Eric Freeman

Erik Spoelstra uses pie charts to teach the Heat

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has a unique challenge in trying to get two elite wing players -- LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes), in case you have significant memory loss -- to fit together and accentuate each other's strengths. There's a lot of pressure, and he has to do whatever possible to make it work.

So he's employed a tool loved by businessmen and math teachers all over the world: the pie chart. From an interview with John Schuhmann on NBA.com (via TrueHoop):

I used a pie chart at the beginning of December to show how each one of them were scoring. For both of them, their comfort level was at the top of the floor, high pick-and-roll with the ball in their hands. The problem with that is we can't have both of them running a high pick-and-roll with the ball in their hands at the same time. [...]

I had to find a way to explain that we need more balance and we need to find other ways to score. Each guy needs to get two or three layups or dunks or free throws in the open court, get two or three on cuts, get maybe one on an offensive rebound, get a couple on post-ups, get a couple of catch-and-shoots. [...]

All of their pie charts have changed. Dwyane's has probably changed the most, where now he gets a potpourri of different ways of scoring. He does it in all the ways I mentioned. Finally, at the end of games, we'll get him in high pick-and-rolls, but he's doing a lot of other things to be engaged and involved when it's not a high pick-and-roll with the ball in his hands.

Typically, these numbers are displayed in a more convoluted format, like in a long list of figures dealing with all sorts of situations. To Spoelstra's credit, though, he realized that such a presentation wouldn't work to convince his players. He had to use a more visual medium to communicate this point, and the pie chart worked well.

It's a point that all statheads need to learn. For the most part, these new numbers are valuable pieces of information, but they only have an effect if they're presented in a way so laymen can understand them. Stats don't speak for themselves -- they need to be communicated properly.

Spoelstra understands that, presumably because he also moonlights as a second-wave Internet startup founder in Silicon Valley (seriously, this would be the perfect job for him). So let his example be a lesson to anyone who loves advanced stats. As a great man once mistyped, the medium is the massage.

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