## The “Interference” of Phil Jackson

By: Dr. Ikjyot Singh Kohli

So, I came across this article today by Matt Moore on CBSSports, who basically once again has taken to the web to bash the Triangle Offense. Of course, much of what he claims (like much of the Knicks media) is flat-out wrong based on very primitive and simplistic analysis, and I will point it out below. Further, much of this article seems to motivated by several comments Carmelo Anthony made recently expressing his dismay at Jeff Hornacek moving away from the “high-paced” offense that the Knicks were running before the All-Star break:

“I think everybody was trying to figure everything out, what was going to work, what wasn’t going to work,’’ Anthony said in the locker room at the former Delta Center. “Early in the season, we were winning games, went on a little winning streak we had. We were playing a certain way. We went away from that, started playing another way. Everybody was trying to figure out: Should we go back to the way we were playing, or try to do something different?’’

Anthony suggested he liked the Hornacek way.

“I thought earlier we were playing faster and more free-flow throughout the course of the game,’’ Anthony said. “We kind of slowed down, started settling it down. Not as fast. The pace slowed down for us — something we had to make an adjustment on the fly with limited practice time, in the course of a game. Once you get into the season, it’s hard to readjust a whole system.’’

First, it is well-known that the Knicks have been implementing more of the triangle offense since All-Star break. All-Star Weekend was Feb 17-19, 2017. The Knicks record before All-Star weekend was amusingly 23-34, which is 11 games below .500 and is nowhere mentioned in any of these articles, and is also not mentioned (realized?) by Carmelo.

Anyhow, the question is as follows. If Hornacek was allowed to continue is non-triangle ways of pushing the ball/higher pace (What Carmelo claims he liked), would the Knicks have made the playoffs? Probably not. I claim this to be the case based on a detailed machine-learning-based analysis of playoff-eligible teams that has been available for sometime now. In fact, what is perhaps of most importance from this paper is the following classification tree that determines whether a team is playoff-eligible or not:

So, these are the relevant factors in determining whether or not a team in a given season makes the playoffs. (Please see the paper linked above for details on the justification of these results.)

Looking at these predictor variables for the Knicks up to the All-Star break.

1. Opponent Assists/Game: 22.44
2. Steals/Game: 7.26
3. TOV/Game: 13.53
4. DRB/Game: 33.65
5. Opp.TOV/Game: 12.46

Since Opp.TOV/Game = 12.46 < 13.16, the Knicks would actually be predicted to miss the NBA Playoffs. In fact, if current trends were allowed to continue, the so-called “Hornacek trends”, one can compute the probability of the Knicks making the playoffs:

From this probability density function, we can calculate that the probability of the Knicks making the playoffs was 36.84%. The classification tree also predicted that the Knicks would miss the playoffs. So, what is being missed by Carmelo, Matt Moore, and the like is the complete lack of pressure defense, hence, the insufficient amount of opponent TOV/G. So, it is completely incorrect to claim that the Knicks were somehow “Destined for glory” under Hornacek’s way of doing this. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Knicks’ opponent AST/G pre-All-Star break was already pretty high at 22.44.

The question now is how have the Knicks been doing since Phil Jackson’s supposed interference and since supposedly implementing the triangle in a more complete sense? (On a side note, I still don’t think you can partially implement the triangle, I think it needs a proper off-season implementation as it is a complete system).

Interestingly enough, the Knicks opponent assists per game (which, according to the machine learning analysis is the most relevant factor in determining whether a team makes the playoffs) from All-Star weekend to the present-day is an impressive 20.642/Game. By the classification tree above, this actually puts the Knicks safely in playoff territory, in the sense of being classified as a playoff team, but it is too little, too late.

The defense has actually improved significantly with respect to the key relevant statistic of opponent AST/G. (Note that, as will be shown in a future article, DRTG and ORTG are largely useless statistics in determining a team’s playoff eligibility, another point completely missed in Moore’s article) since the Knicks have started to implement the triangle more completely.

The problem is that it is obviously too little, too late at this point. I would argue based on this analysis, that Phil Jackson should have actually interfered earlier in the season. In fact, if the Knicks keep their opponent Assists/game below 20.75/game next season (which is now very likely, if current trends continue), the Knicks would be predicted to make the playoffs by the above machine learning analysis.

Finally, I will just make this point. It is interesting to look at Phil Jackson teams that were not filled/packed with dominant players. As the saying goes, unfortunately, “Phil Jackson’s success had nothing to do with the triangle, but, because he had Shaq/Kobe, Jordan/Pippen, etc… ”

Well, let’s first look at the 1994-1995 Chicago Bulls, a team that did not have Michael Jordan, but ran the triangle offense completely. Per the relevant statistics above:

1. Opp. AST/G = 20.9
2. STL/G = 9.7
3. AST/G = 24.0
4. Opp. TOV/G = 18.1

These are remarkable defensive numbers, which supports Phil’s idea, that the triangle offense leads to good defense.

## So, What’s Wrong with the Knicks?

As I write this post, the Knicks are currently 12th in the Eastern conference with a record of 22-32. A plethora of people are offering the opinions on what is wrong with the Knicks, and of course, most of it being from ESPN and the New York media, most of it is incorrect/useless, here are some examples:

A while ago, I wrote this paper based on statistical learning that shows the common characteristics for NBA playoff teams. Basically, I obtained the following important result:

This classification tree shows along with arguments in the paper, that while the most important factor in teams making the playoffs tends to be the opponent number of assists per game, there are paths to the playoffs where teams are not necessarily strong in this area. Specifically, for the Knicks, as of today, we see that:

opp. Assists / game : 22.4 > 20. 75, STL / game: 7. 2 < 8.0061, TOV / game : 14.1 < 14.1585, DRB / game: 33.8 > 29.9024, opp. TOV / game: 13.0 < 13.1585.

So, one sees that what is keeping the Knicks out of the playoffs is specifically pressure defense, in that, they are not forcing enough turnovers per game. Ironically, they are very close to the threshold, but, it is not enough.

A probability density approximation of the Knicks’ Opp. TOV/G is as follows:

This PDF has the approximate functional form:

P(oTOV) =

Therefore, by computing:

$\int_{A}^{\infty} P(oTOV) d(oTOV)$,

=

,

where Erfc is the complementary error function, and is given by:

$erfc(z) = \frac{2}{\sqrt{\pi}} \int_{z}^{\infty} e^{-t^2} dt$

Given that the threshold for playoff-bound teams is more than 13.1585 opp. TOV/game, setting A = 13 above, we obtain: 0.435. This means that the Knicks have roughly a 43.5% chance of forcing more than 13 TOV in any single game. Similarly, setting A = 14, one obtains: 0.3177. This means that the Knicks have roughly a 31.77% chance of forcing more than 14 TOV in any single game, and so forth.

Therefore, one concludes that while the Knicks problems are defensive-oriented, it is specifically related to pressure defense and forcing turnovers.

By: Dr. Ikjyot Singh Kohli, About the Author

## The Most Optimal Strategy for the Knicks

In a previous article, I showed how one could use data in combination with advanced probability techniques to determine the optimal shot / court positions for LeBron James. I decided to use this algorithm on the Knicks’ starting 5, and obtained the following joint probability density contour plots:

One sees that the Knicks offensive strategy is optimal if and only if players gets shots as close to the basket as possible. If this is the case, the players have a high probability of making shots even if defenders are playing them tightly. This means that the Knicks would be served best by driving in the paint, posting up, and Porzingis NOT attempting a multitude of three point shots.

By the way, a lot of people are convinced nowadays that someone like Porzingis attempting 3’s is a sign of a good offense, as it is an optimal way to space the floor. I am not convinced of this. Spacing the floor geometrically translates to a multi-objective nonlinear optimization problem. In particular, let $(x_i, y_i)$ represent the (x-y)-coordinates of a player on the floor. Spreading the floor means one must maximize (simultaneously) each element of the following distance metric:

subject to $-14 \leq x_i \leq 14, 0 \leq y_i \leq 23.75$. While a player attempting 3-point shots may be one way to solve this problem, I am not convinced that it is a unique solution to this optimization problem. In fact, I am convinced that there are a multiple of solutions to this optimization problem.

This solution is slightly simpler if one realizes that the metric above is symmetric, so that there are only 11 independent components.

## Analyzing Lebron James’ Offensive Play

Where is Lebron James most effective on the court?

Based on 2015-2016 data, we obtained from NBA.com the following data which tracks Lebron’s FG% based on defender distance:

From Basketball-Reference.com, we then obtained data of Lebron’s FG% based on his shot distance from the basket:

Based on this data, we generated tens of thousands of sample data points to perform a Monte Carlo simulation to obtain relevant probability density functions. We found that the joint PDF was a very lengthy expression(!):

Graphically, this is:

A contour plot of the joint PDF was computed to be:

From this information, we can compute where/when LeBron has the highest probability of making a shot. Numerically, we found that the maximum probability occurs when Lebron’s defender is 0.829988 feet away, while Lebron is 1.59378 feet away from the basket. What is interesting is that this analysis shows that defending Lebron tightly doesn’t seem to be an effective strategy if his shot distance is within 5 feet of the basket. It is only an effective strategy further than 5 feet away from the basket. Therefore, opposing teams have the best chance at stopping Lebron from scoring by playing him tightly and forcing him as far away from the basket as possible.

## Breaking Down the 2015-2016 NBA Season

In this article, I will use Data Science / Machine Learning methodologies to break down the real factors separating the playoff from non-playoff teams. In particular, I used the data from Basketball-Reference.com to associate 44 predictor variables which each team: “FG” “FGA” “FG.” “X3P” “X3PA” “X3P.” “X2P” “X2PA” “X2P.” “FT” “FTA” “FT.” “ORB” “DRB” “TRB” “AST”   “STL” “BLK” “TOV” “PF” “PTS” “PS.G” “oFG” “oFGA” “oFG.” “o3P” “o3PA” “o3P.” “o2P” “o2PA” “o2P.” “oFT”   “oFTA” “oFT.” “oORB” “oDRB” “oTRB” “oAST” “oSTL” “oBLK” “oTOV” “oPF” “oPTS” “oPS.G”

, where a letter ‘o’ before the last 22 predictor variables indicates a defensive variable. (‘o’ stands for opponent. )

Using principal components analysis (PCA), I was able to project this 44-dimensional data set to a 5-D dimensional data set. That is, the first 5 principal components were found to explain 85% of the variance.

Here are the various biplots:

In these plots, the teams are grouped according to whether they made the playoffs or not.

One sees from this biplot of the first two principal components that the dominant component along the first PC is 3 point attempts, while the dominant component along the second PC is opponent points. CLE and TOR have a high negative score along the second PC indicating a strong defensive performance. Indeed, one suspects that the final separating factor that led CLE to the championship was their defensive play as opposed to 3-point shooting which all-in-all didn’t do GSW any favours. This is in line with some of my previous analyses

## Optimal Positions for NBA Players

I was thinking about how one can use the NBA’s new SportVU system to figure out optimal positions for players on the court. One of the interesting things about the SportVU system is that it tracks player $(x,y)$ coordinates on the court. Presumably, it also keeps track of whether or not a player located at $(x,y)$ makes a shot or misses it. Let us denote a player making a shot by $1$, and a player missing a shot by $0$. Then, one essentially will have data in the form $(x,y, \text{1/0})$.

One can then use a logistic regression to determine the probability that a player at position $(x,y)$ will make a shot:

$p(x,y) = \frac{\exp\left(\beta_0 + \beta_1 x + \beta_2 y\right)}{1 +\exp\left(\beta_0 + \beta_1 x + \beta_2 y\right)}$

The main idea is that the parameters $\beta_0, \beta_1, \beta_2$ uniquely characterize a given player’s probability of making a shot.

As a coaching staff from an offensive perspective, let us say we wish to position players as to say they have a very high probability of making a shot, let us say, for demonstration purposes 99%. This means we must solve the optimization problem:

$\frac{\exp\left(\beta_0 + \beta_1 x + \beta_2 y\right)}{1 +\exp\left(\beta_0 + \beta_1 x + \beta_2 y\right)} = 0.99$

$\text{s.t. } 0 \leq x \leq 28, \quad 0 \leq y \leq 47$

(The constraints are determined here by the x-y dimensions of a standard NBA court).

This has the following solutions:

$x = \frac{-1. \beta _0-1. \beta _2 y+4.59512}{\beta _1}, \quad \frac{-1. \beta _0-28. \beta _1+4.59512}{\beta _2} \leq y$

with the following conditions:

One can also have:

$x = \frac{-1. \beta _0-1. \beta _2 y+4.59512}{\beta _1}, \quad y \leq 47$

with the following conditions:

Another solution is:

$x = \frac{-1. \beta _0-1. \beta _2 y+4.59512}{\beta _1}$

with the following conditions:

The fourth possible solution is:

$x = \frac{-1. \beta _0-1. \beta _2 y+4.59512}{\beta _1}$

with the following conditions:

In practice, it should be noted, that it is typically unlikely to have a player that has a 99% probability of making a shot.

To put this example in more practical terms, I generated some random data (1000 points) for a player in terms of $(x,y)$ coordinates and whether he made a shot from that distance or not. The following scatter plot shows the result of this simulation:

In this plot, the red dots indicate a player has made a shot (a response of 1.0) from the $(x,y)$ coordinates given, while a purple dot indicates a player has missed a shot from the $(x,y)$ coordinates given (a response of 0.0).

Performing a logistic regression on this data, we obtain that $\beta_0 = 0, \beta_1 = 0.00066876, \beta_2 = -0.00210949$.

Using the equations above, we see that this player has a maximum probability of $58.7149 \%$ of making a shot from a location of $(x,y) = (0,23)$, and a minimum probability of $38.45 \%$ of making a shot from a location of $(x,y) = (28,0)$.