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Of particular use to the Dallas coaching staff is Winval’s “lineup calculator,” a software tool that measures the effectiveness of various player combinations on a game-to-game, weekly and season-long basis.
According to the system, Nowitzki and Eduardo Najera make up one of the Mavericks’ top frontcourt pairings, while an on-floor five of Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Antoine Walker and Scott Williams is 25 points better than an average NBA lineup per 48 minutes.
During last year’s playoffs, Winval indicated Shawn Bradley was more effective facing Portland than Sacramento. The Dallas center started six first-round games against the Blazers but played sparingly vs. the Kings in the conference semifinals.
“If you’re a coach and you’re watching the game, you might not pick all that up,” says Seattle SuperSonics assistant general manager Rich Cho, a former Winval user. “After the game, you might look at the box score and see a player has good stats. But it’s hard to correlate that with who he was on the floor with.”
Last summer, Winston and Sagarin met with Walsh, whose Pacers were upset by Boston in the first round of the playoffs. In splitting the first two games of that series, Indiana fielded a particular lineup that had a plus rating of nearly 50.
Over the next three games, however, that lineup barely played.
“When we showed that to Donnie, his eyebrows nearly flew off his forehead,” Sagarin says.
Though Walsh was intrigued, then-coach Isiah Thomas expressed little interest in the system. Cuban says he’s often mocked for using Winval. Cho notes that veteran scouts and coaches aren’t always comfortable with new school number-crunching.
“People see it as some kind of threat to the old school way of thinking,” Walsh says. “I don’t see it that way. I think one helps the other. It’s a digital world.”
Like any mathematical model rooted in human behavior, Winval has its limits. Highly rated players can suffer bad stretches (Winston calls it the “girlfriend” factor). Trades often produce significant rating fluctuations.
Winston says he can predict a player’s future rating within four points but only about 60 percent of the time — not good enough for Cuban, who has used the system to help evaluate roster moves.
“The information is a good reference point, but unlike ‘Moneyball,’ where there are definable variables that enable a team to select players wisely, there are no such variables identified yet in basketball,” Cuban says. “Personally, I think it’s because we don’t collect the right data.”
Still, Cuban is happy to pay for use of the system, which can cost up to $30,000 a month. The Mavericks also track referee tendencies — and not simply as part of the owner’s ongoing effort to make league officials more consistent and accountable.
“Jermaine O’Neal leads the league in offensive fouls,” Winston says. “If you have three refs on the court who call lots of charges, then when Jermaine throws an elbow, fall down.”
Meanwhile, Winston and Sagarin continue to tweak their brainchild. The latest stat? “Impact” rating. Basically a measure of clutch play, it compares a team’s probability of victory when a player comes into a game vs. the team’s odds of winning when the same player comes out.
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