According to an article written for VICE Sports in October of 2016, the NBA went through a revolution between 2008-12 when analytics started to drive decision-making in terms of in-game strategy, player-personnel and the hiring and firing of coaches and other front-office staff. The prevailing narrative of Phil Jackson, true or not, suggests that he is not inclusive of the modern NBA philosophy. Does he need to rely more heavily on analytics, or is Jackson more receptive than people believe?
In 2015, Kevin Pelton of ESPN wrote an article ranking the current NBA teams use of analytics and their emphasis on data-driven decision-making. It should come as no surprise that the top of this list included teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs.
Front office executives like, Daryl Morey (Rockets) and Sam Hinkie (former GM of the 76ers) have been at the forefront of the analytics world, and rely heavily on advanced statistical analysis.
However, the New York Knicks were at the bottom of the list.
Pelton suggests that this is largely in part due to Jackson’s resistance to analytics and over-reliance on the triangle offense which emphasizes more mid-range shots, less pick and roll, and a two lead guard system. Jackson, publicly, has been at the very least skeptical of the pace and space system that he believes leaves shooters stationary, spread out and waiting for the ball. Preferably, Jackson wants more consistent movement from his players.
Jackson admitted as much during a 2016 interview with Jackie MacMullan, where he explains,
“It’s my feeling when everybody does the same damn thing it becomes, ‘Who has the best Rolls-Royce? Who has the best, fastest stock car in this race we are running?’ So if you have LeBron, wow, we’re going to do the same thing even though we don’t have the Rolls-Royce? You have to be unique. You have to have something no one else is doing to have genius in this game.”
This makes sense. If you don’t have a supreme athlete in LeBron James or dynamic shooters like the Warriors, it becomes very difficult to duplicate the modern NBA offense at a high level. In part, the Knicks tried this with Derrick Rose, but could never get the desired chemistry between its starting five.
Recently, successful teams like the Rockets and NBA royalty mainstays such as the Spurs have used analytics in key situations to improve their respective teams. Reportedly, Daryl Morey, used per minute statistics to anticipate James Harden‘s increased production and star potential if he was given a larger role.
Likewise, the Spurs used SportVU player tracking to evaluate a player’s health and need for rest during the season. The Spurs’ offense also relies heavily on the three-point shot (more specifically the corner 3) and shots at the rim. Supporters of analytics subscribe to these options as more efficient and effective ways of scoring in the NBA.
Yet, to the Knicks credit, their organization was one of the first to hire an analytics staff member prior to 2012. Additionally, they were ahead of the curve in implementing the SportsVu player tracking system, which utilizes cameras set up around the arena to track player movement and the ball. This technology provides a wealth of information related to shooting, passing, rebounding and more. The Knicks were also proponents of Catapult, which uses GPS technology to provide information regarding injury prevention.
While these were moves made before Jackson took over as team president, he has kept director of player personnel, Mark Warkentien, a supporter of analytics. Additionally, he also kept Mike Smith, head of the analytics department, despite being hired by Glen Grunwald. Steve Mills, is also a big proponent of the use of analytics. Mills expressed a desire to make analytics a more central part of the team’s decision-making process when he was hired in 2013.
In 2014, Howard Beck of Bleacher Report wrote an article describing Jackson’s history and vision for how he wanted to run the Knicks. When discussing Jackson’s potential impact, Beck writes:
“The role Jackson covets is best described as “philosopher-in-chief.” He wants to set the agenda, to establish a culture and a values system, to identify the type of players and coaches a team should pursue, the offensive and defensive philosophies it should adopt. That could even extend to shaping the team’s training regimen and its use of analytics—an area that fascinates Jackson, and one he would surely seek to bolster.”
If anything Jackson is a collector of knowledge from many different places. It is simply inaccurate to assume that because Jackson does not value a modern-day traditional NBA offense, that he does not value analytics.
My honest belief is that Jackson wants front office staff and coaches that bring different sets of strengths and information to the table. While he makes the final decision, I don’t think Jackson is as dogmatic as people believe.
Jackson’s first three years have not gone well. Just look at the wins and losses. Yet, if the Knicks fail, it won’t be because Jackson is set in his ways. It will be because he didn’t get the right players.
Jackson will have two more seasons including two drafts and two summers of free-agency to prove the doubters wrong.