Summer Book Report: How the Jazz and the NBA Are Chasing Perfection

September 24th, 2018 | by Dan Clayton

These Jazz forwards — one current and one former — refined their games by tapping into technology. (Photo by Alex Goodlett)

Adieu, offseason. We made it.

The Utah Jazz start their training camp this week, which means we survived the long slog of a basketball-free summer. 

Not that the offseason is all bad. It’s a good chance to burn through the Netflix queue, spend time with family and friends who may feel a little neglected between October and June, and get to that pile of books you swear you’d read before 82 Jazz games (and a bunch of the Association’s other 1,148) tempted you over to the TV screen. I get it.

In fact, I find the summer to be a great time to catch up on my NBA reading material, and then think about how its content connects to the team I follow and cover. One book I’ve been ruefully slow at crossing off my list is Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion.

Glockner is the co-founder of SI’s The Cauldron, and a known commodity in the NBA media sphere, so his book was sure to smart and interesting. Some descriptions from Twitter peers made it sound like a book primarily about advanced metrics, something of an encyclopedia for basketball nerds. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The book is about a much broader range of cutting-edge methods to rethink player development and unlock performance. It was far more engaging than a pure stats lesson; the pages flew by, with more than half the book evaporating into my brainhole on a pair of medium-length September flights.

Several of the broad topics covered have connections to the Jazz, and in fact there are a number of overt references to the club, an early adopter of targeted biomechanic training. 

Enjoy my Jazz-focused recap below. And if you’re interested in catching the full book yourself — and you should! — you can grab it on Amazon or from your bookseller of choice, or listen to the audio version for free with a trial of Audible.

Perfecting Players

The basic premise behind the book deals with players’ efforts to “develop and utilize their strengths while diminishing and masking weaknesses as much as possible.”1 Sure, the NBA’s superstars drive the league and push pretty close to perfection, but they represent less than a tenth of the league overall, Glockner posits. For everybody outside that upper echelon, their charge is to endlessly refine their craft until they’re as close as possible to their absolute potential.

“There are no perfect basketball players,” the book points out early on, “but there are plenty of perfected ones.” Glockner actually holds former Jazz wing Kyle Korver up as his nominee for being the league’s most perfected player, the guy who has done the most relative to his starting point in terms of physical talent and raw ability.

Around the time Glocker was writing the book, Korver was a dangerous weapon, someone who commanded constant attention on the offensive end. “[H]e averages about 13 points per game, but you go into the game and you have to treat him like he averages 30, or else it could be 30” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said2 But it wasn’t always that way. Korver was a second-round pick before ensconcing himself in the NBA landscape as a shooting specialist with some very clear flaws. But a series of bad-luck injuries during his Utah days got him looking for answers, and he wound up quite serendipitously at Peak Performance Project (or P3). Korver went to P3 for help with injury rehab and came away with a whole new mentality about how create and exploit advantages he could create by understanding how to unleash his body’s power and reinvent his game literally from the soles of his shoes on up.

Incidentally, the Jazz just doubled down on their own commitment to using sports science and technology to unlock player performance. While this article was in the works, the club announced the addition of a director of performance science, Barnett Frank. Per the press release, Frank and the rest of the team’s performance healthcare staff will be charged with tapping into this sports-tech revolution “in order to enhance player readiness, recovery and rehabilitation.”

The book spends a lot of time on this marriage of disciplines that is reframing the entire way we think about player and team excellence. “It’s an absolutely fascinating time to be a basketball fan, as… the marriage of sports and technology brings two of our most popular and competitive worlds together in compelling fashion.”3

The Anatomy of a Bucket

To the degree that the book does delve into a discussion about advanced metrics, it’s more about how technology is evolving to help us frame our data questions in terms that are actually useful within the confines of a 94-by-50 rectangle.

An early criticism of play tracking data, for example, was the issue that most early systems categorized a play by the ending action. So if the Jazz ran a complex series of actions involving off-ball “pindown” screens and several layers of pick-and-roll action, but the ball was eventually scored by a cutter who found himself free on the baseline as defenses scrambled to address all the other stuff that was happening, that play could ultimately be described as just a “Cut” play. That’s like describing The Titanic as a movie about a lady floating on a door.

Stan Van Gundy famously railed against play-tracking data at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2014, saying that he didn’t trust tracking data that was based solely on tagging the action that led to the end result. And, fortunately, the programmers heard him.

“For coaches to get value from data, they have to have this kind of exactness,” Glockner writes4. That led to the development of Second Spectrum, a second-generation play tracking tool that is finding its way into coaches’ offices and newsrooms. With Second Spectrum, you can find out the efficiency of every play involving a Ricky Rubio pick and roll — not just the ones that end with Rubio himself using the possession directly out of said pick and roll.

You can get more specific, too. You can find out about right side P&R versus left side, or how the Jazz perform when Dante Exum creates with a drive, or how Jae Crowder’s off-ball gravity compares to Derrick Favors’. What about the overall value of a possession that includes a paint touch for Donovan Mitchell? Or a paint touch for Rudy Gobert5?

“We go to the coaches and say, ‘What is it that you would want to know that you can’t know right now?'” Second Spectrum’s CEO Rajiv Maheswaran said6. As tech people get smarter about how to frame the questions, we can get an absurd amount of information about the game.

As Rockets owner Daryl Morey has said, what teams can achieve with data analysis is “only constricted by money, time and the questions you ask.”7

Turning Insights Into Wins

At the end of the day, all of this strategic data mining and analytical research is just a means to a larger end. Teams aren’t doing this to win a science fair or earn the distinction of being the most analytics-friendly club. They’re trying to win.

Teams that are more attuned to to new ways of measuring effectiveness are doing so in an attempt to maximize their output. As is usually the case in matters of culture and NBA smarts, the Spurs are a good example.

Glocker refers to a study by The Cauldron’s Ian Levy, who looked at the minute distribution the 2013-14 Spurs used on their way to a fifth championship. Levy found that the Spurs were relying on their bench — the sixth through twelfth men — more than the average team. But that wasn’t the impressive part. The impressive part was when Levy realized how they were getting away with that, as depicted on this chart:

Source: Ian Levy

Basically, the Spurs were getting essentially the same production from their top three guys as the average NBA team gets from theirs. But every single 2013-14 Spur outside the big three — a group that included Danny Green and a still-developing Kawhi Leonard — outperformed his counterparts by rotation spot by at least a couple of Box Plus-Minus points. Where the rest of the league relies on a few studs and then a rotation rounded out by dudes who scarcely move the needle, the ’14 Spurs could go deep into their bench without feeling much of a drop-off.

That’s a powerful visual representation of how one team chose to capitalize on a strength — in this case, the Spurs’ depth. And while the book repeats over and over that there is no one path to building a contender, this method feels germaine to the Jazz, a team whose coach has declared, “The strength of the team is the team.”

Another team that hoped to win by committee gets some serious ink in Chasing Perfection: the mid-2010s Atlanta Hawks.

Those Hawks squads featured Korver and another couple of former Jazz players in Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll. Jeff Teague and Al Horford rounded out the starting five, and that group once made history by winning Player of the Month honors as a group. There was no one defining megastar on those teams, it was obvious how bought in the guys were to a system that featured the team as a whole over any one player.

“It’s really fun to play on this team. Every time down the court, we all matter, because we play as a group,” Korver said back then8. “You do a little bit better when you feel like you matter. And we feel like we matter.”

It takes a certain breed of NBA player, though, to get excited about the prospect of losing himself in the team identity. And that absolutely informed the way that coach Mike Budenholzer and GM Wes Wilcox built the team.

“We value guys who are really unselfish, high-character guys, guys with high basketball IQs” Bud said9. “[W]e have a good idea what we’re looking for, and we know how we can hopefully find guys that fit with us.”

Wilcox echoed the sentiment: “We spend more time focusing on the character traits… Highly competitive, highly focused, hardworking, highly skilled, mentally tough, curious… These are the things we have identified and that we try to add.”

Jazz coach Quin Snyder has his own character checklist for evaluating personnel, and it’s likely borne from the same desire to have 15 guys on the roster who believe in the team and in doing what’s necessary to “matter,” as Korver says, within that construct. Perhaps that’s why, according to plugged-in people like Tony Jones, the Jazz don’t appear to be showing much interest in Jimmy Butler. Butler is a top-15 talent, but there’s a track record now that suggests he has a knack for alienating teammates. That stuff matters to a team trying to build what the Spurs and Hawks built in the timeframe of the book, and what the Jazz are trying to create now. 

The Puzzle of Player Health

One of the most intriguing areas of the sports analytics and technology movement pertains to injury prevention. 

Glocker describes how P3 maps each player’s biomechanics using digital motion capture and “force plates” — essentially scales that measure how much force is coming from one leg or another. Using these tools, the doctors and trainers can discover when a player is unconsciously overcompensating for some unseen bump or bruise, therefore putting his whole body at risk. They can tell when a player turns his knee inward causing extra torque, when he lands with more weight on the right side than the left, or when the hips are uneven as a player runs and jumps. All of these things can cause imbalances that increase injury risk.

Both P3 and its competitor, Fusionetics, were invited to test participants at the 2014 NBA Draft Combine, and both came away believing a lot of players in that draft class who were in danger of significant injury because of muscle imbalances they measured. P3 founder Marcus Elliott couldn’t be specific, but said: “We didn’t just say who was likely to be injured, but we said where they would be injured. And it ended up being very predictive.”10

It’s impossible to know who specifically Elliott is talking about or what he predicted, but the proof is in the pudding on this one. That draft class included several youngsters who would miss significant time over their first four seasons, including the Jazz’s own Dante Exum. Other notable lottery picks who have missed at least 60 games so far in their career include Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart and Julius Randle.

P3’s Adam Hewitt told Glocker that he sees evidence of just how “untrained” younger players are today on a physical front. “Their muscles are not developed symmetrically,” Glocker writes11, “and they have dangerous movements that are putting strain on their joints and ligaments.” Many youngsters, P3 and Fusionetics seem to agree, aren’t learning to stretch properly or move and jump efficiently.

And every inefficiency or imbalance effects the whole body. Understanding and correcting an underlying problem in, say, the ankle can help solve the player’s complete health picture, as it did when P3 started working with Grant Hill12 towards the end of his career. More recently, the Jazz’s Derrick Favors13 enlisted the help of P3’s trainers to restore some of his old explosiveness and mend from some back problems that limited him during the 2016-17 season. Perhaps owing partly to the work he did their to streamline his physical processes, he just came off his most efficient season by far (.593 true shooting). Now he’s 27,  heading into his prime with perhaps a better understanding of how to get the most out of his body. 

And, as Hewitt says, it’s not just about injury prevention either. By understanding and economizing every movement the body makes in the course of a basketball action, an athlete can actually tap into his body’s power more completely, too. “It’s about faster, stronger, more explosive, all of these types of things to optimize performance… We’re trying to make them perform better on the court: jump a little higher, run a little quicker, accelerate a little faster, change direction more efficiently.”14 Another Jazz example we’ve learned about since the book was written: Joe Ingles sped up his shot mechanics on his way to becoming one of the most dangerous spot-up shooters in the league. Last year, he canned a club record 204 triples at a 44 percent clip.

The challenge in gleaning those types of assets is getting players comfortable with trainers and teams having access to some very personal data about their bodies and kinetics. Players are rightly cautious about any information that could cause them to be red-flagged ahead of a draft or free agent opportunity. It’s one thing to have their wingspan and lane agility numbers published broadly after the Combine; it’s another thing entirely for 30 prospective employers to know that a particular player has an X% difference in how he absorbs force from his right knee to his left knee, resulting in a Z% increase in injury likelihood. Imagine an existing NBA player heading into contract negotiations with a team knowing that level of detail. That type of assessment could cost a player money, or in some cases cost them their shot at the NBA as a whole, even though it’s designed to protect the player. It’s a weird dichotomy.

That discussion will continue along, slowly. In the two years since Chasing Perfection hit the bookshelves, the league and the Players’ Union have at least broached the topic of wearable technology in their collective bargaining sessions. The 2017 CBA did clarify rules about how data from wearables can be used by teams, and gives players the right to opt out. (Imagine if your employer told you that they wanted to track your nightly sleep and then discuss with you how that correlates to your job performance. You’d be sketched out, even if the bottom line is that they were looking out for your health.) But access to all of this deeper information about player movement is still poorly defined.

So for now, all this data about injury prevention and how to unlock new performance levels remains under lock and key. But players who are seeking an edge can still the P3s and Fusionetics of the world on their own terms. And the ones who do could ostensibly have an advantage.

A Step Ahead

This article barely scratches the surface of all of the interesting topics in Chasing Perfection. Glockner also examines specific teams and players who have found success by tapping into new data about how to perform and win, and tracks the remarkable stories of players who reinvented themselves or redefined their ceilings.

It is a highly engaging book, surprisingly readable given its subject matter. For any NBA fan looking to learn more about an area that is changing the competitive landscape, this book is worth your time.

As of this writing, the book is currently discounted at Amazon.com for people who, like me, still like holding a actual physical book when they read. You can also grab a digital version at that same link, or you can listen to the audio version with a free trial of Audible

Enjoy. Now let’s enjoy some basketball, too.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

One Comment

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    It seems like agents should be tapping into this area of knowledge to create more value for each of their clients. If a player privately hired P3 to analyze those types of things, it would be medical information that could be kept confidential. Therefore, it makes sense we will see that trend in the near future.

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