stats in the NBA -- a topic of enhanced significance since the team now employs Jon Nichols (he is the "him" in the headline) as a statistical analyst. We implore you to check out some of Jon's pre-NBA work at Orlando Pinstriped Post, Hardwood Paroxysm, and the New York Times.
Read Part I -- in which we discuss statistics and the draft, best player available versus need, the challenges of building a team in the vision of both the front office and the coaching staff, and non-traditional stats -- and then check out Part II below. Please also note that Jeff was unable to comment on specific players or address the lockout in any way (thanks, lockout).
AB: Since you started in the league (Jeff started with the Clippers in 1988), obviously analytics has grown. In your time, have you seen a resistance to embracing statistics anywhere you have been? Or have you seen -- being with a number of teams -- stances vary from team to team on stats?
JW: One hundred percent. The league is no different than any other industry, in that it is subject to trends and phases and fads. And the initial reaction to any fad is to go the other way, is to resist change. But once it has infiltrated and become part of the establishment, it becomes less threatening and people get to understand it.
What tends to happen then is people start to go overboard on it, and then there is a pullback. And I think that is kind of the cycle we have seen with analytics. And I think the next cycle we are going to say that with is technology.
I think there are going to be tremendous advances technologically, even from where we are now, to what teams are going to able to do. And I am sure you are aware of all of these different programs and services that are becoming available. And I think as those things become more accessible and understandable to all of us laymen, that they will become more accepted and more popular. And then there will probably be a pullback on that. And then something else will come along. But I think we have seen that we have seen that same sort of curve with analytics.
AB: Would you say the Bucks have been more or less embracing of advanced statistical methods?
JW: We try to avoid comparing ourselves to other teams in everything. We just try to do what we think is right.
To tell you the truth, even in our search for that position, we kind of felt that we had an idea of the type of person that we wanted, and the type of skillset that we wanted. And we wanted someone to kind of do things the Bucks way, who hadn't been exposed to too much else, but had the passion and the skillset.
So obviously we try to stay current, we try to communicate as much as we can with other teams, and figure out what is on the cutting edge and where we want to be. But we don't try to compare ourselves to other teams. What we try to do is say, we believe in this, and we are going to push it to the extent that we feel is appropriate. And that is what we have done.
And don't get me wrong, we are still learning ourselves even on the analytics front, so we are still growing that part of the operation. So Jon will have interns working for him as we will all become more fluent in his language. We just want to grow it just at the right pace. We don't want to just jump in, just for the sake of being ahead of the rest of the league. If we are not really immersed in it, that doesn't make much sense to do. We have to step by step believe why we are taking this next step and why we are taking this next step.
AB: In employing a statistical analyst on staff, right now would you say that he works with mostly the front office and is removed from the coaching staff? And do you see potential for progress in terms of moving him also into an x's and o's basis, or is it more charting statistics and gleaning meaning from them?
JW: That is a great question. We do not want to spread Jon too thin, but unfortunately probably right now we have spread him a little bit thin.
But during the season we want to make him as available to the coaching staff as they want him to be. Because this business is about winning basketball games.
He gives them presentations on our own team and opponents during the season. Of course he also has projects ongoing for us, whether it is draft-related, some sort of more narrowed study on injuries, or something else. Part of the whole process with Jon has been that we have got to learn too is how much time things take, how much attention he needs to spend on certain issues, how much of it can be delegated to interns. So we are all learning that.
But the short answer is both -- he serves both. And obviously it is a very seasonal business, so during the basketball season the coaches have his ear first and he will be working on some side projects with us. And then during the draft we ramp him up on our side of it, and around the trade deadline we might try to draw his attention toward some more NBA personnel issues.
AB: Do you envision a time where a statistical analyst could be working on the bench at a game? (editor's note: Roland Beech of 82games.com fame joined the champion Mavericks on the bench late last season) This is not to say that this is what Jon will be doing or that you envision him in this role, but do you think there is some potential for that, to be physically on the bench?
JW: That is a really good question. I think that in spirit some of that has already taken place.
When you think about that a lot of the advanced scouts will now incorporate some analytics data in their reports, that kind of lives in those reports a little bit. So they may use some information that was given to them by the analytics guy in the actual game report that is put on the chairs of players in the locker room before the game, and put in the coach's report before the game. So you may have an advanced guy behind the bench kind of whispering in the coach's ear some stuff that was passed through the analytics department to him.
As to whether there will be a specific analytics guy on the bench, I don't know. But I would imagine that if some position like that were to evolve it would be somehow married to the technological breakthroughs, where you can keep those things on a more real-time basis.
I don't think generally right now teams are looking to expand staffs and that sort of stuff, so I'm not really sure how that will all fit in. That is conjecture. As I said earlier, the cycle with analytics has gotten to the point where I think teams are looking at it as a convention, not as some new-fangled thing that has yet to be tested. And so they are not afraid to incorporate it in the way they do business as a coaching staff. And some teams are going to embrace it more than others, of course.
AB: Would you say it is important for a coach to have a strong grasp on not just player interaction and x's and o's but also statistics and how they fit within the game?
JW: Is it important? I think every coach has his own his style, his own way of doing things. And there are many different way to be successful. I can name you guys who probably couldn't care less about analytics and have had a lot of success. So it is not for me to say whether it is important.
All I can tell you is that our coach is a very bright, forward-thinker, and he is always looking for any kind of leg up, and he is willing to expose himself to new ideas. So for us it has been a great marriage between personnel and coaching that the analytics has had a voice even kind of in its infancy stages in our organization.
AB: Do you think in the NBA there is a place for more specialized roles on a coaching staff? While there are not offensive and defensive coordinators like in the NFL, some NBA teams have employed defensive specialists and offensive specialists. Do you think that is a trend that exists or a good trend at all?
JW: I am always a little wary of any time someone centers their debates around coaching staffs, because that is just not my expertise. I would just say that just the same way analytics are probably more or less important to other teams by degrees, the same could be said of any of those sorts of decisions, because obviously, there is no right or wrong answer.
If an organization or a particular coach feels this is where we are lacking, I need to hire a guy in this field of expertise, and I am going to go do that, that doesn't make it right for another team. And we are talking about a small enough sample size where I don't think there is a uniform answer.
AB: Switching things up away from statistics, I wanted to touch on the concept of chemistry. It seems like chemistry is usually something that is attributed after the fact. For instance, the 2009-10 Bucks were a good team, so after the season everyone said they had good chemistry. The next year, the Bucks struggled a bit more, and so people labeled them as having bad chemistry. Can you give any substance to the concept how the front office approached the issues of chemistry, and how that might fit into the draft process?
AB: The draft is the ultimate compilation of levers, of push and pull. You have age versus experience, you have talent versus character, you have position versus need. It is an endless series of those sorts of decisions. The easy answer is that we just try to draft the best kid that we can. The fact of the matter is that those waters are always muddier than an easy answer, because we are dealing with human beings.
What we try do, I can tell you this: We, as an organization, are very much of the mind that our team off the court is as important as it is on the court, to our success, to our ability to win games. And we pay a lot of attention to doing our due diligence on kids in the draft off the court. For NBA guys we talk to as many people as we can, try to keep records on who is who in the league, and know the types of people we want to have on our team.
But obviously it is an inexact science. There is no way to quantify any of that. I am sure every team probably approaches it the same way. Does it help that maybe some teams can have some anchors who are dominant voices in the locker room who other guys are going to fall behind? Sure, that helps. Does it help that a team would stay healthy, and not force guys into roles where they are going to apply additional pressure because they are not used to doing certain things, and kind of take you out of your comfort zone?
All of those things matter. But ultimately, it is our job to bring good people to our organization. You know, players, coaches, management, everything. It's probably somewhat of a cliché answer, but it is the truth.
AB: Personality-wise, trying to mesh someone new with the team, would you say you are looking at the current team and thinking, we could use someone with those leadership qualities off the court? Are you trying to balance personalities?
JW: Absolutely. When you say balance personalities, you don't want 12 alpha males and you don't want 12 guys who are never going to say a word. You want a balanced mix of guys, some of whom will lead, some of whom will follow, some of whom will kind of keep it light. But the overriding thing, all of whom are going to be professional, going to work hard, going to support one another, and are going to represent the organization well.
That is the starting point. And after there, you kind of break into, how do these guys all coexist? And at the end of the day, those things are really hard to predict. And ultimately it is going to depend on the character of the individual.
AB: Would you say that there are any exciting new frontiers in stats that the forward-thinking people are on the cusp of? Do you think we are at the point where it has been accepted so much that there is a pull back, or do you think there are still some exciting new things we have not mastered in terms of stats?
JW: My understanding, and I understand you asked to speak to Jon and you are speaking to me, but obviously he is the guy to ask this question. But my understanding speaking to Jon and guys like Jon, it would seem that guys have crunched the data as much as they can.
So the ability to gather new data would seem to be the cutting edge, and the ability to do it in a real-time fashion. So, there are products out there that are representing they can do things that can't be done. I don't want to promote an idea... but this sort of stuff will give the analytics guys more ammunition to be able to get muddy with. Because I think the actual stuff that we are doing now, they are all coming up with different answers, but they are all using the same tools. So I think there is a new set of tools out there to give them more stuff to play with, and it would seem that is where the advances would come.
Feel free to follow me or not follow me on Twitter @alexboeder