BrewHoop has interviewed GM John Hammond, bounced questions off friend and television announcer Jim Paschke, gotten all philosophical with coach Scott Skiles, and chatted with players all the way from a retrospective Chris Douglas-Roberts to a bewildered Brandon Jennings. Assistant GM Jeff Weltman is a welcome addition to this company.
The foremost topic of our interview was analytics and their place in the NBA. You might know that many NBA teams now employ stats experts, but you may not have known that the Bucks are one of those teams.
Indeed, Jon Nichols, whose work had been featured on SBNation.com's very own Orlando Pinstriped Post, in addition to the charming Hardwood Paroxysm and excellent New York Times NBA blog prior to landing a job in the league, currently functions as a statistical analyst for the Bucks (Do click those three links to see some of Jon's published work -- he also created basketball-statistics.com, which, as of his NBA career, no longer exists). As Nichols is not available for interviews at this time, the Bucks set me up with Weltman, about which I had no qualms.
After all, Weltman has not only been GM John Hammond's right-hand man since following John from Detroit to Milwaukee in 2008, he is an articulate basketball thinker who wrote a series of articles as part of Scouts Inc. for ESPN.com after leaving Denver and before teaming up with Hammond in Detroit. He speaks our language, even if the timing of our interview meant he could not use many of the important words of our language.
So, what happens when you interview a high-ranking NBA executive during a lockout, and that executive cannot mention a single player by name or comment on the actual lockout?
I found out on a stewing (wind chill: 99°F) August afternoon in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Now you do too.
AB: Given the great variation in player ages, team strength of schedules, and overall competition, how integral a part of the draft process are college statistics?
JW: There was a great quote coming out of last year's MIT Sloan Conference in Boston, which I think was the fourth or fifth one (editor's note: 2011 marked the fifth conference), and it's grown significantly of course. There was a piece written... and the writer was coming to the conclusion at the end of the piece, and basically said: The honeymoon period with the analytics guys is over.
Now this position is commonplace enough where it is not an outsider looking in; it is part of the establishment. And as such, the analytics guys have been right, they have been wrong, they have differed from one another. And they have basically proven, the bloom is off the rose, so to speak.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us, in our minds, here the Bucks, with the conclusion that analytics has a strong part of our evaluation process. Is it the end-all, be-all? No, nothing is.
At the end of the day -- and I hate to always use that term but it seems like when you when you are talking about this stuff that it reverts back to that -- it's really you are scouting players, and every decision, no matter how much empirical data you apply, is going to come to some sort of gut level.
Because if you ask the medical guys, they are going to give you a gut level. If you ask the analytics guys, they are going to give you a gut level. There is nothing that can distill it enough to say, empirically, here is the right answer. So, long way of answering your question, but in a nutshell, we view the analytics as an important part of the process, one of many layers that we try to incorporate. From sight tests, to stats, to medicals, to background work and probably most importantly, to our own scouting evaluations.
AB: In terms of looking at prospects not necessary statistically, or perhaps statistically, are there specific traits that are most crucial for a player to translate their abilities to the NBA?
JW: I don't think that we look at that way. I don't think that we say -- because a roster needs balance -- you can't say we're going to have this type of player on our roster, we are just going to draft athletes. And we're going to let shooters, and guys who have good size for their position, we're going to let those aspects suffer in our evaluation while we just draft athletes.
We try to assess our roster at the end of every season, figure out where our needs are, figure out too, what the draft is telling us. Because sometimes your needs will say, this is where we should go, but the draft will tell you, you need to go other places. Or else maybe you should move down in the draft, because the need that you have is not the right guy to pick at this number. So I don't think we have hard and fast rules as far as that.
JW: I think that as with most things, the drafts have dictated to the teams, not the other way around. I think there is this idea about imposing on the draft: We are going to draft needs. We are going to draft best player.
I think that as time has gone by, and players have come out earlier and earlier and earlier, and now we are drafting kids earlier than we used to, the track records that the kids bring to the draft are much more incomplete. So, it's almost by definition now that you are going to draft on talent, you are going to draft on need.
Because, by and large, when you are drafting freshmen and sophomores, you are not projecting them into your rotation immediately. You are hoping they become that, and obviously the higher you draft, the more you hope. But, when it's all said and done, everyone would like to pick best player available. And I think that the way it has evolved is that it has almost made it that is what you have to do.
It used to be, 10 or 15 years ago, that you could go to bed the night before the draft, and pretty much know how it was going to fold out. Whereas now, it is completely all over the map, because the salary cap has changed things, the advent of teams having different agendas and different needs that they are trying to fill, which puts them on different timetables. And then the issue of players coming out, as far as their age. So I think it has put us all in a place where we are drafting for the best player.
AB: Trying to fit a draft prospect onto a team, what are some of the challenges in building a team in the vision of the front office and the coach and the coaching staff at large? Is there a dialogue between the front office and the coaching staff, in terms of what kind of player you need?
JW: One word: communication. We try to involve our coach in all of our decisions heavily, and the draft is no different. The draft isn't just who you pick, it is about what direction you are initially going to take your team in that summer. Obviously this particular draft is a good highlight of that. We didn't just draft a player, we made a trade, and changed our roster. So for us, we would never think about making any kind of decision to our roster without the input of our coach.
AB: I wanted to touch on the subject of defense, since that is something the team has been defined by the last couple of years. The Bucks have ranked second and fourth in defensive efficiency over the past two seasons. How do you attempt to break down the defensive value of individual players within such a great team defense? How do you try to assign value to defensive players?
JW: I think that may be more of a coaching question than a personnel question. Our coach is known for being a standout defensive coach, and it is something I think he does a great job communicating to our players. And our players know that if they are going to get on the floor, they are going to have to defend. As far as judging them or evaluating them, I can say that we do use some of our own analytical tools which I should keep in house. But that is really our coach's decision how to utilize guys, who he values, who is important in situations. So that is probably more of his field than mine.
AB: Do you consider defensive success more system-based than offensive success? Is it more based on the system you run, the coach you have, defensively as opposed to offensively?
JW: I do think again that is a coaching question. You'd really have to ask Scott (Skiles). Obviously we all try to assess player strengths and weaknesses and put together a unit that is going to be cohesive. And obviously we felt that we needed to shore up some of our weaknesses coming into our last draft, and hopefully we addressed some of those. But any time you talk about implementing a system -- that is the coach's job.
AB: What type of traits in a player are the difficult ones to quantify in numbers? Because right now it seems with analytics that everyone wants to put a number on everything. Are there any traits, strengths, weaknesses that are hard to quantify that are important?
JW: This is obviously a question you are better served asking Jon Nichols. But I will tell you that all of the analytics guys that I have spoken with, including Jon, will tell you that defense is much more difficult to quantify, for a couple reasons.
For one, because the stats just are not kept. When you pick up a box score, you don't know how many deflections a guy had, or how many helps a guy had.
Then the other is, maybe there fewer things that statistically you are able to track that are objective. Those are things where we do spend a lot of time, not just with our own roster, but league-wide, and even in the draft, trying to put in extra time, and Jon has done a really good job spearheading that. It means watching a lot of video, and coming up with a pretty in-depth charting system.
AB: So there are non-traditional stats that the team charts and keeps track of? And are you able to comment on any of those?
JW: Yes, the basics like I just said. It's not rocket science to say that there would be some value in how many deflections a guy would get, how many times he can be attributed as to helping out his teammate defensively, stuff like that.
The problem with that is you get into an area where it is not always objective. So, one guy's help might be another guy's no-man's land. And it depends on who is viewing the tape, and you need to have some sort of consistency throughout that whole process. And I think Jon has been really good at being able to apply consistency to our evaluations. So that when he presents us with rankings, they make sense to us. You know, "Yeah, I can see that."
Or if there is a surprise, there are enough that we line up with where we can say, "Well, okay, that has some weight." Because we see that this system works. So when you tell us see that this guy is higher than what we thought, we are going to pay attention to that. We are not just going to discard it, because the rest of it has shown to be accurate.
Part II - in which we delve into the extents to which the Bucks embrace advanced stats, the evolving role statistical analyst Jon Nichols plays as part of the front office, and how coaching staffs fit into the discussion of analytics -- will arrive later this week.