Why Analytics Don’t Always Pay Off in the Playoffs

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Analytics have a major place in today’s basketball world. At some level, every team relies on data and analytics for roster construction, salary negotiation, and in-game strategy. But the playoffs? They’re a different story. In the NBA’s “second season,” is it time to ignore the numbers and let talent, tenacity, and those hated “intangibles” rule the court? It’s a question perplexing GMs and coaches alike. We’ll search for answers with reporter Mike Trudell, who covers the Los Angeles Lakers.


Paul Michelman: What’s the signature move that sums up this prosperous and popular era of the NBA? Is it a LeBron James tomahawk dunk? A killer Kyrie Irving crossover? A backbreaking three-pointer from Steph Curry? All good options for sure, but in the age of analytics, the indelible image might just have to be a James Harden trip to the free-throw line. There might not be a player with a more data-driven game in sports than The Beard — to the delight of Houston fans and the dismay of everyone else. As Daryl Morey’s analytics dream come to life, Harden has racked up historic numbers as a Rocket and has finished among the top two in MVP voting four times in five years. His steady diet of free throws, layups, and isolation threes might not be the easiest on the eye, but it’s hard to argue with the results — unless, of course, you want to talk about the playoffs.

Unlike LeBron, Kyrie, and Steph, Harden’s supernatural stats have never translated to a championship ring. In fact, Harden — and, by extension, the entire analytical approach of the Houston franchise — is much more memorable for their playoff failures. Pick your poison here: A 12-turnover elimination game loss versus the Warriors in 2015; a 10-point disappearing act in a 39-point loss versus San Antonio to bow out in 2017; or how about being part of a team 0-27 stretch of three-point shooting in a Game 7 defeat to Golden State in 2018? For Harden and the Rockets, the data-driven strategies that served them so well in the regular season, have so far wilted in the face of an opponent that has both the time to prepare (as teams in a long playoff series do) and the skills to counter — which the best of the West have so far demonstrated they possess. Will analytics eventually bring home a Larry O’Brien NBA championship trophy? Only time will tell.

I’m Paul Michelman, and this is Counterpoints, the sports analytics podcast from MIT Sloan Management Review. In this week’s episode, we’re putting basketball analytics under the bright lights of the playoffs. Can analytics be a difference maker in the postseason? Or should NBA GMs, coaches, and players resign themselves to the immortal words of Billy Beane, whose analytics-obsessed Oakland A’s teams routinely excelled in the regular season only to fold quickly in October? As Beane said, “My stuff don’t work in the playoffs.”

It’s almost impossible to argue against the idea that analytics have a place in today’s basketball world. At some level, every team in the NBA relies on data and analytics for roster construction, salary negotiation, and endgame strategy. But there’s also the case with Houston being one prime example of the potential for some legitimate analytics backlash. Should analytics take a back seat in the postseason, where sheer talent, team chemistry, and the data scientists’ worst nightmare — intangibles — are more important in the chase for a championship? How do you balance a reliance on the numbers with all the pressures and adjustments that come in a seven-game playoff series? These questions are perplexing NBA GMs and coaches everywhere, but we’re going to do our best to solve them — right here, right now — with our guest, Los Angeles Lakers’ reporter Mike Trudell. Here he is with Ben.

Ben Shields: It’s good to have you on the show.

Mike Trudell: Professor Shields, it’s a pleasure of mine. I must say, I’m a fan and a friend of the pod, so it’s good to be with you. Can’t wait to have a discussion here.

Ben Shields: Well, thanks for that. I want to take a step back here and look at a macro question of whether analytics work in the playoffs. And I know you and I both are on the same page that there’s no question the analytics movement in sports has been positive overall. But I wonder if we can have a conversation about the role of analytics in winning playoff games. And I want to come to you to explore this question in part because you’ve been covering the league a long time, you’ve been to and analyzed a lot of playoff games. So as a starting point into this discussion, can you share, in your view, what you think the difference between regular season and playoff basketball is?

Mike Trudell: It’s a good and interesting question, and it’s something I think about a lot, because in my role as a reporter — I am not a former NBA player — I feel like I have to support the opinions that I have formed based on just watching basketball with stats and with analytics. It’s almost a way to justify your opinion when you don’t necessarily feel like you need to do it. If you’re a former player and you’re an analyst these days, you know, it’s “Oh, player X is really good.” Right? And you don’t necessarily need anything beyond that, because we trust the pedigree of that player. Now if I say player X is really good, though, I might have to include “because he currently leads the team in net rating and has the highest win shares. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, OK, well you can’t argue with that opinion then.”

Right? So it’s almost a way to steal what is really just an opinion formed the same way that most people have that opinion, which is by watching. And so that’s a little inroads to get into your actual question. Before the analytics movement really took hold — and you know, I would say Ben, it’s probably been in the last five years that it’s really exploded to a different level, and maybe beyond that, the last three, four, especially as the Warriors kind of grew into prominence and the Houston Rockets, certainly under Daryl Morey. But my first couple of years in the NBA I covered the Timberwolves. And those teams were just bad, and you didn’t need analytics to explain why. Right? There were 16 wins. It was a great time covering the league though. And they certainly battled hard. They were just young and injured and inexperienced.

And so I go to cover the Lakers in [the] 2008-09 season, fresh off their finals loss to the Celtics. I’m sure you guys remember that title quite well, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. And even at that point, we still hadn’t really gotten into the analytics phase. It was still more about the mid-range. And you know, three-pointers were evolving, but it wasn’t something we talked a ton about. And so just watching those games, though, you could tell that in the playoffs, the reason those teams were really good (and for me, the Lakers actually won the title my first two years covering them in LA) [is] the intensity just picks up exponentially in the postseason. What that essentially does, is it means that not only is the defense playing harder, so that’s one, but the rotation is tightened down to just the best players.

So in the regular season, when you have 12 players playing for a given team on a certain night, or really at the fewest it’s 10, but usually it’s somewhere between 10 and 12, then you see that rotation shrink to really eight or nine. Very few times, you see a team where a 10th guy will get in for two to three minutes. What it’s doing is it’s shrinking the floor. The defense is better, they’re more locked in. They know exactly what the other team is going to run in the matchup, so the shots that they’re creating are not going to be as easy. And that’s where a guy like Paul Pierce in ’08 comes into play, or Kobe Bryant, where we know you’re not going to get an open shot, so we need guys that can actually hit tough shots to come in. And they’re going to do it at a much less-efficient clip then.

So that’s the larger way to look at it. And if you want one specific example, take Steph Curry. We know he’s the best shooter of all time. His career regular season three-point percentage: 43.6, which is insane because he has a ridiculous volume of shots. 8.2 attempts per game. In the postseason, though, that number shrinks to about 40.1%. Still fantastic, but significantly less efficient. So the defense is keyed in on Steph, they’re often double- or triple-teaming him. They’re sending, instead of the typical guard that they’ll have in, in the regular season — to use that Lakers’ example, maybe it’s Kobe Bryant in his prime before the Achilles, that’s going over to guard Steph, where you’re putting length on him. Everything changes to that extent in the playoffs. And that’s the inroads to talk about why analytics are, to me, a bit less effective and impactful in the postseason than they are in the regular season.

Ben Shields: It’s almost like you’re questioning whether the data-driven strategies like the three-point shot in the NBA work as effectively in the playoffs as they do in the regular season. So I want to drill down here and ask the question: Why do you have that point of view, and do you have specific data to support this claim?

Mike Trudell: Yeah. So I’m not only questioning it, I am insisting that it’s true.

Ben Shields: Make your case.

Mike Trudell: Since this is MIT Sloan that we’re doing this out of, I had to come prepared with some armor here. Because, again, I can’t just tell you no, in my opinion, this is what happens. Because it is true, if you just watch the playoffs, you can tell guys are not getting open shots. They’re not getting the corner three, which is, of course, the peak of all analytic nerd basketball minds — to get an open corner three. You are just not getting that shot as often in the postseason. So I actually looked at some of the top five playoff teams from last year and looked at their regular season makes, attempts, and percentage from three, and the postseason makes, attempts, and percentage from three. So I’ll try to go through this and not bore you with the data. Take the Houston Rockets: In the regular season, they make 16.1 threes; in the postseason, they make 15.6 threes. In the regular season, they attempt 45.1 threes; in the postseason, 42.7. And this is last year’s data, by the way. Of these five teams I’m going to give you, they’re the only team that made a higher percentage of threes last year in the postseason than [in] the regular season. So they made 35.7% regular season, 36.6% in the postseason. Let’s go to the Milwaukee Bucks: 38.2 attempts, regular season; 38.1 in the postseason, but the makes dropped from 13.4 to 12.8. Their percentage point went down by about 1.4% in the postseason. So that’s a negative in not just attempts, but percentage. Golden State Warriors: This has probably been the best example, because we think of this team and what an amazing shooting team they are, and that’s one of the reasons why they have been winning titles and at least been to the finals for five straight times.

So in the regular season, they took 13 threes. They made I should say. That was down to 12.2 in the postseason. They took two fewer threes, and they shot about one percentage point fewer in the postseason as well. This statistic goes the same way through Boston and Toronto. Toronto actually is the one exception in attempts, where they actually took one more three almost per game in the postseason, and they shot at 34.6% compared to 36.2%. So to sum all of that up, there’s a net difference between the attempts and the makes and the percentages. And out of the essentially … 15 category points, there are only two that were in the positive, and that was Houston’s percentage and Toronto’s attempts. So that’s kind of the data that supports the eye test, which is: better defense, more locked in, more used to the matchups, knowing where teams are going to get their shots from. You can’t throw the analytics out because analytics offensively say to just shoot more threes, to take fewer mid-range shots, to take more layups. But guess what? So do the defensive analytics say to take away those things. I’m not saying that analytics aren’t important, but it’s just that they don’t work quite as well in the postseason, and you ultimately still end up having to find the guy that can make a tough contested shot in the mid-range. And that’s where basketball has always been true, once the defense is optimally playing, and once everybody understands where they need to be on the court, and that’s what we saw in last year’s playoffs as well.

Ben Shields: OK, so you’re basically making the claim that the mid-range jumper, at least in the playoffs, is not obsolete. In fact, it’s even more relevant than ever before. Is that what you’re saying?

Mike Trudell: Well, yes, and it’s not necessarily by choice. It’s by necessity. So you certainly would prefer to have an open layup — that is still the best shot. It’s funny, we can say that analytics are telling us that we should run in transition, or you can just say, yeah, that’s totally obvious. If you’ve ever played basketball, the best way to get a point is to get an uncontested layup in transition. And the best way to get an uncontested layup in transition is to play tough defense and to turn the other team over or to rebound the ball, and quickly outlet it and get up before the defense is set. Essentially, I think, where we’ve come now is that a lot of the data that we have is basically backing up what we know to be the good true principles of basketball: Move the basketball, share, spread the court, right? All of these things that, if you either watch or play, become kind of instinctive to you. And that’s, I think, where the data has become so embraced in this sport now is because it clearly does work, but up to a point, especially when things get tight. It’s not that teams want, you know, to take a contested turnaround shot from the elbow or from the wing from Kobe Bryant or LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard. It’s that those are the only shots that the defense is really going to allow to be taken, and especially in a tight moment. Another element here is that referees are not going to call fouls as much in the postseason, so you’re not going to get bailed out by, you know, making somebody taking a three or by just throwing your body into traffic in the paint.

I’m not glorifying the mid-range jumper as this amazing shot, but it’s one that’s still important, and you still have to have players that are able to execute from that spot. A lot of analysts like Utah or Portland for next year in the postseason. I don’t, because their best players are — on Portland, it’s Lillard and McCollom, smaller guards. On Utah, it’s Conley, a junior, and Donovan Mitchell, smaller guards. Now Mitchell’s a bit different because he’s explosive, there’s a little bit of Dwyane Wade in him. But still, I would rather have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George from the Clippers or LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the Lakers. Those are the players that we know are going to be able to get those shots and hit those shots in the postseason when things get tight and everything else is equal.

Ben Shields: I totally understand where you’re coming from that the mid-range is not dead by any means, but players are having to take it by necessity. What I also find fascinating about your argument here is that, you know, both the offensive strategies that we’ve been talking about and defensive strategies are data-driven in a lot of ways. You know, the offensive teams shoot more threes and drive more to the hoop, and thus the defense is going to adjust accordingly. So I’m very clear on that. I want to explore this idea a little bit more with you about, well, what do teams do in response? Right? So if the offense is getting so good, and the defense is getting so good at potentially stopping the highest-point-per-possession shots, then how are teams supposed to compete? It sounds like you’re advancing an argument that it really comes down to having the stars that can make the shots, the difficult shots in crunch time. Is that what I’m hearing from you?

Mike Trudell: So that’s part of it. The other part is just having players that are really impactful defensively and can influence the game on that end also. So it’s both ways. It’s both sides of the court. And just to use a bit more data: If you want to look at corner three specifically, and I mentioned how that’s the most important shot in kind of the analytics movement. I think it’s kind of the one where players can have the highest percentage. It’s literally the closest three-point shot. That’s one of the reasons why it’s “easier,” because the distance from the corner is not as far as it is from the wing and from the top of the key. So in the regular season, Houston from the corner attempted 11.4 threes per game. In the postseason, that’s down to 8.8. Milwaukee: 8.2 down to 7.8. Golden State: 7.1 down to 6.9. Boston: 9.7 (and you know, that’s a big point of emphasis for Brad Stevens) down to 7.4. So 2.3 fewer corner threes that the Celtics got up in the postseason. And then Toronto is the team, again, that was able to sort of play their style through and through. And I think that’s one of the reasons they won the title. They were so complete, and they had the rotation down key, so they only dropped off by 0.2 in the postseason. And so that’s a mix of a couple things. But the biggest thing is that point about defenses. Defenses know that the corner three is emphasized. And in the regular season, then, it’s just harder to get your players to really execute the plan on a given night. Maybe it’s a back to back. Maybe you’ve flown from Boston to Miami. And, you know, maybe you went to Club LIV the night before. Who knows? Whatever the factors are in the regular season are a little different in the postseason. You know the exact game plan. You know where Jayson Tatum likes to drift when the ball is on the strong side, and Jaylen Brown has it on the other side. Or Kyrie Irving — you know that he probably isn’t going to pass the ball to the corner in the postseason if there’s a chance that he can get the shot off himself, which is another reason that he’s out of Boston right now. So there are a lot of factors that come in here, but that’s what the defense is able to lock in. The scouting report is the same. There’s a day off between games. So you’re going to get better execution on both sides. Playoffs favor the defense a little bit, because they’re able to anticipate where the ball is going to move. And there’s no way that statistics can keep up with the more free-flowing game that we have in the regular season. And that’s where the offenses are winning more.

Ben Shields: Right, right, right. I get that. And the fact that the corner three is not shot as much in the playoffs — how much of that has to do with the game’s pace being slowed down a little bit? I assume that in the regular season, for instance, we see the offense is playing at a much faster pace, whereas it seems like with playoff basketball, it’s much more about slowing the pace down. Do you see that in your analysis of the difference, or do you have a different perspective on it?

Mike Trudell: My eye test and just watching games a lot over the years would 100% agree with what you just said. I didn’t actually look up the data, which we could probably do quite easily. But I think it will show the same thing [as] the percentages that we looked up in the other facets here; it’s the same concept. And so that’s a good point that you make. A lot of times the weaker teams or the teams that know that they don’t have as much talent or maybe that are just younger, which is one formula for not being an effective NBA team — if you don’t have vets. If you’re younger — those are a lot of times the teams that are going to run. Because what it’s doing is it’s sort of evening things out to some extent. Think about it like a fight. If there’s a boxing match, and there’s a faster sort of younger fighter who knows that he can’t sit and trade blows, he’s going to dance around. He’s going to poke and try to get a jab here and there. And that’s what teams that don’t have as much talent are trying to do, especially in the regular season. And then there are other teams, sure, like the Warriors that like to run, because that suits their ridiculous level of shooting, where it’s just difficult to match up with them when they’re running and they’re transitioning. Oh, wait! Steph Curry is trailing, and Klay Thompson is in the other corner. Wait, what happened to Iguodala? Oh, he’s at the rim. So that kind of stuff is I’d say the lesser of the reasons why teams run. But the biggest reason is to try to equal things out. And then again, come postseason, not only are some of those teams that are pushing pace that don’t have as much talent, not even in the playoffs, but the ones that are used to it are getting slowed down because the other team is just locking in more with their transition defense — which, again, is another thing that’s harder to do in the regular season. Your coach can preach it every game and they do. Trust me, there’s never a game where the coaches won’t say, “We’ve got to get back on defense. We’ve got to get back and transition.” But all of their sort of asking for and demanding effort from players is sort of understood that it’s going to be difficult for them to get it every night. Playoffs — not the case. In the playoffs, you get everybody’s effort.

Ben Shields: This is fascinating because it leads to so many questions about this upcoming season. Let’s take a look at a team like the Rockets, especially with the addition of Russell Westbrook. Given the fact that the Western Conference is even more challenging than ever before, how is the most analytics-forward team going to fare in this year’s Western Conference, from your perspective?

Mike Trudell: When that move went down, I was actually at Summer League calling a different game, and it happened in the first minute of the game of the Rockets’ Summer League team. So I was watching Mike D’Antoni’s face, right? Because he was sitting courtside, around the corner from me. And my first thought was kind of in lieu of what you were discussing. Their whole model is based on efficiency and analytics, and for a long time it was just kind of spreading the floor and three-point shooters and pushing pace. And then that changed with James Harden, who is such a specific and unique player and is so incredibly good at isolation play, that it then made Tony switch his whole style, where they basically have three players that just stand on the three-point line, and then one that sets a screen, and then Harden plays one-on-one. And it’s a really strange way to think about basketball — that it would actually work — but it very much did in the regular season. So it’s just a fascinating test case, because there are some analytics involved in that, and then there’s some: Completely throw out all of the analytics and just go to Rucker Park and give the best player the ball and have everybody else get out of his way, and that will give you the best chance to score from a points per possession standpoint, which it did, except that it doesn’t work as well in the playoffs. They could have won the title if they’d just found a way to win one more game against Golden State. And, of course, remember the game where they missed, what, almost 30 straight threes, right? They were close. And this is where we want to be careful to not say that that style wasn’t going to work. But I don’t think that it was that sustainable. And the reason why they missed so many threes is because James Harden, in particular, was tired. His legs had been required to do so much to get them to that point, whereas Golden State shares the ball a lot more, and they moved the ball a lot more. And so… it’s not like, Oh Houston just missed all these threes just ’cause. It’s because they were (a) going against a good defense, and (b) the style that they were playing was not as sustainable. So to fast-forward now to this year, what’s even more complex is that Russell Westbrook is not the kind of player that has success playing off the basketball. And he’s the only other guy in the league that has the ball as much as James Harden. These are the guys that led the league and usage rate over the last, you know, four or five years, with LeBron mixed in here and there.

And that part is really fascinating too, because if Harden is going to keep the ball like he did last year, Westbrook is not a three-point shooter, so he can’t really space the floor. But does his ridiculous athleticism and speed and tenacity, does that kind of make up for it just in ways we can’t really predict that aren’t a part of efficiency and analytics? Does his drive and his crazy competitive spirit, does that make up for it in other ways with his rebounding or his ability in transition? I don’t know. It’s really a team that I’m actually looking forward to watching the most, probably, next year, to see how it fits. And if Westbrook has the ball more, that to me actually might work a little better, because Harden is a devastating catch-and-shoot player if you give him the ball with the defense trying to run back to him, which is how he played … in the city, because Durant and Westbrook had the ball more often, and Harden would be on the weak side, and he would just kill teams once he actually received the ball later in the shot clock. So I think that they’ll find a way to make it work and make it interesting in Houston. Even though it might look like it’s a weird fit, there’s something that tells me that they’re going to find a way to figure it out next year.

Ben Shields: What is your perspective on how LeBron, A.D., and the rest of the pieces will work together for the season?

Mike Trudell: To me, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are clearly the best duo in the NBA. They fit the best. They kind of make up for what each other does best in the way that makes the most sense. Whereas, again, Westbrook and Harden, I’m not quite sure. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is a great defensive duo. How do they work offensively? Because both of them, they’re both used to a bit of isolation play. You know, they’re not necessarily going to run and try to screen roll with each other. But with LeBron and Anthony Davis: LeBron gets the ball. … Davis sets a screen. If he rolls to the rim, it’s either a dunk or LeBron gets an open jumper or a lane to the hoop himself, or Davis pops and creates space for LeBron to go to the hoop. There’s no good way to guard that. There’s just not. There’s no defensive concept that can account for LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing together. Because Lebron, as amazing as he is as a scorer, passing, I think, is his best skill. And Anthony Davis is probably the most devastating finisher, especially for a big man at least, in the NBA. So those things really work. And then defensively, Davis can cover in the regular season for LeBron. If I had my way, you almost have to have LeBron focusing his effort ramping up toward the playoffs. You know, when he’s played the 50,000-plus career minutes, combined regular season and postseason, you have to have that be balanced out at what his age is in the league. But Davis is 26 and can still give you that night-to-night defensive impact. So what they did with assembling the roster was put role players around them. You know, guys that have specific skill sets like: Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels are three-point shooters. Danny Green is a 3-and-D wing and in fact one of the best ones in the league. Kyle Kuzma is going to be that third scorer, the guy that cuts to the hoop, that gets up and down in transition, that’s not afraid to shoot. You know, Alex Caruso is a glue guy that draws charges and can make some plays. JaVale McGee is a screen roll, dive to the rim big, who blocks shots. So all of these guys have clear, defined roles that are supposed to fit around those two stars. And even though they have never played before, it’s natural to think how they will play together. And that to me is important. Like Houston, aside from Westbrook, those guys have all played together now for three, four years. You know, Tucker and Capela and Eric Gordon, they know how to play together. And so that is an advantage in the NBA. But I think the Lakers can make up for not having the advantage of playing together by the fact that there are some clearly defined roles around two stars that are motivated to show everybody else that they are still elite — and that both of them are still All-NBA first-team-type players. The DeMarcus Cousins injury was definitely a loss that hurts. That was a nice complement to them as a stretch, a big on offense, and somebody who can throw the ball in, too, to dominate. So that was really unfortunate. But I do think it just means a little bit more small ball, a bit more Kyle Kuzma, a bit more Danny Green, and maybe even a bit more Anthony Davis playing in that role. So I’m excited to see what the Lakers do this year. And whether you talk about just analytics or the eye test, it’s a team that makes sense with how it’s been constructed, to me.

Ben Shields: So lots to be excited about as we head into the start of the season. And I think one of my big takeaways from our discussion thus far is that especially with these new team configurations, the first month of the season is going to be fascinating. Because each of the teams is going to be running, for lack of a better term, experiments to see what types of plays, what types of strategies, what types of lineups are going to produce the most efficient basketball. And so that’s where we kind of get back to this whole importance of analytics question, that it’s ultimately going to help give coaches and their staff more information on how to put winning teams on the floor. But to bring us back full circle, I want to end our conversation with a discussion around the balance of analytics insights and the eye test or the experience-based strategies. We’ve been talking about both of those elements to developing strategies throughout the show. You’ve been around the league for a long time now. How do you see teams, specifically coaches and players, balancing the data with the experience to create winning strategies?

Mike Trudell: For a while, there was almost kind of a conduit that a lot of teams had between the analytics folks. And so each team would hire a couple of guys to look into the data and try to see if it could apply. But how was that data going to get translated to the court? They had to have somebody on the coaching staff that was able to speak that language and carry that into practice and carry it into games. And then it depended if you had some veteran players that just liked to play how they play. A good example of this lately, I think, has been Carmelo Anthony, somebody who was trying to change his game with OKC, and Houston wanted him to play, versus his style, which is really much more: back down a couple of dribbles and take a turnaround two-point jumper, right? That is seen as archaic now, at least in the regular season. But I think that in the last couple of years, Ben, the culture around basketball and understanding data and where shots are from, everything has been caught up now. You don’t really have to have somebody that necessarily explains it in the same way, because it’s just sort of known now. And that to me is interesting. And part of that is because of media members — that now the media understand what are good shots, what are bad shots. There have been some journalists, I think, that have helped this along. I think Zach Lowe is a good example of somebody who is doing the deep dive, kind of breaking down plays, and [is] that type of reporter. Some of the analysts that are sideline reporters that are able to bring elements of that into the game… Twitter, writ large, I think is really locked in on that. So it’s now pretty pervasive. And I think that in the NBA that it’s understood, and most of the teams are operating with the same type of information. You know, I don’t know what the next thing is. I don’t know if there’s a team, I can’t think of one, [doing] something that nobody else is doing. Maybe some team decides to go giant in their lineup, like if you have LeBron James as “point guard,” and then you have somebody that’s 6’7″ that can guard point guards. And so you can have that player complement, and then you play — this was before DeMarcus Cousins got injured — you think: OK, well, man, yeah, sure, play Cousins, Davis, LeBron, Kyle Kuzma, and Danny Green. That type of giant lineup, I guess, would be the only other maybe counter push to this. But I’m not sure if that would work. It depends on the matchup, again. I don’t think anybody’s going to get snuck up on, I guess is my point.

Basketball to me is somewhere in the middle of the other sports, where the MLB — Major League Baseball — is so clearly defined by statistics that it’s almost boring to discuss it. If you think a player is: Aw, that guy’s awesome! Well, his WAR is blank. Bill Simmons is always talking about this, right? It’s the discussion about baseball as not as fun anymore, because you feel like you’re going to get fact-checked immediately by the statistics. And the NFL is somewhere… is part of that frame too. And I know we probably don’t have the time to get into all that. But the simple point being: In the playoffs, do things return to kind of the running game and defense? The Patriots and Rams in the Super Bowl — it was 13-3. This is a Rams team that averaged 34 points per game in the regular season. So there’s something that in football where the data and how to play and the offenses and guys throwing bombs — and then that still gets down to the pure thing with defense like we have in basketball. So it’s really, to me, fascinating to look across all sports. But basketball, specifically, I think, has found a pretty good happy medium where I can use analytics and stats to back up my opinions. But really, we understand the game enough now. We know these players, we know their faces, and we know what they do with their games. We can have that discussion whether you’re an advanced stat nerd or you’re a jock, to use the two stereotypes. There’s a way, to me, that those things are melding.

Ben Shields: Michael Trudell, this has been a blast. Thank you for helping us put a finer point on the role of analytics in winning playoff games. I hope the Lakers have a very fun and successful season. Appreciate you spending some time with us.

Mike Trudell: You’re the best. As I mentioned, I am a fan and a friend of the pod and everything that you’re doing at MIT. Keep it up. Can’t wait to see what else you’re going to do in the future there.

Paul Michelman: This has been Counterpoints, the sports analytics podcast from MIT Sloan Management Review. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, and wherever fine podcasts are streamed. If you enjoy Counterpoints, please take a moment to rate and review the program on Apple Podcasts.

Counterpoints is produced by Mary Dooe. Our theme music was composed by Matt Reed. Our coordinating producer is Mackenzie Wise. Our crack researcher is Jake Manashi, and our maven of marketing is Desiree Barry. We also want to express our deep gratitude to Jinette Ramos, Richard Marx, Michael Barrette, Deborah Gallagher, Lauren Rosano, Ally MacDonald, Jenny Martin, Judy White, and Sean Brown, whose efforts make this show possible.


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