Crunching numbers: Stuart Suss takes a unique approach to hoops stats

Since 1971, Stuart Suss has kept Penn basketball coaches informed with his possession-based statistics

· November 28, 2011, 11:36 pm

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Megan Falls | DP

With his unique statistical measures and shorthand notation, Penn men’s basketball statistician Stuart Suss has chronicled nearly every possession for the team since 1971.


Groans emanate from the stands as Robert Morris scores yet again in transition. It’s a Saturday night at the Palestra in the early portion of basketball season, and Stuart Suss is sitting right behind the Penn bench watching intently. Suss, who has made the drive from his West Chester, Pa., home, finally manages to take down his notes with a break in the action.

So much about Suss, the Penn basketball statistician, suggests he’s having trouble seeing all the action in a game — his diminutive stature that leans forward as he watches who scored and how; the bespectacled stare that carefully follows the ball, and the continuous writing of numbers and symbols in his notepad at any break.

But Suss sees what happens during the game better than anyone on the court.

“We have had 15 possessions — all set plays,” he leans in and explains during the first media timeout. “Zero transitions and seven turnovers.”

Almost on cue, Penn gets its first bucket in transition, as Miles Cartwright drives in for a layup. Less than a minute later, Tyler Bernardini finds Rob Belcore, who hits a three from the right corner to further cut into the Robert Morris lead.

All the information for the first half is neatly packed by possession into seven columns taking up no more than a page. Next to his game log, is a running tally of statistics that by traditional basketball metrics range from the obscure (offensive efficiency rating) to the common (fast break points).

The shorthand is his own creation — every dot, “x” and number tells a story. As the game restarts, Suss picks his head up once again, mentally recording each and every detail.

***

Suss began his journey as an undergraduate at Penn in 1970. After working in high school as a scorekeeper at local games, he became the Penn football statistician as a freshman, but kept the job for only a year before a coaching change forced him to look elsewhere. That same year, Penn hired a young, up-and-coming basketball coach named Chuck Daly.

Daly had previously coached as an assistant at Duke and had replaced basketball legend Bob Cousy as head coach at Boston College. He joined the Quakers staff in 1971. Early in his first year, Daly found an article in a magazine called Scholastic Coach for high school and college coaches that described a system measuring performance in possessions. Daly asked Suss — who had become the basketball team’s statistician — to read it and see if it contained anything useful. Thus began Suss’ journey into the realm of basketball statistics.

After finishing as an undergraduate and continuing his education at Penn Law School, Suss continued to work with Daly up until 1977. That year, the Sixers hired Billy Cunningham to coach the team. The charismatic former American Basketball Association MVP and three-time First Team All-NBA forward asked Daly — whose tactical savvy was well-regarded within basketball circles — for help. Daly left the Palestra for the Spectrum to become an assistant under Cunningham.

Less than two years later, the Sixers were in the 1980 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against a Celtics team with Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich and Larry Bird, when Suss decided to chart a game.

“I thought some of the numbers were interesting enough so I called down to [Daly],” Suss said. “He put Billy Cunningham on the phone and said to him, ‘You oughtta hear this,’ and the next thing I knew I was working the Eastern Finals and then the NBA Finals against the Lakers that year.”

He would chart games live or on broadcast television when travel wasn’t possible and make arrangements to call Daly on the road to update him with some of the numbers.

While Suss would continue to work with Daly and Cunningham on the side, he still managed to work as an attorney in the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and then after 2000 at the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office before his retirement in 2008. Yet all the while, he would continue to frequent every Penn game, both at home and on the road, on his own dime.

“Watching the games is no greater burden than being a spectator, it takes some time to total up the information,” Suss said. “It’s no different than alums who come from their regular jobs to the Palestra in the evening.”

And now, in year 41, Suss is still crunching the numbers.

***

“All rebounds are not created equal,” Stu Suss says while sitting in the West Chester YMCA. “I would give you four offensive rebounds,” he continued, “and you have to give me two. I would give them to you on a single possession knowing the most you could get from them was one score, but with my two offensive rebounds on two different possessions, I have given myself two chances to score.”

With that simple revelation, Suss shatters the traditional measures of success on a basketball court. But he’s not done.

“Then I’ll say of these second chances you had, how many have you scored? This is not measuring the rebounding rate, but rather the consequence of those rebounds. This consequence is represented on the box score by second chance points, but does not explain if these points were a product of many offensive rebounds or converting each individual offensive rebound.”

***

The use of possession-based statistics has become increasingly popular over the past few years with Butler’s consecutive appearances in the NCAA National Championship and continued use of Ken Pomeroy’s sabermetrics. Suss’ model measures each individual possession and attempts to record the specific details about each possession — from the type of defense to type of score (fast break or set offense) to if a score was the result of an offensive rebound, turnover or foul in the backcourt.

“We like to know — as simple as it sounds — how many possessions there are in a game, how many possessions the last time we placed Princeton, the last time we played Harvard,” said Penn assistant coach Mike Martin. “He helps us with where we stand within the league with statistical categories that don’t show up in box scores.”

When looking at statistics of a game, Suss is quite frank about his abilities.

“I’m a chronicler, not a prophet,” he said. “I’m analyzing what happened, but [it’s] not predictive work.”

His body of work can only be described as fact-driven. After each game, he has the information to explain what happened. He leaves it up to the coaches to figure out the reason why it happened.

“I’ll note that we played man defense 39 times and gave up 43 points and forced eight turnovers,” Suss explained. “We played zone [defense] five times and gave up no points. Now, that’s what happened. The why is what the coaches can decide.

“They could decide we didn’t play enough defense, they could decide we played just the right amount … that it worked when used sporadically, but if we stayed in it on a regular basis, they would have adjusted. Obviously, you have sample size issues; maybe I could find five consecutive possessions where the man [defense] had stops as well … They have the information to make those decisions.”

Suss’ unique work takes into account what is lost in traditional measures of basketball success. He has therefore based his analysis around efficiency and percentages to gain a better understanding of how the team is playing in different circumstances so he has the ability to compare across games.

“If we score 70 points in a game or give up 70 points in a game, standing alone, I can’t tell you if the offense or defense played good or bad,” he said. “If you tell me we score 70 points in a relatively slightly slower than normal 60-possession game, I’d say 70 points in 60 possessions is pretty good. If we’re running up and down the floor and it took 80 possessions to produce 70 points, it isn’t as good an offensive efficiency.”

***

Suss is a living memory of Penn basketball, rattling off numbers and the names of players from decades earlier as if they had suited up in Red and Blue yesterday.

Over the years, he has worked with eight different Penn head coaches, and two NBA teams — Suss also helped Daly when he moved on to win two NBA titles as coach of the Detroit Pistons. But his heart always will remain rooted in the college game and the Palestra, which he likes better “than huge antiseptic NBA arenas with canned music and clapping hands on a scoreboard.”

Suss’ impact with the program will be impossible to measure.

“No one does it quite like Stu Suss,” said Fran Dunphy, who coached at Penn from 1989 to 2006 before moving to Temple. “He’s a great character and a good man.”

“He broke every detail down and he seemed to truly enjoy it,” Dunphy added. “I got a lot of enjoyment seeing him enjoy it.”

For someone who’s constantly working with quantifying performance, Suss isn’t defined by any number.

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