Learning from LeBron

Thinking about implementing analytics? Before you do that, ask yourself “What answers do I want from the data?”

After the Miami Heat lost the 2011 NBA playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks, many armchair MVPs were only too happy to explain that LeBron was not a clutch player and didn’t have what it takes to win championships in this league. Both LeBron and Coach Erik Spolestra however were determined to convert that loss into a teaching moment.

Analytics was indicated. But what was the question?  According to Spoelstra, “It took the ultimate failure in the Finals to view LeBron and our offense with a different lens. He was the most versatile player in the league. We had to figure out a way to use him in the most versatile of ways — in unconventional ways.” In the last game of the 2011 Finals, James was almost listlessly loitering beyond the arc, hesitating, shying away, and failing to take advantage of his stature. His last shot of those Finals was symbolic: an ill-fated 25-foot jump shot from the outskirts of the right wing — his favorite 3-point shot location that season.

LeBron decided the correct answer was to work on the post-up game during the off season. He spent a week learning from the great Hakeem Olajuwon. He brought his own videographer to record the sessions for later review. LeBron arrived early for each session and was stretched and ready to go every time. He took the lessons to the gym for the rest of the off season. It worked. James emerged from that summer transformed. “When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player,” Spoelstra says. “It was as if he downloaded a program with all of Olajuwon’s and Ewing’s post-up moves. I don’t know if I’ve seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one offseason. His improvement in that area alone transformed our offense to a championship level in 2012.”

The true test of analytics isn’t just on how good they are but in how committed you are in using the data. At the 2012 NBA Finals, LeBron won the MVP title and Miami, the championship.

The lesson to learn here is to know what answers you are seeking form the data and commit to going where the data takes you.

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