Cavs Notes: Hoop Drills, When AAU Attacks & RAPM Redux

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Cool but utterly unrelated cover picture.
  • Cool but utterly unrelated cover picture.
Several (former and current) players looked at us sideways when we said we wanted to talk about basketball drills. They’re more like chores than activities, so we understand, but that’s also sort of their allure. At the end of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield even admits to missing Stradlater, his annoyingly self-satisfied and popular roommate/secret nemesis.

There’s something about life (and marriage for that matter) in which its annoyances, petty inconveniences, obstacles and rituals endear themselves to us, indeed sort of inform us. Now obviously there’s only so much that comes out dribbling one to two basketballs around your body or shooting for hours alone. But there’s definitely something.

Back in the late sixties if you’d looked for Campy Russell on the streets of Pontiac, he’d have bounced with you through the night. That ball did not leave his side.

“You didn’t need to have a basket to do it. You could do it standing in your driveway. You can do it on your porch. You can do it in your basement. You can do it anywhere,” says Russell, who clearly missed his calling as a '70s spokesperson for the Vegematic & the Pocket Fisherman. “There was a corner right down the street from us, where all guys to go after we got done playing basketball at the playground, and we just set up there, and [I’d be] dribbling.”

That dedication paid dividends. Big guys didn’t have handles like Campy.

“Figure eights, sit-down, standup, lay down on your stomach, on your back, not looking at the ball, left hand, right hand,” he muses. “Those were the things that I think made a difference for me as someone who had size to be able to handle the ball and pass the ball with both hands. Those things are invaluable.”

Party of One

James Jones and Channing Frye both like playing a peculiar game to 21 by twos and threes where you can’t repeat the same move/finish/sequence twice.

“It’s kind of like playing a game against yourself,” says Jones. “Mixed of combo shots, never the same shot twice, never the same direction. So if you go left one possession, you have to go right the next possession. It’s cool to make you spread out your skills but it also makes you think how am I going to get to 21? You’re not just doing the same thing.”

While that serves a practical purpose it’s also sort of a necessary one. Same drills, every day, for several hours a day? Variety is essential.

“You’re just trying to stay competitive and stay engaged by trying to mix it up by doing things a little different and begin creative,” Jones says. “It’s one of those situations where you find a way to enjoy solitude and loneliness out there on the basketball court by yourself.”

Skills on Drills

Saint Edwards Basketball Coach Eric Flannery likes turning three- and four-man squad games of “cutthroat” into opportunities to teach good basketball fundamentals, leveraging ballplayers’ natural competitiveness.

“We do this in practice. You have an offense and a defense and a team that’s out and it’s competitive. If you don’t win that point your team is off and the next team is on,” says Flannery, who also is an assistant on the 2016 US Junior National team.

“As a coach you can make rules on cutthroat, like if you pass you have to cut immediately or else your team is out. Or if you pass and don’t square up to the basket right away your team is out,” he explains. “So it teaches fundamentals and it makes it a game and competitive, which I think allows kids to learn a little bit faster. Any drill that you can do that and has something to play for builds that competitiveness in the kids but also teaches them along the way.”

For his part Jim Chones would love to see the Cavaliers do more of a particular drill that helped shape him as a ballplayer, that he calls “baseline to baseline.”

“You get your own rebounds, so you get conditioning and you learn how to make your pivots. All it is, is you shoot from the corner midrange inside the three line, ball goes up you run to get the rebound or if it goes through,” says Chones. “Then you run to the other end to the other corner and you do a pivot. You to do an inside pivot which is to the middle of the floor or do it outside pivot which is to the baseline and you should the shot to turn around jumpshot. You go back and forth and you try to get to twenty.”

It very much shaped him as a player, taking advantage of his strengths and leveraging them.

“You have to be pretty good shape [to complete that drill],” Chones said. “I wasn’t as big as most centers and I definitely wasn’t as strong. Thirty to thirty-two minutes, that was my limit… so conditioning was very important for me. That was my advantage. I can last a little longer than most. But that’s the drill, and I’ve been doing that since I was 13.”

Changing Drills, AAU & A Changing Sport

That was certainly what it was like for Flannery growing up. Hours outside throwing up jumpers at the backyard hoop by himself.

“I played the NCAA tournament. I played the whole NBA Finals series in my own mind,” he recalls. “If the game ended 110-108, I made every one of those shots throughout the course of the game. I grew up playing by myself and with my three older brothers, nephews like Tim [Smith], neighbors that would come over and play.”

So did we. There was this great social aspect, but also this great lone aspect as well. One, two, three, four people, you’d find a way to make it work, from Twenty-One to Cutthroat or what-not.

To hear Coach Flannery tell it, that’s changed over the years. subsumed in this combination of specialization and sort of stakes-raising hyper-sacrifice “for the kids”. It’s created a competitive AAU atmosphere which sort of denigrates real competition in favor of the nae-nae (“look at me, look at me”).

“Kids play AAU basketball and they have a personal trainer they do all that stuff and mom and dad are running them around to every other scenario out there because they’re trying to keep up with the Joneses and that’s what everybody else is doing,” Coach Flannery says. “So no more do we send a kid outside and play because we’re all worried was going to happen to our kid.”

It’s changed the very nature of the game, enabling the athleticism at the cost of team concept and some skills.

“Kids are spending enormous amount of money and time working on their bodies as well as working on their games and the working them out in the gyms,” he says. “To me the average player is just flat out overdoing it, spending way too much money and way too much time when they could be just going out there backyard shooting it. Maybe that’s why you don’t get the pure shooters anymore, because we’re not spending as much time on that. We’re spending more time on ballhandling drills, coming up with ladder drills, dribbling through and around cones. Have you seen a cone in a basketball game?”

Flannery’s not completely down on AAU, but he feels something important may have been lost in professionalizing the basketball growth of teenagers.

“The AAU stuff gets a bad rap at times. It’s great you get competition you play,” says Flannery, pausing where the “but” would go. “Kids today don’t care about winning or losing anymore. There’s not that competitive spirit, because you lose an AAU game at eight in the morning, got another one of at ten and three, and another one at noon the next day. If we don’t win the tournament this weekend, will play in a tournament next weekend.

“They say ‘If I’m not getting my time in, or my shots, then I’m going to go to another team.’ So that loyalty is going away,” he says. “Kids are leaving schools, kids are leaving programs. Parents are going ‘if my kids not happy or I’m not happy, then we’ll go someplace else. It’s really changing the culture.”

At some point learning to play basketball moved out of the driveway, and turned into a big business. The sort of Zen, self-directed alone time morphed into yet another rat race, designed for kids and run by adults. Necessarily some (a lot?) of the fun and joy, gets squeezed out.

“That’s absolutely right,” says Flannery, “and it’s ridiculous.”

A Few More Words on Plus-Minus

We got some great response from our column on RPM & RAPM including a number of people pointing out that we didn’t know what we were talking about. This is an exaggeration, but since we don’t mind a little exaggeration*, we’ll live with it.

(*Those for whom this article was their first exposure to my Scene columns might have been caught unawares by the generally puckish and playful exuberance of the prose and argument. We started in feature writing and abhor dryness, hoping to entertain as well as offer another perspective. We’re with Plato w/r/t people watching shadows dance on the wall and the expert opinions that ensue. But ya gotta work.)

We didn’t do as fine a job of explaining it, because it’s a bit out of our expertise and may have fumbled the explanation some. This isn’t a mea culpa about the opinions, just an attempt to clarify the arguments, and clean up where we called something the wrong thing.

First off, let’s note that in bringing up Iguodala and the +62, we weren’t making an argument about Real Plus Minus anymore than Thanks Obama is an earnest political statement. Like Rob Corddry’s comic enjoinder, we were more interested in the idea that how well a team performs while a guy is on the floor – with a possible ascending HOF player – could somehow overshadow ACTUAL statistics of a rather extraordinary nature.

We were sort of setting the scene with something everyone here in Cleveland can sort of relate to. From there we spoke to Bob Chaikin, and we didn’t really do a good enough job explaining the methodology of how they measure on/off courts.

The idea is to find out how, say Draymond Green, does without say, Stephen Curry. It would be easier if basketball were more like hockey where even the best players (as we understand it) spend more time off the ice than one it.

Finding those moments when Green isn’t on the floor with Curry, and using the various players on/off floor numbers to develop some baseline for divining Curry and Green’s true talent.

“The problem with adjusted +/- is that time apart can be a really small sample set,” writes Dr. Stephen Shea, Chair of Mathematics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

“More than that, adjusted +/- tries to consider who Draymond is playing with and against when he's not with Steph, and the same for Steph without Draymond, which only leads to smaller and smaller sample sets,” he notes. “There is also the problem that the formula does not account for other factors of context, such as if the coach is using the player appropriately.”

Small samples mean large “error” fluctuations which compromise the integrity of the stat if a guy’s top 50 one year and outside the top 150 the next. We presume there isn’t that much variability in performance. That’s adjusted plus minus (APM) or sometimes called, real plus minus (RPM).

On To RAPM

RAPM stands for Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus. (Not “real adjusted plus minus”.) When I say it regresses the other four players out of the equation that is a vast oversimplification. It’s designed to avoid some fairly rigorous explanations about Bayesian progression and ridge regressions that causes my eyes to glaze.

The idea, as Dr. Berri suggested initially, is to use boxscore stats to fix the variability of APM, and eradicate the issue of penalizing good players on poor teams. Berri complains that this mixes these two different things, a stat that kind of is a blend of everything happening on the court (APM) and individual stats (points, rebounds, etc.).

Dr. Shea agrees, calling plus-minus a “top-down metric” where he calls individual contributions a “bottom-up metric”.

“I believe the two types of metrics complement each other. However, I prefer to keep them separate. I like to see if a player is filling the box score but his team's performance is poor, or if a player never scores but his team always seems to get better when he's on the court,” writes Shea.

Besides boxscore stats, it keeps track of players' prior years (regressing toward their prior talent level) and plots that against an age curve assuming a typical growth curve. It would seem typical will leave out some players and exacerbate the hidden error rate on individual players while smoothing out the data set as a whole. Shea also reports that RPM reportedly has a height input.

(Again, an algorithm you don’t know how it’s assembled works seems more suited to Wall Street than professional sports, which seem to be growing closer in true nature.)

“RPM mixes the top-down and bottom-up. When I look at RPM, I'm not sure why the player's score is good or bad. Is it the box score numbers? Is it the +/- element? Is it because the player rated well in prior years? Is it because the age curve assumed the player would get worse/better even if they didn't? Is it because he is the tallest in the lineup?”

We also received some comments about the predictability of RAPM stats. Though Berri implied a lower level of predictability than other measures, we’ve heard otherwise and feel ill equipped to adjudicate at this point.

But as we noted in the very first line of the story, RAPM is just a tool. It’s one of many ways to evaluate a player’s contributions on the whole. It wouldn’t bother us so much were there not individuals hocking it with an intensity and earnestness that suggests a Boiler Room.

Really, what use is a stat that tells you who is good and who is not, based on some numbers that don’t equate with anything so much as a listicle? It’s good for argument and little else, but maybe that’s the point.

We would like to note that people continue to explore new ways to split and parse this data, and we were intrigued by something someone sent crossing APM with the Dean Oliver's key Four Factors. We hope more minds turn toward forging and honing basketball stats and away from complex financial instruments.

Final Words

We’re not sure if anyone else is curious or spends any time pondering basketball drills, however we suspect the curiosity about Curry’s pregame routines doing drills with multiple basketballs signals some interest. It’s not the type of thing your local paper will write about unless it has some dramatic angle.

We kind of abhor that whole drama/clickbait mentality. We try to find things that interest us and hope that we can convey that, thereby filling absence in the local basketball coverage we always felt. (Baseball with its different pace seems to bubble over with similar “naturalistic” – read: slow – stories and anecdotes.)

Maybe we’re wrong, but we kind of feel like lots of people like sports so there should be more ways to talk about it than the limited winner/loser/adjustments "horse-race" palette of most sports coverage? Why do they need to tell us about how many points a player scored when that’s available at a click?

But we digress – and we don’t blame the journalists – they’re just doing what’s asked by people more worried about losing their job than innovating.  Somewhere along the way, the business plan blew up, but perspective hardly widened. (Special thanks to the relevant individuals for Zach Lowe, someone else who came into sports journalism from elsewhere.)

Anyways…. As you’ll note, we’re beefing up our coverage between games, and trying to talk about some of the things that don’t fall into our postgame milieu. We’ll try to do some features on different players, if we can get the facetime, and will be thinking of other “road-not-taken” subjects to cover.

In the meantime, we’ll be at Philips Arena in Altanta for tonight’s Game 3. We’ll be posting live video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our postgame analysis on Saturday morning, here in the Scene & Heard blog.


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