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.

Kevin Durant on Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan: ‘How do you not say they’re by far better than anybody who’s played the game?’

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Kevin Durant has already called Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan the greatest of all-time.

Now, the Warriors star is intensifying the rhetoric.

Durant, via Shams Charania of The Athletic:

But watching Kobe and Mike, I’m like, ‘How do you not realize how good these dudes are?’ How do you not say they’re by far better than anybody who’s played the game? Just by the way they move, how fluid they are.

“Everybody that comes to my house, whether it’s friends or family, I make them watch Jordan highlights. This is equivalent to (Albert) Einstein … fucking (Ludwig van) Beethoven … or (Barack) Obama. This is the greatest talent and athletes and minds of the world. Just because they play sports, people think one way. But they’re masters, they’re geniuses. I just started realizing that a few years ago: Watching those guys can really spark my creativity.”

I don’t view basketball the same way Durant does. The players with the most skills are not necessarily the greatest players. Not all skills are equally important. I’d rank players with narrower skill sets – like Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal – ahead of Bryant. Duncan and O’Neal were so efficient in what they did, and they were far better than Bryant at avoiding miscues like missed shots and turnovers. I care more about the end effectiveness than the means to get there when ranking greatness.

And what about LeBron James? I’d rate Jordan and LeBron top-two by my criteria. But even by Durant’s, I’m not sure why he doesn’t consider LeBron in that elite pantheon of skills. LeBron does everything.

Durant’s point of view comes out often enough to recognize his philosophy. When I interviewed him for this article about Knicks undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier, Durant said:

“Scorers that go get baskets, especially inside the 3-point line, they’re like extinct at this point. Because games are so fast, and it takes Zo longer in a possession to get his game off. So, a lot of people bypass that. But everybody needs a scorer on their team.

“I think just natural scorers, the guys that get baskets before anything, they’re kind of frowned upon in this league. But that’s the core of the game to me.”

That’s the mindset of someone who calls Bryant and Jordan “far better than anybody who’s played the game.”

This all also speaks to how Durant views himself. He tries to perfect different aspects of his game. He entered the NBA as a scorer, but he since added rebounding, passing, defense, playing like a big. I’ve never been convinced Durant cares as much about willing his team to victory as he cares about expanding his skill set (which obviously indirectly helps his team win).

There’s nowhere Durant can try new skills like Golden State. The Warriors’ elite roster offers him room to experiment and keep winning, anyway. Just something to consider as he enters free agency next summer.

Zach LaVine on meeting with Bulls coach Jim Boylen: ‘This is a business. This isn’t a dictatorship’

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Tension between new Bulls coach Jim Boylen and his players boiled over Sunday. When Boylen called for a practice the day after a back-to-back, some players threatened to boycott. They ultimately compromised on a team meeting.

So, guard Zach LaVine met individually with Boylen.

LaVine, via Malika Andrews and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

“You just want to be real with people,” LaVine told ESPN. “There shouldn’t be any clouds. I think of myself as one of the leaders on the team. I just wanted to voice my opinion to them.”

“This is a business, this isn’t a dictatorship. We are all grown men, so everybody has a voice.”

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Boylen, via Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We had a situation over the weekend that could have been handled by a leadership group walking into my office and saying, ‘You know what, Coach? This is how we feel today. What do you think?’ That was the teaching moment,” Boylen said. “I’m juiced, man. I’m jacked up about it.”

A leadership committee sounds like the type of thing college teams have – which makes sense, because Boylen is treating the Bulls like a college team. Frequent and long practices. Harsh public criticism. Five-man substitutions. These are not normal power dynamics in the NBA.

Chicago players are already running thin on patience for Boylen. But he has plenty of job security. So, hopefully for everyone involved, he has learned as much as he indicates. He can’t keep coaching like this without inciting a mutiny.

Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson out 2-4 weeks

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Tristan Thompson has been one of the biggest bright spots in an otherwise miserable Cavaliers season. The center is averaging 12.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He has also taken on more leadership.

And now he’s out.

Cavaliers release:

Cavaliers forward/center Tristan Thompson will miss approximately 2-4 weeks with a left foot sprain. Thompson was injured in last night’s road game at Milwaukee late in the third quarter

This will help Cleveland improve its draft position, though it’s not as if Cleveland (6-21) was having much issue losing even with Thompson.

At least the Cavs have plenty of options at center. Expect Larry Nance Jr. to take a larger role. Ante Zizic likely joins the rotation. Cleveland could dust off Channing Frye. Kevin Love might return before Thompson.

Magic suspended Mohamed Bamba for being late to walk-through

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Seven of the top eight picks in the 2018 NBA draft are scoring double-digit points per game.

The exception: Magic center Mohamed Bamba.

Bamba certainly hasn’t been bad. He’s just acclimating to the NBA at a more common rate than peers like Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Deandre Ayton. This is an exceptionally good rookie class.

But this won’t help Bamba catch up. He missed Orlando’s 101-76 loss to the Mavericks last night.

Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel:

Bamba, who was suspended for a game for being late for the team walk-through at the hotel in Dallas on Monday

“It was a violation of team rules,” Clifford said. “It’s just a one-game thing. Mo will play again on Thursday, but that’s what it was.”

“It’s just bad on my part and I just need to be better … just gotta be on time,” Bamba said. “It’s very difficult because you want to be out there and impact the game in any way possible and hope for a different outcome.”

I doubt Magic coach Steve Clifford suspended Bamba for a single instance of tardiness. This was likely a culmination.

Orlando (12-15) is eighth in the Eastern Conference, in the thick of the playoff race. If the Magic are going to take advantage of the low bar for making the postseason, they need all hands on deck – including Bamba.