1 + 1 = Stu: CHD interviews Penn stat guru Stuart Suss

Most of the interviews we do are with players/coaches, as those are the people who create the magic that is college basketball.  However, while we also obsess over their respective stats, it is crucial to understand which stats matter the most and how they affect a team’s success.  To that end, we turned to Penn basketball legend Stuart Suss, who tracked the Quakers on offense/defense for more than 40 years.  CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with his fellow Penn alum about working for Chuck Daly, which rebounds are most important, and the increasing importance of offensive efficiency.


You enrolled at Penn in 1970 and the following year the Quakers hired a new basketball coach named Chuck Daly: how did you and Daly first meet, and how did you end up doing stats for the basketball team? I was the football statistician as a freshman, and both the basketball/football teams hired new head coaches after my freshman year. There was no email back then, so I expressed my interest to Daly about doing basketball stats by delivering a letter to his secretary. I introduced myself to his two assistant coaches, one of whom was Rollie Massimino (who later led Villanova to the 1985 NCAA title as head coach). The other coach threw me out of the office because he thought I was just trying to get into games for free! The secretary was kind enough to forward my letter to Daly, who had me do some stats for an intra-squad scrimmage and then gave me an article from a coaching magazine on “offensive efficiency rating”. I read the article, started keeping some helpful stats, and the rest is history.

How were you able to balance your career as an attorney with your passion as a stat man? I lived in the area so the Palestra (Penn’s gym) was not far away. I did not make it to all of the road games but was able to make most of the home games. I would sit down with a film projector to watch the games I could not attend.

Is there one stat that seems most correlated to success on the court: transition baskets, lack of turnovers, etc.? There are other people who perform very sophisticated analysis (such as Dean Oliver and his “4 factors”), so I will defer to their expertise that effective shooting percentage plays a large role. I just looked at everything rather than focusing on any one thing in particular: turnovers, defenses, possessions, etc. After the game a coach asks two questions: what is happening and why is happening.  I could answer the first part because it is objective/measurable.

Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham brought you aboard to help his 76ers staff with stats in the 1980 Finals: what are your memories of working with Cunningham? Right before the 1978 season the 76ers hired Cunningham out of the broadcast booth to replace Coach Gene Shue, and soon after that he hired Daly away from Penn. I reached out to Daly during the 1980 playoffs, who shared my information with Cunningham, and then Billy had me keep stats during their run all the way through the 1983 NBA title. It was a great accomplishment for a franchise/city that deserved it after such a long drought.

What does the adage that “all rebounds are not created equal” teach us about rebounding rate vs. second-chance points? You have to look at what percentage of the available rebounds your team can get.  It does not necessarily help to simply outrebound your opponent: you have to look at your offensive rebounds in relation to your opponent’s defensive rebounds because those are the ones that are being contested. The point of reference at the collegiate level is that an average team gets approximately one third of its available offensive rebounds. Even if a team gets three offensive rebounds on a single possession, the most they can get out of that is one score.  However, if they get an offensive rebound on three separate possessions then they have a chance to get three separate scores. For example, if you make 20-62 field goals and get one third of your 42 missed shots but your opponent is shooting over 50FG% then you will have less defensive rebounds, but the actual reason you will be losing is because you are getting out-shot. Rebounding is usually a symptom, not a cause. While the fourth rebound on a single possession might be annoying to a coach, it is not as damaging as giving up a lesser number of rebounds over multiple possessions.

What are your thoughts on teams who rely on the fast-break vs. teams who prefer to set up a half-court offense? I have seen very few teams who are more efficient in a half-court offense as opposed to a fast-break offense. If a fast-paced offense creates 4-on-3 advantages, then it would seem to maximize your efficiency, especially with transitions off of turnovers. The most useless statistic I have ever seen is points off turnovers: if you get called for traveling, then have a media timeout, then the other team walks the ball up the court and scores, it is not attributable to the turnover at all! The damage the turnover causes most of the time is the points that you did not have a chance to score.

Are coaches better off playing man-to-man defense or a zone defense? That is all based on personnel.  If you are Jim Boeheim and your entire recruiting philosophy is to get guys who have a huge wingspan, then you can be incredibly successful playing zone.

Why did it take people so long to learn the value of offensive efficiency? I wish I knew! Ken Pomeroy and other scholars eventually wrote about it, and coaches like Brad Stevens were able to be successful while popularizing the use of such stats.

Do you prefer the college game or the pro game? I prefer the college game because of special places like the Palestra that have a character that is less antiseptic than an NBA arena. Other places like Phog Allen and Hinkle Fieldhouse also shine when a sellout crowd brings out a special atmosphere.

After watching Penn basketball for the past four decades, who was your favorite coach? I would have to go with Chuck because he helped me get started and was very successful. Bob Weinhauer and Fran Dunphy were also great, but Chuck will always have a special place in my memory.