The science and stats side of Mike Gorman’s brain could use a special app when he’s out to breakfast with Brian Scalabrine.
The Celtics TV announcer hears a fount of advanced analytical jargon when his Comcast partner builds steam. Out pour the numbers, categories and above all the philosophy, lots of emerging philosophy.
Even someone as connected to the sport for as long as Gorman admits that you have to start thinking a little differently under the circumstances.
“It’s hard to have breakfast with Scal without hearing it,” Gorman said recently. “He really believes in this, and a lot of people believe in it.”
Count the Celtics of coach Brad Stevens and assistant general manager Michael Zarren, who heads the team’s blooming analytical wing, in that group. Comcast, with an offer of help from the team, is delving deeper into advanced stats analysis this season.
Scalabrine tapped into a handful of popular categories during the C’s preseason trip through Milan and Madrid. Offensive and defensive rating (both measuring points per 100 possessions) were his two main reference points. Comcast also plans to draw from the categories of rebound percentage and pace (possessions per game).
For now the truly deep stuff — exotic numbers like player efficiency rating and usage rate — will be left alone. But Scalabrine, in particular, has been flashed a green light that used to be yellow on the broadcast.
“I did it all a bit last year, and they didn’t really want to do it,” he said. “They wanted me to dumb it down a bit.
“But now the stats I’m using, I’m going to use all year long. I’ll really get into points per possession. It’s the most relevant stat. It gives me a chance to illustrate just how effective Isaiah Thomas is on the pick-and-roll, for example. But that’s the extent of it,” he said. “Maybe as we move on we’ll use more (advanced statistics), but for the layman it also has to be clear enough to be understood.”
The Celtics have held at least two meetings with Comcast to discuss what will and what won’t work, with Zarren the sounding board. He’s one of the better-versed executives in the league in advanced stats, to the point where his reputation has spread beyond the NBA. He’s one of the annual stars at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
He considers it natural to share that knowledge with the C’s broadcast partner.
“We won’t do stats research for them, but if they want to run things by us, we’re happy to work with them,” Zarren said. “But I can’t see them getting into something their viewers can’t latch onto.”
At dinner in a restaurant near the Milan Central Train Station last week, Zarren, director of player personnel Austin Ainge, Gorman and Scalabrine were in deep conversation. This time even Scal asked questions, because wherever Zarren goes, so does his classroom.
“Sure. It’s a way to help our broadcast team,” Zarren said. “But we also have to keep it on a certain level. I don’t want to minimize any of it, but at the same time it’s still basketball.
“But if you’re going to talk about the best team in the league, then you have to go to points per possession.”
That’s points per 100 possessions, to be precise. For example, the NBA champion Golden State Warriors topped the offensive and defensive ratings last season. Their defensive excellence to the contrary, the Warriors finished in the middle of the league in scoring defense, with opponents scoring an average of 99.6 points per game. An utterly useless stat, as far as Ainge is concerned. The better number is possessions per game, which measures pace.
“If you score more, because of your pace you’re going to give up more,” Ainge said, also skewering another traditional stat for its inability to reflect 3-point shooting in a league that has gone downtown. “Field goal percentage is one of the most irrelevant stats there is.”
Gorman, though, knows that modern statistics can be equally irrelevant, simply because they don’t translate.
“We still have to communicate with the average guy,” Gorman said. “It’s a good thing, though, and it reflects what’s changing. You can’t watch a game now without seeing an ad for a place like DraftKings.”
Scalabrine, in the meantime, is looking for new and accessible ways to introduce the numbers.
“When the Celtics started talking to us about it, it was right up my alley,” he said. “You never move away from the traditional stuff. You just add more.”
Scalabrine’s analytics education was like that — a matter of radically adding more.
“I first got into it (playing) in Chicago,” he said. “If I wanted to have a conversation with (coach) Tom Thibodeau, then I had to know what he was talking about.”
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