Philly Front Office

Former 76ers Director of Applied Analytics discusses the Sixers, coaching through the process, and analytics

It wasn’t difficult to analyze what the Philadelphia 76ers were trying to accomplish during the Sam Hinkie era, which started in 2013 and ended in 2016. During that time, Hinkie worked alongside the likes of Brett Brown as well as another man who was generous enough to speak at length with Sixers Front Office about his time in Philadelphia and how he views analytics.

Dr. Lance Pearson describes his tenure with the 76ers as the Embiid-to-Simmons era. He spent his final year with Bryan Colangelo, leaving just before the Markelle Fultz draft. From 2013 to 2015, Pearson served as the 76ers’ Basketball Operations Assistant. In 2015, he was named the Coaching Analytics and Special Video Projects Coordinator. Then, from May of 2016 to May of 2017, he served as Director of Applied Analytics for the Sixers.

“Prior to basketball, I had never meaningfully worked in a corporate culture,” Pearson told Sixers Front Office. “I was a scientific researcher right after my PhD, then a small college professor. Even at the small college level, it was just a small staff with everyone’s roles pretty much set in stone. All of those experiences were mostly people working independently to make their contributions. In academia, that is mostly just trying to be right a lot of the time.”

Pearson started basketball not only as a passion, but as a possible profession. He coached basketball fundamentals to kids’ teams and worked camps in his spare time, while teaching psychology in college. He then transitioned into coaching basketball at Lindsey Wilson College, located in Columbia, Kentucky, the same institution for which he was teaching. There, he developed a lot of scouting and real-time game analysis tools from the bench, which he would later put to use in the NBA.

Role with Sixers

“The Sixers was the first time I worked in a corporate culture, with literally hundreds of employees,” Pearson said. “Sam Hinkie picked me out to take on a similar role with the coaching staff with the 76ers and then help with the all-hands-on-deck draft preparation during the offseason. I managed almost all of the coaching and player analytics with the 76ers during my time with the team, and I was able to play an integral role in draft preparation, scouting, and free agent recommendations during the offseason.”

During the season, Pearson was a full-time member of the coaching staff, where he interacted with the players, trainers, and coaches every day. He told us that in order for you to thrive in that role, it really requires for you to communicate through your actions, by caring about those around you on a personal level through the wins and losses. In the offseason, he was a member of the front office, interacting mostly with the other team management personnel, as well as scouts. In contrast with the responsibilities as a member of the coaching staff, he said that in order to succeed in the front office role, you really needed to focus on the quality of your ideas and insights.

“The decisions and evaluations are often cold-hearted and unemotional,” Pearson said, with regards to basketball decisions. “The main focus must be on the order of years or decades. I compartmentalize very well, but it was still a significant transition switching between those modes of thinking – at least if you want to be more than an interloper in either.”

There’s a big difference going from academia to youth basketball developmental training, then to a corporate landscape. From the outside, people tend to view players and teams as the makeup of the NBA, but there is a lot more that goes into it. Pearson told Sixers Front Office that he loved working with his colleagues in Philadelphia, despite the corporate architecture and what goes along with it.

“A lot of power comes from that level of scale,” he said, with regards to corporate occupations. “My takeaway was mainly a negative impression of the way that corporate culture seemed to foster political in-fighting and manipulation in a calculated effort to get the next promotion, protect their perceived territory, or to cover themselves and keep their job.”

Members of the Sixers referred to Pearson as “Doc.” He said they called him that because the 76ers had a longtime security worker that traveled with the team named Lance, so head coach Brett Brown settled on calling him “Doc” out of convenience, since Pearson is a doctor.

In 2014, an article was written by Christopher Vito of the Delaware County Daily Times, where Brown said the following about Pearson:

“I have a guy in my meetings who I’ve just fallen in love with,” Brown said at Monday’s practice, speaking glowingly about Pearson. “I’ve got a lot of assistants, and I’ve got a gentleman with about four degrees that is incredibly impressive when you say, ‘What is your background?’ and he rolls up all of this about a doctorate.

“And all’s he does in my meetings is (respond) when I say, ‘Is that true? Who’s the best in the league at this? What does this mean? We’re No. 1 in the league in pace. Is that (because of) a kick-ahead 3-ball? I don’t think so. You’ve got the wrong guy shooting.’ And (he’s got) this efficient shot chart. ‘Why is that so good? Why? Because you shoot 3s with guys who can’t. I don’t see that.’ So I’m always inquisitive and challenging and always taking everything that you think and know and digested and beat it up, so we can get more polished and I can get better. And the analytics side of it has really captured my imagination, and will factor into a lot with this upcoming draft. I’m going to see a different side than I probably even know when we start assessing and how we start assessing people.”

We asked Pearson about that article and he told us he remembers it very well:

“Brett just grabbed me in the middle of practice during one of his impromptu media sessions,” Doc said. “Not much to comment about there really, I always played it pretty close to the vest. Sam Hinkie’s administration was generally media dark obviously, but Brett kind of freelanced.”

Coaching through Tanking

Lance told us that one idea Brett Brown centered on early was that if we were not going to have enough talent to be good – by roster design – then at the very least, the team needed to play hard and earn respect from the fans, opponents, and even our own players. That said, the 76ers needed to be innovative.

“We had started off a statistical charting program tracking a lot of things that interested the coaches,” Pearson said. “But by year two of the process – and in collaboration with a great basketball mind on the coaching staff, Vance Walberg – it really matured into a game-like competitive ‘effort chart’ focused on identifying and rewarding winning, effort-related habits that didn’t get rewarded in box scores.”

Pearson also wrote a lot of software to integrate it with point-and-click video, and it really became central to what the program was about.

“It was mind-blowing to me that what started as a simple statistical charting project, when supported by the coaching staff, generated such buy-in and had such influence in establishing the culture of the organization going forward,” he stated. “So much so that I actually got pigeon-holed into continuing the project year after year as a primary duty during the season and during summer league. Perhaps even more mind-blowing, I actually think it played a major role in our successful self-scouting and identification of talent.”

Pearson told Sixers Front Office that during the three Hinkie years of the process, he estimated that they had 99 players under team control.

“It was just a tidal wave of roster turnover,” he explained. “Two of those many players that absolutely shined on the effort chart from the start were Robert Covington and TJ McConnell, generating deflections, floor diving, and pushing our offensive pace.”

The mechanism behind this is to correlate effort with potential and find the best possible outcome. Through these tests, the team examined in-game activity, as well as practice behaviors, and they were able to form an educated opinion of a player’s value with the team moving forward.

“Even when their offensive games were slumping, and their counting stats looked bad, the coaching staff was able to look back at our tangible numbers indicating the positive impact that they had on our culture, lending them some extra support,” Pearson said. “Remember, this was just at the start of RPM’s popularity and well before the NBA started to track hustle stats to capture some of these.”

He added that he thought it played a pivotal role in the organization making the right player evaluation decision and those players sticking, as well as the continuity of core players with the team to this day, while so many others moved on.

Analytics vs. Classic Player Evaluation

Something that’s often debated in today’s NBA is the use of analytics vs. the art of straight-up talent evaluation. When evaluating a player, the mind is one’s strongest tool, whether it’s analytics-based or talent-oriented.

“The human mind tends to play tricks on people, often leading them to erroneous conclusions,” Pearson explained. “Secondly, I don’t think there are many times in basketball when sound decision-making comes from looking at the problem from only one perspective, or using only one sort of data.”

Here is how “Doc” breaks down data. He told us the following:

  1. Establishing a set of topics, or even well-formed specific questions, of interest.
  2. Systematically tracking the occurrence of relevant events through time.
  3. Structuring that data in a way that allows to a variety of (usually numerical) analyses.
  4. Conducting analyses to determine patterns within the data.
  5. Using knowledge of the subject matter to theorize about which patterns are meaningful.
  6. Forming (descriptive) models and presenting conclusions from those analyses to the relevant parties in a way that they can understand and access.
  7. Then (ideally) forming testable (predictive) models of how we expect future events to unfold.

Pearson added that the best decisions tend to be based upon the best available data, and ideally that comes in many different forms and from talented people with a variety of different perspectives. He then quoted a famous George Patton line to further solidify his statement: “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” He concluded our discussion by telling me that conflict of perspectives often produce new lines of thought for how they can be reconciled, and it moves everyone closer to the truth.

“Wisdom and experience go a long way, but don’t underestimate the role that luck plays in decisions with great uncertainty,” Pearson said. “We worked very hard but were very fortunate during my tenure while putting together the team’s core.”

How much luck went into the success of their evaluations is up for debate, but one thing is for sure – we were very lucky, as a fan base, to have such a brilliant mind working behind the scenes to help guide the Sixers ship through the otherwise potentially perilous Process era.

We asked Pearson if he’d ever consider returning to the NBA, and he told us, “Sure, if an interesting opportunity presented itself.” Any NBA team looking to more deeply apply advanced analytics would be amiss to not have Dr. Lance Pearson at the top of their list.

 

 

Brian Jacobs