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Advanced analysis: Lobos coach out in front of growing analytics trend

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series looking at some of the major program changes first-year University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach Paul Weir is bringing to the Lobos this coming season. This article explores the use advanced analytics and non-traditional statistics to evaluate the production of his team.

Scribbled in marker across the glass window of the University of New Mexico men’s basketball office is a quote that seems to best summarize new head coach Paul Weir’s approach to life, not merely coaching.

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ ” — Adm. Grace Murray Hopper

As it pertains to the way Weir evaluates the successes and failures of his own performance or that of his team, players or opponents, it seems appropriate those words came from a mathematician.

The 38-year-old Weir falls into the growing group of college basketball head coaches not only open to the idea of incorporating non-traditional statistics, but getting out in front of the trend and finding new ways and numbers that best help build a winning program.

“Paul is still in the minority as really having a personal interest in it,” said Ken Pomeroy, creator of the widely popular basketball analytics website “… He’s well ahead of most in his profession.”

For Weir, using such measurements based on pace of play, performance per possession, offensive efficiency or predictive value as opposed to basic stats like scoring averages or rebounds per game isn’t about being cutting edge at all. It’s just a mindset.

“It all goes together,” Weir said. “When you walked through these offices when I got here, we had dark gray paint on the walls. We all had the same ‘L’ shaped desk. Everything was very cookie cutter. Very uniform.

“I think basketball coaches for the last 50 years have all warmed up the same way. Trained the same way. There’s a thought process that this is the way you do things. I think that goes across every platform in your world and in my world. To me, analytics allow you to effectively question why it is you’re doing things more so than anything else.”

New UNM head coach Paul Weir has a plan to help change the culture of Lobos basketball. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Day to day

Weir reached out to UNM’s department of mathematics and statistics about the possibility of hiring an intern to focus on crunching numbers.

And while the intern idea doesn’t appear as though it will happen this season, Weir says his long-term goal is to figure out how UNM can hire a full-time data analyst for the entire athletics department focusing on advanced metrics for all sports.

Regardless of who is the primary numbers cruncher, Weir will not only be involved, but be at the forefront in articulating to staff and players how and why they’re using those numbers. That isn’t yet the norm for the majority of head coaches.

“Most programs are using data in a more sophisticated way than they did 10 years ago because there are more tools available to do so,” Pomeroy said. “But there are still a lot of places where it’s an assistant or a video guy that is doing the data analysis and the head coach really couldn’t speak intelligently about possession-based numbers.”

Weir replaced one wall in the Lobos player locker room with “The Wall of Truth” — a series of white boards with statistics updated daily to show player production in practice and games, leaving no question about why players are, or aren’t, getting playing time.

He did the same last year at New Mexico State, but plans to expand the use of analytics for game preparation this season.

“What I used it a ton for last year was mostly opponent scouting,” Weir said. “What we used it for internally wasn’t all that advanced, but we used enough of it to illustrate why guys weren’t playing or were playing.”

It’s not only about the players, either. The use of analytics carries over to self evaluation or even recruiting, too.

“I want to recruit this player,” Weir said. “OK, what do the number say? I want to play this player or this combination of players on the court. What do the numbers show? I want to play man or zone. It puts numbers behind the things you have in your head.”

‘Like a dummy’

Weir is quick to point out he’s hardly the first to lean heavily on this type of data.

After a Dec. 28 loss to Pittsburgh, a reporter asked Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni, the brother of NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni, if he regretted his team not “working the ball into the paint.”

D’Antoni’s response could be the opening chapter of “Analytics for Dummies.”

“You get any computer and run what the best shots are and they’ll tell you a post shot is the worst shot in basketball,” D’Antoni said. “… The best shot in basketball is that corner 3. The next best shot in basketball is any other 3.”

Admittedly using NBA statistics as his model, he pointed out teams average 1.5 points per possession that results in a free throw attempt (which often includes two free throws attempts). After that, it’s 1.8 points per uncontested layup. But short of those two, the next value on the court is from long range: 1.3 points per “corner 3” point attempt, 1.27 for other 3-point attempts and 0.78 points per “post up” shot attempt.

“I changed a long time ago,” D’Antoni said. “Listen, I coached for 15 years like a dummy. Running down there real hard so I could get it in there for the worst shot in basketball. Didn’t know what I was doing.”

Magic formula

So what happens when all the tweaking of formulas and statistics line up and a coach finds the perfect formula for winning basketball?

Start over.

“I don’t think anyone has the right answer to what the optimal amount of 3-point shooting we should do,” Weir said. “Finding that sweet spot is something we should search for as much as anything, but even then, it doesn’t just sit there and remain there. Things are constantly changing and we need to look at all the data coming in and keep changing with it.”

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