Verizon Center served as a basketball laboratory for about an hour Tuesday afternoon when the Washington Mystics and Minnesota Lynx took part in an unprecedented experiment dubbed as an “analytics scrimmage.” There were two 10-minute periods. Almost everything else was unusual.
Several members of the Washington Wizards brass made their way down from their offices to observe their WNBA counterparts participate in the bizarre event. Coach Randy Wittman, General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, and Assistant General Manager Tommy Sheppard were among those in attendance. Wizards and Mystics owner Ted Leonsis, the scrimmage’s mastermind, joined them.
There was a bit of irony to the situation: Though Leonsis staged this grand experiment, the Wizards, the numbers say, have not played like a team that has joined the analytics movement that has swept the NBA in recent seasons. Neither have the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Lynx’s NBA counterparts. While NBA teams are relying on three-pointers and getting to the basket over settling for midrange jumpers, the Wizards and Timberwolves ranked third and fourth in midrange jumpers attempted this past season. The only teams that attempted more were the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks. The Wizards’ company wasn’t impressive: The Timberwolves, Lakers, and Knicks lost a combined 192 games and own three of the top four picks in the upcoming draft.
But all indications are the Wizards, whose offense ranked 19th in efficiency during the regular season, will shift gears and join the revolution next season after their offense was at its best chucking three-pointers and playing with pace and space in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks. Washington’s offense changed by featuring Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden III as stretch-fours more regularly. Wittman has wanted to utilize a stretch-four and to play this brand of basketball but didn’t want to use Pierce at power forward much during the regular season in order to lighten his workload. He indicated he would like to have the appropriate pieces to play like the Wizards did in the playoffs next season.
Leonsis reiterated the reasoning Tuesday and insisted the Wizards have incorporated analytics in their game-planning beyond the postseason.
“You do have to play with the personnel that you have. Paul Pierce did go to the power forward-kind of position but there’s no way Paul Pierce could have done that for the season. That’s just a very, very tough position to play,” Leonsis said. “They share with me the game-planning against each of the teams going into the Toronto series and going into the Atlanta series. And what the reports showed, the staff implemented. Now, they had a lot of input into that. It’s not like there’s some guru that’s just like, ‘Write the report.’
“This is the coaches and the assistant coaches and all of the staff and all the people around analytics. They all contribute and they all agree to, based on our experience playing the team, based on the data, based on the analytics, this is what we have to do differently. And in the regard in playing both of those teams, we didn’t have regular season success against them so it wasn’t that hard to get everyone to buy into, ‘Let’s do something different.’ We hadn’t beaten Toronto [in the regular season] and then we swept them [in the playoffs] so I view it as, ‘It worked.’ ”
Leonsis defended the organization’s use of analytics when asked about criticism levied against the Wizards, including a story ranking franchises’ use of analytics in the four major American sports published in the ESPN The Magazine earlier this year.
“I think we’re an advanced organization. I think, as we said, we were one of the first to hire capologists, we were one of the first to put the high-speed cameras up. One off the first things I did when I bought the team was bringing in a guy name Joe Sill. Double math PhD, kind of a Netflixy algorithm guy. He’s never been here. And so to read an article like that was disrespectful to the people that are doing the work and so that’s why I kind of dismissed it.
“I think for us of course we can do better. I don’t think there’s any team that can’t execute and do better. And as the state of the art continues to improve around analytics and then there’s more innovation, yeah, I think what we’re doing today is innovative. And I’d like to see more teams, additional teams do it but you can only do it if you have an organization that goes, ‘That’s cool. We probably can learn something from that.’