The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

Analytics: the secret to the Aces’ success

The Aces basketball team uses detailed analytics to dominate the court.

The LM Boys Basketball team is one of the area’s most renowned programs in the state. Coming off of a historical season last year, in which the Aces ended up only two wins away from a state championship, the Aces have kept their success going as they currently hold the second best ranking of any team in District 1 (6A). This success is far from newfound as the Aces have won two state titles in the last twenty years and have continued to contend for state and district titles for every year in recent memory. They are, by all means, a winning program. 

But what exactly is the secret to the Aces success? How are they getting an edge over their competition? And why are they a contender every year? One of the longest tenured members of the Aces staff and the team’s leading statistician, Coach Lachs, put the answer simply when he said, “Every win we have is a product of our preparation”. And one of the biggest aspects of the Aces constant preparation is their devotion to analytics.

Analytics are the effort to collect and apply statistics in order to find meaningful patterns in data. In pertaining to basketball, finding meaningful patterns in data can lead to specifically informed decision making on the court. 

The Aces Basketball Program is constantly collecting statistics through two different venues. One is through the use of ‘manpower’ statistics, which are carried out and hand-written by the Aces staff, while the other is done through a Sports Technology Application called Hudl. Assistant head coach of the team Kevin Grugan believes that the combination of these two different venues is particularly advantageous: “I really find analytically what we generate from both our own man power plus what we do with Hudl is really effective for me”. 

Tracking Manpower statistics for the Aces is a constant effort. At any given time during a game, there are at least six people keeping track of particular statistics. Additionally, during practices, offseason competitions, and even tryouts, statistics are constantly being kept. Coach Grugan reaffirms that the program’s tracking of statistics is a “twelfth month journey, I would say, in terms of how we are always tracking and trying to learn from what we do.” 

Hudl, on the other hand, does not require the same arduous process. It’s ability to track by the click of a button is much more convenient, but sometimes not as applicable when compared to man power statistics. In addition to the app’s main purpose of displaying game film, Hudl can also give some particularly relevant statistics to the Aces and even identify particular in-game situations they feel are specifically important. For example, in a recent contest, the Aces were able to evaluate their performance against a particular defensive scheme they faced, because of Hudl. 

It is not only their constant tracking of statistics that makes the Aces Program unique, but also the particular statistics they are tracking that give them a unique advantage. 

There are two particular manpower statistics that seem to be uniquely kept and recorded for further purposes by the Aces program. The first is Plus-Minus, while the second is the Aces’ own calculation of a statistic called ‘dirty points’. 

Graphic by Eliza Liebo ’25/Staff

Plus-Minus is a statistic that seeks to calculate score differential for an individual player. As Coach Lachs explains, “If you go into the game and the game is tied, and you come out of the game and you’re ahead by seven– well you got a plus 7 for that shift”. Similarly, if you go into the game when the score is tied and leave the game down 7 points, then you earned a minus seven point differential for that shift. Because there are so many score changes and substitutions throughout the course of a game, this statistic is particularly difficult to keep track of. Coach Lachs, as the teams main statistician and thus tracker of plus-minus, has to constantly be tracking the minutes and score differential for each player on the Aces. It’s in this difficult task that the Aces are able  to get an upper hand on their competition. Most high school programs do not have someone like Coach Lachs, who is willing or skilled enough to constantly track plus-minus which gives the Aces a better perspective on their players in comparison to their competition. Coach Lachs echoed similar sentiment of their individuality in plus-minus when he said that, “Our competition by and large does not use that (plus-minus) as an evaluation point”.

Another statistic that the Aces value highly is dirty points. Dirty points are essentially a statistic used to quantify who hustled the most throughout the course of a given game. To calculate who got their ‘hands dirty’ and hustled the most throughout the course of the game, the Aces tally every action on the court they consider to be a hustle play (such as deflections and dived balls) and add that to their total amount of rebounds. They then take that total number and divide it by the amount of minutes a particular player played to find out who hustled the most on the court in a given game. Because the statistic is an invention of the program, no other team is incorporating hustle points into their regular box scores. 

Points Per Possession is another stat the Aces value and it is measured and collected on Hudl. Rather than exclusively using a more traditional stat in Points per game (PPG), the Aces also evaluate points per possession (PPP), because it is a more telling stat of offensive and defensive efficiency. For instance, the Aces love to run a play called four, where their main goal is to chew as much clock time as they can during a particular possession. Well if they’re winning to begin the last quarter, and they’re running the play called four, their point total may not be as high because their offense was not trying to score for a significant portion of the game. In this instance, points per possession would be a better representation of their offensive efficiency than points per game would be, because PPG is very dependent on the relative tempo of the game, while PPP is not. 

Even with their own unique statistical measures, the Aces still put a large emphasis on standard box score statistics, and rightly so. Every point, rebound, assist, and turnover that takes place during a game is kept by the Aces coaching staff. Field goal percentage, Free throw percentage, and three point percentage are also vital numbers to the Aces staff. Evaluation of Plus-minus, Dirty Points, and points per possession are beneficial, but they don’t have anywhere near the effect of box score statistics themselves. To put it simply, you can’t be an analytical program, without a solid foundation that emphasizes box score statistics. And the Aces emphasize this  particular area more than any other. And while other programs definitely keep track of  the same statistics, it’s clear that the Aces’ fervor in tracking these numbers puts them ahead or at least even with their rivals in this area. 

So the Aces have very specific statistics and methods of collecting data, but how are they used to influence decision making on the court? It turns out that the Aces devotion to numbers leads to specifically informed decision making in a number of different areas.

One of the areas where analytical thought has taken precedence in the Aces program is shot selection, more specifically the Aces stance on mid-range shots. Mid Range shots are a subject  of contention and debate between organizations in all levels of basketball. A lot of advanced metrics in recent decades have signaled that mid-range shots are not particularly efficient in basketball anymore. And the Aces, as a part of this movement, have also become weary of shooting shots from mid-range. Coach Lachs is speaking for the Aces program when he says “our priority clearly are layups, three balls, and free throws” and that their “playbook does not emphasize mid range shots”. Lachs even went as far to say that, “If a kid is shooting a 10 foot jump shot, it was a broken play”. So clearly the Aces don’t emphasize the mid-range shot and that is a product of analytical thought. However, Coach Grugan believes that there is a time and a place for certain mid-range shots and even admits that the program has changed its interpretation of mid range shots in the last few years.

He describes, “As a program, we’ve fluctuated on that. I think if you looked at this program about 5 years ago we really felt like the mid-range shot should be taken off the table”. But in recent years for the Aces, “the middle ball has come back into play. I think we’ve realized there is a spacing there defensively that can end up being a good shot.”

Statistics are also the main factor in determining who takes particular shots for the Aces. Their constant tracking of three point percentage, free throw percentage, and field goal percentage gives them enough information to determine who they want to take certain shots. If a player has a high three point percentage, the Aces are going to want to give that player the highest amount of opportunities and volume from behind the three point line. And similarly, if the Aces are in a situation where they need to make free throws at the end of the game, their lineup in the last few minutes can be determined by which players have the highest free throw percentages according to their numbers. So shot selection as a whole, from not only the standpoint of what shots they’re taking but also who’s taking those shots are largely deemed by what the numbers say. 

Numbers for the Aces also play a vital role in tracking player improvement from one season to another. Because of the Aces data collection, they can look and find where a player improved in a certain area over the course of a specific time frame. 

Coach Grugan believes that tangibly tracking the results of player improvement would be impossible without consistent data collection. 

“The beauty of analytics is that you hope that when you put in the work that you can show players your three ball percentage has gone up 8 percent or your free throw percentage has gone up 15 percent. That’s amazing to me. If you aren’t tracking numbers and couldn’t give a player something really tangible like that it’d be like teaching. If I can’t show a student ‘like hey there’s a lot of growth that you did in that area with a particular topic, it’d be hard in some ways to stay motivated”.

Analytics also play a role in who makes the final roster for the Aces. During the tryout period in particular, coaches of various roles take into account different factors in evaluating who makes the final cut. For example, Coach Grugan’s focus centers around who he feels is performing based on observation, while Coach Lachs focuses on collecting the data and how the numbers say who’s performing better in the tryout period. Coach Lachs went on to specifically describe how statistics influence the tryout process: 

“Once Tryouts start, we start tracking right in the tryout. At the end, player A and player B and we kept player A and we Cut player B. And player B comes up to us and says ‘why’d you cut me, and why’d you keep him’. I said because he made 10 out of 15 threes and you made 3 out of 15 threes. You know, I’m just pulling numbers, but we use those numbers to help us decide who to keep and who not.”

Numbers can also inform the Aces on how they want to optimize practice time to work on specific areas. Coach Grugan gives the example that “If we’re coming off of one or two cold free throw shooting nights, it could be that the next practice has a high volume of us shooting free throws”. Because the numbers reflect poor free throw shooting, the Aces can then work on that during practices to try to improve those numbers. Admittedly, not every statistic can be appropriately applied and practiced upon in non-game situations. If the Aces struggled in turning over the ball too much, they cannot accurately simulate the same situation during the game, because they are not facing the same personnel that perhaps may have been particularly adept at forcing turnovers. But even with these limitations, Grugan still believes that “numbers, at times, can influence the practices.”

Numbers can also dictate the in game adjustments the Aces make. The constant tracking of statistics by 6 members of the Aces staff during the course of a game allows for the staff to determine certain patterns in which they need to adjust to during breaks such as halftime. For example, the Aces staff has the opportunity during halftime to look at the numbers and evaluate certain statistical areas they’re winning and losing. If any of these numbers are outliers in their disadvantage, Coach Downer and the rest of the staff can make adjustments and a plan to prevent the other team from continuing that pattern. For example, if the opponent is dominating them on the offensive boards according to the numbers, Coach Downer and the rest of the staff can make a plan to ensure the Aces come down with more rebounds in the second half.  

Gathering statistics on the opponent can also have a tremendous effect on how the Aces game plan for the opposing team. Coach Lachs recalls how his preparation in a game against Scranton in the state playoffs led to a blowout win: “Last year we played Scranton. So I found a website that’s run by a newspaper up in Wyoming Valley that published all of Scranton’s box scores”. It was in this data that the Aces were able to come up with a plan to stop all of Scranton’s best offensive players. Coach Lachs recalls that “Not only did we contain their top kid, we knew who plan B and plan C were, and they had no answer.” In a win or go home state playoff game, it was the preparation in gamplanning that gave the Aces a distinct advantage over Scranton. Scranton, however, is not an isolated case. Coach Lachs believes there have been many occasions where pre-game preparation in numbers has led to success: “Is there a game where we specifically won because of something we found? I could give you 35 examples without even thinking.” Lachs role in gamplanning is to essentially scour through google and put to use any data he can find. Hudl can also play a role in  collecting  visitor stats when the Aces are gameplanning for an opponent. 

 The Aces constant tracking of statistics as well as their perceived value of particular statistical measures are well informed and thought out on almost every conceivable level. And it’s these values that ultimately lead to better decision making on the court. The Aces devotion to analytical thought has led to better shot selection, better gameplanning, better in-game adjustments, better overall rosters, better use of practice time, and a more tangible collection of player improvement for the Aces. 

When asked about analytics’ relative role in the program, Assistant Head Coach Kevin Grugan simply answered, “I think it’s a weapon, I think it’s worth our time. I think we have really talented invested people who generate the numbers and on the backend analyze those numbers.” 

However, Grugan isn’t ready to give analytics all the credit for the Aces success and rightfully so, “There’s a whole lot of things that go into making a player or a program successful”. He finishes his thoughts with, “I think it has a purpose, I just don’t know if it’s the end all be all either”. 

One thing is for sure, the Aces are leveraging numbers to their advantage and that’s what good organizations do. And while analytics might not be the only factor in the Aces success, they’re certainly still a big part of the Aces recent and historical success as a basketball program. 

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