Bucks using “facial coding expert” to help judge mental make up of draft picks, players

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We’re big fans of on-the-court analytics here at PBT — from the moment Dean Oliver wrote “Basketball on Paper” through today there has been a statistical revolution that has swept through the NBA. It provides a window into the game and helped efficiency become valued over volume (among many other steps). The best coaches and GMs blend numbers — for an easy example, which lineups work and which ones don’t — with the eye test based on years of watching and analyzing players and games, to come to their conclusions on everything from in-game minutes to draft picks.

But the dated, missing-the-point comeback of the non-analytics crowd — “numbers can’t measure heart” — has some truth to it. Analytics won’t tell you how a personality fits in a locker room, or which guy has the drive to put in the minutes off the court to improve his game.

The Milwaukee Bucks are trying to change that.

They have brought in a “facial coding expert” and his analysis was part of the reason the Bucks drafted Jabari Parker No. 2 last draft over the tempting Dante Exum. It’s all detailed in a fascinating piece in the New York Times.

So in May, the team hired Dan Hill, a facial coding expert who reads the faces of college prospects and N.B.A. players to determine if they have the right emotional attributes to help the Bucks.

The approach may sound like palm reading to some, but the Bucks were so impressed with Hill’s work before the 2014 draft that they retained him to analyze their players and team chemistry throughout this season…

Hill measures the players on the seven emotions and categorizes smiles, for example, four ways: true, robust, weak and micro. Consider Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. According to Hill, Westbrook shows a high number of weak smiles or “satisfaction,” and enough “true” smiles, which equate to “joy” and contribute to what has been a highly effective season — averages of 28.6 points and 7.4 assists per game.

Before you mock Hill and this idea completely, you should know the NFL and major corporations have used this for years (much of Hill’s work is on focus groups for companies putting out a new product).

Does it work? My psychology minor in college does not exactly qualify me as an expert. I have no idea. Maybe it’s the NBA version of former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt paying a Russian psychic big money to channel “V Energy” to help the team. The Times interviews people who are skeptical and the issue for them is a legitimate one — there is a lot of noise in the results. Coaches read body language/facial expressions too and that can change how a player is used or developed, and that’s just one example.

I do know most teams thought Parker should go in the top two spots in the last draft and was considered the most NBA-ready player of the high picks in the last draft no matter what his face was saying. His play before the knee injury proved that scoring 12.3 points and grabbing 5.5 rebounds a game, while running away with the Rookie of the Year crown. (That race is now wide open.)

In the ultra-competitive NBA arena teams are going to look for any edge. Maybe this is an edge. The hardest thing to read about any 19 or 20 year old is their mental makeup and how driven they really are — they all have been coached to say the right things, but what are their real intentions? Especially since once they get to the NBA they are going to have a different level of money and attention then they are used to, can they be professional and work through that?

Maybe Hill and his face reading metrics can help with that.

You can bet on this much: After this article the Bucks are not going to be the only team calling him before the next draft.

PBT Podcast: MVP, Rookie of Year, other awards plus NBA playoffs, Finals predictions

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Will James Harden repeat as MVP or will someone else — LeBron James, Anthony Davis — grab the award away from him?

Luca Doncic and Deandre Ayton seem to be the favorites for Rookie of the Year, but could Trae Young or Jaren Jackson Jr. push their way into the conversation?

Who will win Coach of the Year? Is Jamal Murray a guy to watch for Most Improved Player?

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports discuss all the major awards plus get into playoff predictions in this latest PBT Podcast. Can Charlotte sneak into the final playoff slot in the East or is Detroit going to take that? Are the Spurs going to miss the playoffs in the West for the first time in 22 years? And are the Warriors a lock to win it all? (Hint: They are not.)

We want your questions for the podcast, and your comments, email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com. As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Report: Suns signing Jamal Crawford

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The Suns are desperate for a point guard.

How desperate?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t assume Phoenix plans to play Crawford at point guard. Perhaps, he’ll be an off guard. But the possibility is scary – whether the fear comes from playing Crawford out of position or the possibility he’d actually be the Suns’ top point guard.

It’s questionable whether the 38-year-old can help in either backcourt spot. He doesn’t attack the rim like he used to, and his defense has become even more porous.

Though he declined a $4,544,400 player option with the Timberwolves, there’s a reason he remained a free agent so long. He’ll likely settle for the minimum with Phoenix, one of the NBA’s bottom teams.

The Suns now have 14 players with guaranteed salaries on standard contracts, three with small or no guarantees (Richaun Holmes, Isaiah Canaan and Shaquille Harrison) plus Crawford. The regular-season standard-contract roster limit is 15. So, it’ll be interesting to see whom Phoenix drops in the next day. The Suns reportedly applied for a disabled-player exception for Darrell Arthur.

The Suns might try to spin this as adding veteran leadership. But they already have Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Tyson Chandler. How many veteran leaders do they need?

They need a starting-caliber point guard. Crawford isn’t it. At best, they realize that and have other plans for him.

Charles Barkley says he hasn’t worn underwear in a decade

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Charles Barkley can’t control everything, like whether the Magic hire him as general manager.

But he can control his underpants, as he explained on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Knicks stress patience, indulge impatient tendencies by stretching Joakim Noah

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry talked a big game about patiently rebuilding – practically a foreign concept in New York.

And most of the summer, they backed up their words.

They drafted Kevin Knox No. 9 and Mitchell Robinson No. 36. They didn’t sign a single free agent to a multi-year deal. They made no win-now trade (or any trade at all).

Yet, even in the Knicks’ most patient offseason in years, they closed it with an incredibly impatient move.

New York stretched Joakim Noah, locking in a cap hit of $18,530,000 this season and $6,431,667 each of the following three years. The move opens an additional $12,863,333 in cap space next summer.

But what if the Knicks don’t need that extra room? What if they don’t attract free agents worth spending that amount then? Eating Noah’s entire $19,295,000 2019-20 salary that season, rather than splitting it over three years, is off the table.

What if they need even more room? What if they can draw great free agents who command more money than New York can offer? Attaching sweeteners to trade Noah’s salary and remove it entirely is also now impossible.

The Knicks could have waited until next summer to stretch, straight waive or trade Noah. They would have had far more information then, as the stretch deadline is Aug. 31.

This move puts so much needless pressure on New York to use its cap space next summer. Though the Knicks’ reported top target, Kyrie Irving, already said he’d re-sign with the Celtics, Kevin Durant-New York rumors are swirling, and Jimmy Butler put the Knicks on his list. The Knicks project to have about $33 million in cap space next summer, including a cap hold for only Kristaps Porzingis. They could add a franchise-changing star.

But this doesn’t jibe with a patient rebuild.

Biding time until next summer, New York took fliers on Mario Hezonja (one year, $6.5 million) and Noah Vonleh (one year, minimum). But despite seemingly tepid markets for those two in free agency, the Knicks didn’t capitalize on their leverage by attaching any additional unguaranteed seasons to their contracts. That will make it extremely difficult to get value from them. If Hezonja or Vonleh break out, they’ll be in line for bigger deals next summer.

Of course, it’s more likely New York’s first-, not second-, draft players dictate the team’s future. For the first time in eight seasons, the Knicks will have three players simultaneously on rookie-scale contracts – Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and Knox. That most-modest benchmark is a major accomplishment in New York, where quick fixes have ruled the day.

After waiving Noah, it’s hard to see the Knicks as truly committed to a new, more prudent approach.

 

Offseason grade: C-