Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Scouting 3301: Greatness

The Larry Bird Method

Three years ago when I started HBIQ, my method of finding players was undefined.

I knew what I was looking for when I saw it but didn't know specifically how I was doing it.

And even still, what I was doing turned out to be very successful.

But all along I knew that I had to define what I was doing and know how I was doing it, so I would be able to repeat it in the future.

And sure enough, about a year later I was looking back at some of the calls I made and wondering how I did it and also wondering what I saw looking at those highlight reels that made me so sure that the guys I wrote about would be as good as I said they would be.

And I wasn't coming up with any real answers.

During this same period I was also constantly thinking about Larry Bird.

I mean, how is it that this slow white dude who couldn't vertical over a telephone book and probably never lifted a weight in his life dominated a league that was supposed to be all about athleticism?

That question stuck with me for quite some time, and to be honest, I didn't think I would ever find the answer.

But I came up with the idea that as I spelled out and clarified my player evaluation method I should combine it with the characteristics which made Larry Bird so great, and if I could do that, what I came up with would be really something.

So I started my mission to figure out exactly what it was which made Larry Bird, Larry Bird because figuring that out meant finding the key to being a great basketball player.

It meant finding out how someone could be great without soaring through the air with a 50-inch vertical, something, theoretically, anybody could do and something which goes completely against conventional thought.

And again, I didn't think I could figure this out.

I started by searching the internet for a Bird highlight reel and found this one (which has become very popular), and that is pretty much where my search ended because all of the answers were in it.

So I took the traits from Larry Bird and combined them with my method, which I was successfully defining and understanding at the same time, and came up with a technique for finding great prospects which is unbelievably reliable for me.

The entire process took a little over two years and is now about a year old, but here it is.

The qualities learned from Larry Bird appear with an asterisk.


No, this clearly isn't a Bird quality, though he was a decent athlete early in his career. All things being equal, the superior athlete is going to win almost every time.

So whenever I'm looking at prospects I want to know how fast they can run and how high they can jump, and I'm talking game speed (and jumping) not clock speed.


Skills are defined strictly from an offensive standpoint. Coming to an understanding of Bird's skills was the Rosetta Stone which allowed me to crack the code and unlock the mystery of player evaluations.

Bird had skills.

Specifically, he could pass, dribble, shoot and post up. Once I discovered that he could do all four of those things it became easy to separate out players simply by seeing how many of those four things they could do.

I doubt that there are 10 guys in the NBA right now who can do all four of those things at a high level.

So Larry Bird's exceptionally high skill level (not only the ability to do all four of those things but do them with incredible precision) is one of the biggest factors that allowed him to dominate without being a great athlete.

PASSING: the ability to examine the defense and find the open man, the willingness to pass him the ball when you find him and the skill to get the pass to him without the defense taking it away in the process.

DRIBBLING: the ability to put the ball on the floor and get where you want to go.

SHOOTING: accuracy on jump-shots and layups.

POSTING: creating scores in the post with a "back to the basket" game.

Posting is from Bill Simmons. His critique of LeBron James (c.) during to 2011 Finals led me to seeing post-ups as a separate skill along the lines of the others.

And the ability to dribble and finish with the off hand is crucial.


This actually comes from Deron Williams.

Heading into the 2005 draft I felt that there was one top point guard and one top point guard only: Chris Paul. And anyone who disagreed was a freaking idiot no longer worthy of discussing basketball with me.

So when Utah selected Williams ahead of him it was an earth-shifting moment for me.

And as the years went by and Williams started making the pick look correct, I began to wonder what happened.

How could I have been so wrong?

One day I was watching a Williams highlight reel, and I saw it.

This dude is fearless.

When he steps on the basketball court he's not afraid of anyone, and he thinks he's the best player out there, no matter who he's competing against.

Fearlessness is just another way of saying someone has the ultimate confidence in his abilities, so if you want to take fearlessness and say the "ultimate confidence" instead, that's just fine.

It's a terrible trait to have for the player who doesn't have the talent and everything else to back it up, but for the person who does, fearlessness is a must.

You can't be afraid of any player or situation on the basketball court.

And being fearless is part of what has allowed Williams to live up to his selection as the top point guard in the draft.


Something else that obviously doesn't come from Bird.

Even though he could make some plays and take the ball away from the other team, I don't think anyone would mistake Larry Bird for a stopper.

To make it simple, I'll say that when an opposing player gets the ball only a few things can happen: missed shot, made shot, pass, non-shooting foul, shooting foul, turnover and so on.

Defenders who make good things happen for their teams (missed shots, turnovers and so on) are the best. Those who allow bad things to happen to their teams are the worst.

Team defense counts as well, helping your teammates make good things happen for your team.


Larry Bird was definitely clutch, but I didn't get this from him.

A lot of what I know about the NBA comes from what I know about the NFL, so I guess you could say that my clutch sensibilities began by watching John Elway in the '80s, even though I didn't know they were being formed at the time.

I can't tell you how many times Elway absolutely sucked for 55 minutes before he turned into a superhero and delivered a victory in the last minutes of the game.

In the broadest sense, in basketball clutch begins with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, with a scoring margin of no more than three points; I would say.

And the situation becomes more and more clutch as the seconds tick away and the margin decreases.

You have to know how someone performs under pressure.

And the more composed and productive they are and the more their team wins, the more clutch the player is.


This is the most undervalued quality (along with defense) a guy can have yet so vital to winning.

When you watch Bird play you see him posting up smaller players like Michael Cooper and Michael Jordan, and even though he could shoot from anywhere, he clearly knew where his hot spots were.

He usually posted up on the right side, shot twos from the top of the key or the foul line and shot threes from the left corner area or the elbows.

There are few things more frustrating and more harmful to winning than a player who doesn't know his own strengths and weaknesses.

On defense Bird read plays and put himself in position to disrupt them.

Bird seemed to know that seemingly little things make all the difference in the world in a league where the difference between winning and losing is so slight.

So he played the chess game and played it well.

I split basketball IQ into two parts: offense and defense.

I had to because of guys like Andre Miller.

Miller is one of the smartest players in the NBA, offensively.

Defensively, he wouldn't graduate from elementary school.

He's constantly out of position, making reckless gambles and is generally a huge negative on that end of the floor.

I still can't understand how someone can be so brilliant on one end and so shallow on the other.

So because of Miller and those like him I had to split IQ into offense and defense.*

Going further with basketball IQ, there's knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates and opponents, your team's plays and schemes, as well as those of your opponents and how effective each one is compared to the others and more.


Even by today's standards, 6-9 is huge for a small forward.

And the contribution that a height advantage made to Bird's greatness can never be overstated.

In order to be a great basketball player you almost have to be either more athletic or taller than your competition.

So while Bird was less athletic than most of his competition, he stood taller than they did.

And it can be said that his height made up for his athleticism.

The greatest advantage you can ever have is someone who is both taller and more athletic than the others at his position: see Michael Jordan.


Larry Bird never gave up on a play.

And he competed for every inch for every second he was on the court.

He rebounded so well in part because he hustled after the basketball and fought for it when possession of it was up for grabs.

Watch the highlight reel and you'll see him flying into the stands and crashing into tables going after the ball.

And that table crash was after about a 70-foot sprint (not shown on that reel) for the loose ball.

This dude had a motor that didn't quit.

And when you're looking for the next great player, I would recommend that he have one too.


Pass fakes, shot fakes, passes between the legs of defenders, faking running back on defense before quickly turning back and jumping into the passing lane for a steal, all of these and more were part of Bird's arsenal.

He seemed to be constantly ahead of the competition and at times seemed to be toying with them, like he knew he was two steps ahead of them and was just entertaining himself at their expense.

All of these clever little plays added up and made a huge difference for someone with a speed disadvantage.

Bird's feet may have been slow, but his mind was lighting fast, as evidenced by how clever he was on the court.


The only thing more legendary than Larry Bird himself is his work ethic.

The only way you get that good is by living in the gym, and the only way you live in the gym is when you love the game.

Once I figured this out about Bird I started looking at other greats to see if it applied, and it did.

Yes, Michael Jordan was blessed with size and athleticism. But he only became Michael Jordan because he worked at it.

As a general manager you may not be able to gamble on many things, but you can gamble on work ethic.

Nobody is going to become or stay great without a strong one.

And Larry Bird was no exception.

Neither is the player you are going to draft, sign or trade for.


After that there are several key stats that I look at: 1.) stat stuffers, 2.) shoot 45 percent or higher from the field, 3.) shoot 40 percent or higher from three, 4.) shoot 80 percent or higher from the foul line, 5.) average 10 or more rebounds [five for guards and small forwards], 6.) average 10 or more assists [five for non point guards], 7.) average two or more assists for every turnover, 8.) average two or more steals, 9.) average two or more blocks [one for guards and small forwards], 10.) per 36-minute averages.

Stat stuffers are key because they can beat you in multiple ways, so when one aspect of their game is off they can go to other things and still help their teams win, unlike one-dimensional three-point shooters, for example, who once they miss their first couple of shots you might as well take them out of the game because they can't help their team win any other way.

And production cannot be ignored (a guy who averages 25 points or 15 rebounds, for example). You may look at it and determine that nothing is there, but you can't ignore it.

Once I have all of this information I come to a feeling of how good the player is.

Unlike NBA Draft.net, I don't assign points and scores and say that this player is better than that due to his total score.

And I don't pretend to know which player is better than another in every situation.

Some guys are so close that a call can't be made.

That's when other considerations come into play, like team needs, character, money and so forth.

And that is my technique.

And I can tell you that it has been pretty can't-miss for me for the past year. It doesn't answer everything, but it covers more than enough to uncover great basketball prospects at a highly-accurate rate.

Looking back the 10 characteristics, you can see that Larry Bird isn't a 10 out of 10.

He has eight out of 10 (no on athleticism and defense).

And that is what I've found. I've found some really, really good players with as few as six out of 10 on there, players whose games I respect as much as anyone's.

So I don't start to panic until I get to five out of 10.

At the end of the day, I accomplished what I set out to accomplish.

I finally figured out how I was able to pick players who went on to have high levels of success and combined that with the qualities which made Larry Bird so great and came up with a scouting technique that is dependable.

And it is a beautiful thing.

Notes: Additional support for this article from Larry Bird's 50 Greatest Moments on NBATV. 

Using "size for position" comes from Draft Express (weaknesses).  

Writing about Thomas Robinson recently, Jonathan Tjarks wrote about Robinson's shooting, dribbling, passing and posting up. Breaking down a player's skills using those four things has been in my notes for almost a year. So although he was first on record with it, let the record show that I did not get it from him.

I did get the idea for this story from him.

*Update 7/28/13 12:20 AM: Upon further review, when appropriate I've decided to split clutch and motor into offense and defense as well because there are some players who are more clutch on offense or defense than they are on the other and because there are a lot of guys whose motors rev higher on offense than defense. I also added number four under "MORE."

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