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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Exclusive Interview with ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, Part III

In Part II of my interview with Fran Fraschilla, he described his player evaluation methods. Player evaluation is no longer limited to GMs, coaches, scouts and TV analysts; in recent years, a veritable brigade of numbers crunchers have laid down the gauntlet and asserted that their formulas are more accurate and reliable than the observations made by the professionals.

Friedman: "Particularly in the past 10 years or so, a lot of statistical analysis has come into basketball, a process that started with Bill James’ baseball work. You see this a lot in the NBA right now. I think that there is value to it but I also think that the trained eye is important. Without leading you to an answer, I’d be interested in your perspective on where you fall on the continuum that ranges from old school people who came up in an era that relied entirely on the trained eye and used only the most basic stats to the people on the other end of the continuum like Dave Berri at Wages of Wins who has the attitude that he does not even need to watch games, that the eye is biased and all that he needs to do is crunch numbers in a certain way and then he knows exactly what is happening. You basically have two extremes: you have an old school guy who says, ‘I don’t care about the numbers because I know what I am seeing' and then you have Dave Berri who essentially says, ‘I don’t watch games. All I do is crunch numbers.’ Where do you place yourself on that continuum and what do you think of that whole debate?"

Fraschilla: "First of all, knowledge is power, so the more knowledge that you have the more likely you are to have an educated opinion about a player. I think when you have the opportunity to use the various statistical categories that we see now in basketball—you mentioned Wages of Wins, plus 82games.com, where guys get shots on the floor, whether a guy is better going to his left or his right, how effective he is in the pick and roll—all of that information coupled with the innate feel that you have from having a trained eye allows you to make an educated guess on whether a guy can play or not. There are certain things statistically that might really stand out positively about a player but at the end of the day I think your eyes will normally not lie. When there is an incongruence between what your eyes are telling you and what the numbers are saying, as an evaluator you need to figure out where you’re going wrong in terms of your opinion or where the numbers may be skewed to make a player who is a good player look even better. I think that all of the information that you can take in and then filter back out can only help you. So probably on that continuum I am right down the middle: give me as much information as I can possibly digest before I have to make a decision but ultimately it becomes a decision based as much on feel as anything."

Friedman: "I agree with you. I disagree with Berri’s opinion that anybody can understand the NBA game—or any game for that matter—without watching it. I don’t care how precise one’s numerical analysis is, it is still essential to watch the game with a trained eye. If you took Berri’s numbers or Kevin Mackey took Berri’s numbers or someone who actually knows basketball took his numbers then I agree with you that this information could be powerful—but for Dave Berri, who is an economist who in my opinion does not know basketball, to say that he does not have to watch the game to understand it better than an NBA general manager is absurd. To get to something specific regarding this issue, during the NBA Finals in my game recaps I made the point that Kobe Bryant played better than any of the other Lakers in that losing effort. Not to say that everything he did was perfect or that he could not have played better but he was clearly the best player on their team. They had a real problem—well, they had a number of problems but one specific problem that they had was that Pau Gasol did not play to the level that he did in previous series."

Fraschilla: "Right."

Friedman: "He did not set his screens as aggressively, he was not as physical, after he set screens he did not roll to the basket as aggressively as he had previously. When he caught the ball in the paint he did not finish with authority. I think that these are all things that you understood and saw as you watched those games."

Fraschilla: "Yes."

Friedman: "I understand them because I’ve trained my eye to the point that I can at least understand that much."

Fraschilla: "Yes."

Friedman: "So those things were all evident to me and I wrote about them during the series but when someone just crunches the numbers--Gasol’s high field goal percentage and some other numbers--the Wages of Wins verdict on the Finals was that Gasol was the Lakers’ best player in the Finals. I think that anybody who understands basketball and watched those games would find that to be an absurd conclusion."

Fraschilla: "It’s funny--I just talked today to (Boston assistant coach) Tom Thibodeau, who is a very good friend of mine. He was Doc Rivers’ defensive guy. He’s been anonymous for about 18 years. I was going to dovetail back to something you said. He’s been a good assistant coach all these years, for Jeff Van Gundy, for John Lucas and now Doc but here’s the interesting thing. I had a couple years when I wasn’t coaching and I had the chance to do advance scouting in the NBA for about a month or two at a time before my television season (in college basketball) started and the one thing that I always laugh about on Draft Night—I don’t get a chance to talk about the college players because everyone thinks that I am the international guy but I do 60 college games a year so I follow the college game 10 times more closely than the international game—but what I was going to mention is that I don’t think that our college guys who follow the draft understand how good the league is. That is why I always say that it does not matter who is picked because two thirds of these guys, statistically, are going to be busts, washouts—that’s just the way it is. A couple years ago I wrote a 35 page booklet about how I would organize an NBA front office from the personnel side and one of the things I would do is make my college scouts twice a month during the season go see an NBA game. In other words, if you are out in L.A. scouting USC and UCLA and the Lakers are in town then I want you to go see to the Lakers game the night before you see UCLA play USC. I would make my scouts do that at least twice a month because if you are not watching NBA basketball on a regular basis then you can easily get tricked by how good college players are."

Friedman: "That could be why some people thought J.J. Redick was going to be so great in the NBA but maybe it is not going to turn out that way. He was the College Player of the Year. Is that the kind of thing you are getting at?"

Fraschilla: "Yeah, exactly. I don’t have a problem with J.J. Redick. I think that he is what a lot of us thought he was going to be because he is a 6-3 guy who is an average athlete who obviously does one thing really well. That particular skill has not been utilized yet so maybe it’s just the system he’s in now but I do know that the Magic guard help desperately so it’s not like he has not gotten a chance. I absolutely think that it is important for anybody who talks about scouting or watching college guys with the intent of figuring out if they are going to be NBA players then you have to watch NBA basketball to understand that these guys are really good in terms of shrinking the floor, closing out on an open man--I’m going off on a tangent. There are a lot of guys in the NBA who do a great job scouting but sometimes when I am out on the road doing games on TV I wonder, ‘Why did that guy leave four minutes before the end of the game?’ or ‘Why did that guy show up two minutes into the game?’ It kind of boggles my mind sometimes at some of the decision making that goes on in the league, particularly when it comes to the draft."

Friedman: "In terms of the original question, I think this also applies to the people who are doing the statistical analysis. I think that a lot of them are doing some great work and some interesting work but when you get to the end of the continuum where they think that they can understand the game without watching it then I think that they have become a little too impressed with their own work and their formulas."

Fraschilla: "I agree with that completely--give me the statistical information and let me factor it in with what my eyes are telling me and what my 30 years of experience is telling me and see if I can’t put that all together to make an informed evaluation of somebody. I think that’s a good point."

On Thursday in Part IV of this interview, Fraschilla talks about the differences between the NBA game and the college game and he describes how he became ESPN's guru about FIBA basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:08 AM

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