Breaking down the numbers behind Tab Baldwin’s comments

Coach Tab Baldwin has been the hot topic among the Philippine basketball community in the past week for his comments on his perceived flaws in the import system and coaching in the Philippines.

Here’s what he said on the show, Coaches Unfiltered.

On the imports system in the PBA:

“We should never have a single import playing on a team. Further, we should never have a single import that is given all of the rules latitudes that the imports are given here by the referees and by the administration of the PBA… A foul for a PBA player for a local player isn’t a foul on an import, and the foul of an import, that same foul on a local player isn’t a foul. So, our local players are competitively disadvantaged in their ability to compete against the import players, and this is not the case in other countries.”

On the coaching styles in the PBA:

“The biggest thing that annoys me, and I think the biggest surprise to me, was the ‘tactical immaturity’ of Philippine basketball coaches. And so what do I mean by that? I mean that they are significantly unaware of the tactical advancements and the systemic advancements of coaching systems coming out of Europe in particular which, you know, are built on the backs of player development. And so our player development here is mature, and our appreciation for tactical advancement and tactical systems is immature.”

A lot of coaches and basketball officials in the country disagreed with Coach Tab, saying that these comments underestimated the capabilities of the Filipinos and put down the coaching community instead of helping it grow. On the other hand, Filipino fans have backed up Coach Tab and have expressed their belief that the local basketball community needs to take his comments as constructive criticism.

One of these fans, was Nikko Ramos, Editor-In-Chief of SLAM PH.

He took it a step further and did the math, gathering statistical evidence on the key points of Coach Tab’s comments.

Before starting, keep in mind that all stats mentioned here are per-48 stats, not per-game averages. Per 48 statistics project a player’s production if he played 48 minutes per game and is a better indicator here since it’s comparing two groups that have wildly different minutes played per game.

Nikko first points out the foul disparity between locals and imports in the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup and Governor’s Cup: nearly a foul and a half more fouls for locals per 48 minutes. Given that imports tend to be hugely involved on both offense and defense, one would think that they should at least be called the same number of fouls. Clearly, though, that isn’t the case.

Next, he shows the number of free throws and field goals both imports and locals attempt per 48 minutes. Here, there’s nothing really notable about this: it makes sense that imports get more shot attempts per game because they often carry a huge load on offense, and more shot attempts mean you’re more likely to get fouled attempting shots.

But here’s where it gets quite interesting: when looking at the scoring possessions (any possession where a player scores at least one point) per player, Nikko found out that 9.3% of these possessions were from the free-throw line. The imports? 14.3%. It may not seem like much, but he points out that thirteen players were needed to get the 9.3% for the locals, but a single import gets about five percent more trips to the foul line.

All in all, these stats add to a definite conclusion: imports are statistically 35% more likely to get foul calls than locals. That’s a bigger deal than you might think. The free throws that they get add up over the course of a game, and those extra four or five free throws can swing a game drastically.

The point is: there’s a definite advantage that imports gain through officiating. And judging by their high usage rates, coaches take advantage of this officiating bias by constantly feeding their import the ball. A lot of the imports are taller, bigger, and more athletic than their local counterparts, and they pose natural matchup problems for the locals. Coaches know of the physical and officiating edge the foreign players have, and so they tweak their offense to run through them.

This isn’t a new concept: PBA teams have relied on their import since the inception of this concept. Notable imports like Norman Black, Bobby Parks Sr., and Billy Ray Bates were routinely relied on by their team to create opportunities for themselves and their teammates. Back then, these foreign players were scoring at an obscene level. Parks Sr. averaged 40.5 points per game in his entire career, Black at one point scored 51 per game, and Bates’ debut was a 62-point explosion against Black and Great Taste. These imports led their teams to titles, with their production being the primary catalyst for their championship runs.

In the modern PBA, two recent examples come to mind.

Terrence Jones’ debut PBA season was remarkable. He’s the first import in a long while to have played rotation minutes in the NBA. The TNT squad made sure to capitalize on his abilities, and in the Commissioner’s Cup, the team ran their offense through the former Houston Rocket. Jones was a nightmare to guard since he could both punish taller but slower forwards as well as quicker and lighter wings.

A common set-up for the KaTropa during the Comm Cup can be seen in the video below. Terrence gets the ball at the top of the key, while his teammates clear out behind the three-point line to give him room to operate. From here, he can create both for himself and his teammates. Jones is willing to hit cutters and open shooters when the opportunity is there, but he can also drive to the basket and score or get fouled. Here, he drives left and gets fouled by the help defense.

Video starts at 15:18

Occasionally, they’ll set up Jones high on the low block. The same concept applies: his teammates will move around him, looking for an open shot, and if nothing materializes from the initial action he will create something. Here, Jayson Castro gets a flare screen and Jones passes it for an easy free-throw line jumper.

Video starts at 16:50

Another team that took advantage of their import’s physical gifts was Phoenix with Eugene Phelps. El Destructor was a monster player down low, and the Fuel Masters would routinely allow him to create offense. He usually accomplishes this in a simple but brutally effective way; barreling into the lane with a head of steam.

Phelps likes receiving the ball in the middle of the court to maximize the space and allow him to build momentum. His strength is incredible on its own, but add a little forward momentum to that and he becomes a human battering ram on offense.

Video starts at 07:39

Unlike Jones, Phoenix puts Phelps inside the arc more often, so he can use his quickness and physicality to draw fouls or score easy buckets. A staple play of theirs is having Phelps get the ball on either wing, and letting him use his speed advantage to blow past his defender.

Video starts 43:13

So what’s the point of all this?

Again, Nikko put it best in his thread; not being “tactically complicated” isn’t exactly an insult to the coaching capabilities of PBA coaches.

In fact, it might be the opposite. Filipino coaches figured out what the easiest way to win is and made sure to capitalize on pounding the ball into their import and letting him go to work. That in itself is laudable; finding the most efficient way to win given the circumstances is a skill not all coaches have learned yet.

However, this doesn’t mean that coaches should be complacent about their styles of play. What works here will most likely not work on the international stage. This is the hidden warning behind Coach Tab’s comments.

The style of play we have in the country has been figured out by many international coaches now. Compared to the top teams in the world, the offense that burned so brightly in our country fizzled like a faulty firecracker. Evolution needs to happen, and it has to start with our coaching. Learning the international brand of basketball and incorporating their concepts will be the key to preparing our players for the biggest stages of the game.

Perhaps most importantly, coaches need to listen to valid criticisms. Criticisms should never be taken as roadblocks to success, but rather stepping stones on the path to improvement. Only when we recognize our shortcomings and build upon them can we become the best versions of ourselves.