Among the NBA junkie set, Minnesota Timberwolves analyst Jim Petersen is generally regarded as one of the top few in the league for his knowledge, preparation and good humor. This is especially so for staff (and presumbaly readers) of TNC as JimPete is at the forefront in terms of introducing non-traditional stats and analytics to NBA broadcasts. He’s also unique in that he not only broadcasts the wolves, he serves as an assistant coach for the powerhouse Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA.[1. In the last four seasons, the Lynx are a combined 105-36 in the regular season and have one two WNBA championships with one Finals loss and one Conference Finals loss.]
Despite fighting a bout of laryngitis, Jim talked with me from Oklahoma City as the Wolves were preparing to play the Thunder. In addition to covering topics such as use of analytics, the way in which coaching helps his broadcasting and vice versa and his strong sales pitch for the WNBA we discovered that I was quite possibly on the court for the last serious pickup game he ever played in the early 2000s, and he shared some of the knowledge that only someone who has made basketball their life can really gather.[1. My favorite anecdote was one he passed on from an advance scout for another team who said his favorite player to scout was Rajon Rondo, because when Rondo was on the floor, the scout could pick up on BOTH teams’ play calls as Rondo would identify to set being run, call out the opponents’ nomenclature for it and then translate for his teammates, as in “They’re running ‘Fist Up!’ That;s our ‘Two Out!’]
You and Dave Benz are certainly among the favorite announce teams of the NBA twitter/blog world. Are you aware of that added attention and does it affect your broadcast style knowing you might have a more national audience with League Pass and everything?
We [the Wolves] don’t get much national attention because we haven’t been good and we’re not on national TV that much. In terms of the attention, I guess I’m aware of it, but mostly because of twttier. Zach Lowe has been very kind to us and our broadcast. A lot of it stems from Fox Sports North. Trevor Fleck, who was our producer and now is in management at Fox Sports North, has always pushed us to do more. We try to do a lot of new stuff in our broadcasts whether it’s video packages or other elements. Our producers have always pushed us, pushed me to bring in ideas and things I think about for the game.
That’s been the best part for me, is my bosses with the Timberwolves have never told me what to say, even when I’ve been critical of the team. They’ve been bad for a while, so I have to be appropriately critical while still staying somewhat positive where I can. No one has ever told me what to say. And then on the Fox Sports side, they are always encouraging me.
It’s been a roiling topic this year, analytics. I can’t be the first one to tell you that you and the Wolves broadcast team are at or near the top in terms of using newer stats in the broadcast to inform and entertain. How did you get interested in analytics and in the first place and how do you go about incorporating them into a broadcast? Especially in terms of knowing what level to shoot for so you’re educating but not overwhelming the audience?
One of the things I’ve always prided myself on is my preparation for a game. So I spend a lot of time reading things whether your articles, fansites and blogs from the other team and so on. We’re also lucky here in Minnesota, we have not only a great quantity of writers writing about the Twolves, but the quality is very high, whether its Canis Hoopus, whether it’s A Wolf Among Wolves there’s so many fervent NBA fans who write intelligent things. So I try to read as much as I can.
Then the coaching part has added another dimension to how I look at the game. I already had the viewpoint of a former player and analyst, but now I coach in the summertime as well. That added a lot for me. Because in the WNBA, all of the same actions we see in an NBA game I’ve had to sit there as a coach and try to figure out how to deal with: mid-pick (middle pick-and-roll) with various combinations. How do we guard wing-pick with various player combinations. Against a quick scoring point guard? Against a stretch four? Against a five who’s a great roller? I’ve had to struggle with all these things as a coach. And then we’ve won at a high level.
I think the first statistic I was aware of as a player, I never focused on numbers that much aside from how it affected my next contract. But I didn’t sit there and look at them analytically, maybe points per game and how we rank against some other teams in things. The first sort of “analytical” stat that pulled me in was rebound percentage. Offensive and defensive rebound percentage of available rebounds. That’s the true measure of how you’re doing as a rebounder. The per games stats became meaningless to me when you understand pace of play. That’s something I learned playing for Nellie in Golden State. Don Nelson wasn’t really a numbers person, but he was a style of play person. We upped possessions, I played with Run TMC, we played at tremendous pace so there were more shots available, more rebounds available, more assists available because we played at that tempo.
It wasn’t until I figured it out later on that those per game stats were meaningless, until I became a coach. Trying to figure out “how are we doing?” With the Lynx, we’re always one of the league’s highest scoring teams because we pushed tempo, but we also allowed a lot of points because of the number of possessions. Other teams which played at a much slower pace allowed fewer per game than us, but we always felt we were a better defensive team than those numbers showed. So we switched to per possession stats.
We have a great stats guy in the Lynx organization named Paul Swanson, I tweet about him sometimes. Swanny is great and has really helped us on the Lynx side. He also does all the game notes for the Wolves, so he’s been all around the organization, and they maybe don’t use him as much as they should. But we do on the Lynx, and he’s been able to together all kinds of advanced stats and numbers and fold them into what we do as a coaching staff.
So it’s been all these things, playing for Nellie, becoming a TV analyst and understanding that there has to be a better way to talk about the game make it understandable. Also knowing this is the direction the game is going. Even if people might not totally understand points per possession, offensive and defensive ratings, I want to bring our broadcast up to the point where we’re being smarter about it and we’re being honest about it. And maybe even trying to educate our fanbase a little better.
Then being a coach, having to figure out what to do against all these options an opponent throws at you. I remember reading about how Mark Cuban in Dallas would look at all the ways to guard mid-pick, high ball-screen actions. Should we switch? Should we hedge? Should we play drop coverage? What’s the best way to do it? We do that now with the Lynx, we look at what the numbers show the best way is to guard that kind of play. Should we hedge? We need to know how we do in that coverage.
On the broadcast side, it’s born out of those experiences. For better or for worse there are a lot of people who don’t like it. We’re taking a chance bringing this stuff in because people might dislike it. But that’s where my producers and directors have been really helpful, they’ve embraced it, we’ve embraced it and it works.
It seems your broadcast makes a very conscious effort to respect the intelligence of the viewer, by explaining some of the newer statistical stuff at a basic level and trusting the audience to reach a point of “oh, I get that!”
When Trevor Fleck was producing games he’d always get on me. I’d say something like “see here, they ‘iced’ that pick-and-roll.” And Trevor would ask about that, because I know what ‘icing’ is, but the fans might not. So he asked me to explain it, he’d go back and get the tape and I’d show what I meant by icing the pick-and-roll on the air.
The same thing with Effective Field Goal Percentage. If you aren’t speaking in terms of eFG%, it doesn’t tell the whole story of how a team is shooting, especially a team like Minnesota who doesn’t take a lot of three point shots, when they play against teams who take a lot of three point shots like the Hawks, Warriors, or Spurs. Or Rockets. Or Cavs with LeBron, you need to factor that in.
Something Trevor brought in at halftime was the Four Factors, I don’t know if anyone else is using the Four Factors of winning as part of the halftime show. It’s not the same thing if you put up teams’ field goal percentage and maybe three pointers right below it, you might see a disparity. But unless you actually put [eFG%] up there to show the difference between the shooting percentages of the team, you’re not telling the true story. So you might have to explain what eFG%, maybe the equation, and why it’s important. Assist rate, turnover rate, free throw rate, those are the main things. When I’m coaching, those are the things I look for. How many times did we turn it over? How many turnovers did we force? How many points did we score off those turnovers? Same thing with offensive rebounds, or free throw disparity, and how many threes did we give up.
That’s what I’m looking at at halftime, or from timeout to timeout on the bench as a coach. And as an analyst! The numbers part has really changed how I’ve looked at the game. Because of that process, I do think it’s important to not insult the intelligence of our viewers and help them to maybe learn a new way of thinking about the game that makes the game more interesting.
One thing I don’t understand, there are so many smart people out here looking at stuff in new ways. If you’re a coach in the NBA, how can you not use analytics as a tool?[2. At this point in the conversation, Jim seemed genuinely bewildered by the idea of willingly ignoring important information.] All it is is a tool, which you can use like any other tool. Why would you not use it? There are all different kinds of analytics. For the Lynx, we chart every single play call, every set and we rank them on points per possession. The ones that aren’t working we look at maybe getting rid of or adding another wrinkle to. That’s analytics, isn’t it? Which plays are successful, which ones don’t bear any fruit? If I was running a team, I’d hire a team of guys to look at draft stuff, in-game strategy, player value, how to make a good rade, all that.[3. Note to self. Get JimPete a job running an organization. Submit resume to JimPete the day after he accepts said job.]
I’m glad you brought up the coaching part, because I wanted to ask about that. You’re one of the few if not only broadcasters who takes advantage of the fact that the NBA and WNBA seasons are offset so you can coach during the summer and broadcast during the fall and winter. From your previous answers, it seems like each reinforces the other, makes you better at both. Is that something you’ve noticed or something you were expecting at the outset?
It was not something I was expecting. The guy who hired me onto the Lynx staff, Don Zierden who’s now on Randy Wittman’s staff in Washington, he and I coached our sons together since they were in fifth grade[1. Petersen’s stepson Sanjay Lumpkin just finished his sophomore season as a swingman for Northwestern, while Zierden’s son Isaiah, also a sophomore, is a guard for Creighton.] and we’ve known each other for years. He [Zierden] brought me onto the Lynx staff, but I never got to coach with him, because after he hired me, he went with Flip Saunders when Flip got hired by the Wizards. But Don was the one who gave me that job, for which I’m so grateful. I was just trying to expand my set of tools, you know what I mean? I didn’t know how long the analyst thing was going to last, and I wanted to be able to at least have some coaching experience.
Like you said, these seasons dovetail, and that’s perfect. When the NBA season ends, the WNBA season ends. When the WNBA season ends, training camp starts. So, yeah, it’s a lot of work, I’ve been doing this for six years without a break, but it’s just so valuable. During the seasons, I get to see everything. Since I’m an assistant coach, I have access to coaching and scouting websites. Before we talked I was watching film of Oklahoma City’s offense on Synergy. I have that account because I’m a coach, and a lot of people don’t have that access.
When we’re looking at playsets and at end of game, ATO, or sideline out of bounds plays, I get to see everyone’s stuff. I’m a big fan of Pop, I’m a big fan of Doc [Rivers], Rick Carlisle. I thought when Mike Woodson was coaching he had a lot of good out of bounds plays. I think Flip has a lot of actions I really like. So I see these plays as an analyst and I stick them in the back of my head for the Lynx season, and then Chery Reeve[5. Head coach of the Lynx.] gives me a lot of freedom to try some of this stuff.
The NBA season feeds the Lynx season, and the coaching season feeds my analyst job because I’ve dealt with end of game situations and the thought process there. I know to run wrinkles on out of bounds plays and sets that we have. I know how to look for other teams’ tendencies, what are their ATO or BLOB tendencies, what can we do to take some of those away? I’m really fortunate because Glen Taylor has allowed me to have two jobs in the same organization, and I’m just so grateful and how it’s all kind of worked out for me.
I have to admit to not following the WNBA very closely, but people who do rave about the job Cheryl Reeve does. What are some things you’ve learned from her and what does she do that enables the Lynx to be so successful?
Cheryl is innately wired as a winner, she’s super competitive. It’s almost fear of failure, a lot of great players and coaches fear failure more than they seek success and that fear drives the preparation which makes he a success. She’s extremely intelligent and fiery. She grew up in a military family so there’s a lot of discipline built in, but she also has a lot of love for her players. She doesn’t just pay lip service to it, she really cares about them.
A lot of time, players at the NBA level complain about this to me, they feel like they don’t get communicated to enough by the coaches, they don’t get a lot of time with the coaches. Cheryl meets with all different groups of our players. We have a player leadership group of our four captains she meets with all the time. She’ll meet with just the post players, just the guards, just the bench players. She’ll meet individually with every single player and let them know their role on the team, and that makes us extremely connected as a group. She doesn’t allow any knuckleheads on the team. She’s gotten rid of players who didn’t fit the group mentality.
But of course it comes down to having great talent. What makes the Minnesota Lynx so special is we have three Olympians on our team. Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, those are three individuals, professionals who take winning very seriously. It’s also the whole group, we have Rebekkah Brunson from Georgeton, Monica Wright from Virginia who could easily be an Olympian herself and a multiple time all-star. It’s just a special group.
But it all starts with Cheryl Reeve. She’s always the smartest person in the room, but she doesn’t need to be, if that makes sense? She gives me or [Petersen’s co-assistant coach] Shelley Patterson tremendous freedom. She [Reeve] came in from Detroit, working with Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn and winning multiple championships and brought that system to Minnesota. Shelley came from Seattle where they had lots of success, I have my own perspectives as a former NBA player and how I saw the game. And Cheryl came in and mixed that all together.
She embraced analytics, she embraced the NBA game and some of the wrinkles from there. She doesn’t need to control everything.
And Maya Moore always helps of course. She’s just a great great talent. Seimone Augustus is an amazing shotmaker and offensive creator, I feel lucky to have been around her. I played with Chris Mullin, a very creative shot maker and Seimone is a lot like that. Lindsay Whalen simply refuses to lose. When you’re around players like that, who prepare like these people. The most they can makes is $100,000, but the way they prepare to win, I’ve never seen anything like it. They take care of their bodies, they get their rest and are always ready to practice hard or play the next day. It’s incredible and I feel really blessed to have been around them and been a part of this thing that I’d sort of marginalized in my own mind. I wasn’t a big WNBA fan myself. When the Lynx started up I went to a couple of games, but it wasn’t until I started coaching that I realized just how good these players are. I’ve become an evangelist for the league. It’s just really good basketball. These women care.
Because they have to?
Exactly! Because the league could easily go away. The league is where the NBA was in the 70’s, or maybe more apropos the barnstorming days in the 50s and 60s when they’d play triple headers in MSG because they had to. David Stern was an amazing proponent of women’s basketball and would not let the league fail. Adam Silver has been just as great in terms of making sure the league stays healthy and relevant.
But in terms of getting to the mass market, there’s so many choices out there. Some people just aren’t going to be convinced, but I think one thing we’ve done is brought a lot of people in with the style of play we have in Minnesota. There are a lot of people who did not and would not have come to a game. But they do now, because when you do it’s truly an amazing show.
For someone who’s not well-versed in the WNBA, is there a sort of NBA doppleganger for the style? From how you’re describing it, it sounds like somewhere in the Spurs/Warriors area?
Yes very much like the Spurs with a lot of ball movement. But we’re a little like the Spurs in other ways too. During NBA All-Star Weekend, do you ever remember seeing a Lynx player in one of those events? The league markets Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, maybe Swin Cash a little. Swin Cash is a very good player in her own right, but she’s not Maya Moore. It’s like the NBA used to market Michael, and Kobe and Shaq, and you never really heard much about Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili, they were marginalized. But for basketball purest it’s fantastic. I mean that Spurs-Cavs game last night…
It was so good. I missed the first airing, so I stayed up til 3:30 in the morning watching the replay because I couldn’t turn it off. That’s what the Minnesota Lynx are in the WNBA. People don’t consume the league as much as they should, and maybe if they did they’d get a new perspective on basketball. It’s unfortunate because our players, I feel like are kind of the lost performances from say George Gervin in the ABA. Those great performances that no one saw because no one went to the games. Great Artis Gilmore games, young Julius Erving, because the ABA wasn’t that popular and the NBA was having it’s own problems. Those games are just lost.Maya Moore, I’ve seen her do some of the most incredible things. It makes me said because what she does is as amazing as a lot of the things I’ve seen in 17 years of NBA broadcasting.
You’ve definitely sold me. My daughter and I are absolutely going to give it a watch this summer.
Switching gears back to the Wolves. This has obviously been a tough season what with all the injuries. The team wasn’t necessarily supposed to be good, but it was at least supposed to be entertaining, and then Rubio going down and guys being in and out it’s been a struggle. How has that affected your job and how you call the games?
I’m a Minnesota Sports fan[1. Petersen is originally from St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis.] I’m a Vikings fan, I’m used to losing the Super Bowl. It’s certainly made my job more difficult though.
When I came in 17 years ago, it was Kevin Garnett’s 4th year in the league. It was a team that was already put together a little with Stephon Marbury and Sam Mitchell and Garnett and we were winning 50 games. So I came into a team where you’d get to the gym every night thinking you had a good chance to win every game. And then there was the team that made the Western Conference Finals and you thought we might really be going somewhere. Then it all unraveled and it all unraveled so quickly.
The Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell team evaporated it seemed like overnight, and then you trade Garnett, you get Al Jefferson. You think maybe something good is going to happen and the Al blows out his knee and Kevin McHale leaves and David Kahn comes in[6. To steal someone else’s bit, “KAHHHHHHNNNNN”] and it’s just disappointment after disappointment.
Unfortunately you get used to that. It’s no fun walking into the gym expecting to lose, but you have to be professional. In a lot of ways it’s made me a better broadcaster because I have to look deeper to find stories. When you were covering the Lakers or Celtics in their glory years, how much work do you really have to do? Sure you want to be entertaining and everything, but the team itself is going to entertain. But if your team isn’t good, year in and year out, you better bring something else to the table. And it helps to know something about the other team, by the way.
Again that’s where being a coach comes in. I’m always trying to learn about these other teams and their perspectives. I’m not going to come in and dog someone on another team out. I’m going to respect them, what they do and how they play. I’m going to give you a report on how they play, how they drive their offense, how do they score? What do they run late game or ATO? I know all that because I’ve studied them like that. Like a coach.
To answer your question, yes it’s affected me, but it also hasn’t affected me as a professional. I look at it like “I have to win this broadcast” and I do that by being prepared and caring about our viewers. I want our games to be rated higher because people are watching. Our team on Fox, me and [Dave] Benz and [sideline reporter] Marney [Gellner] and our producers, we’re a team and we’re trying to win too, like there’s a game within the game. I think every NBA broadcaster feels that way. A lot of the local crews don’t get the credit they deserve compared to some of the national guys.
Obviously, I talk to all the local teams, and we know a lot about the teams, more than the national guys know, because when you have to grind it out through every game, you learn and build up a lot of the rivalries, a lot of the nuances because you’ve been there game-to-game. I go back and look at games from everyone.
A lot of these local play-by-play guys are phenomenal. We were just back in Los Angeles, and I was talking to Ralph Lawler, he’s been with the team for 36 years. He knows so much.
It’s the law![1. For the uninitiated, Lawler’s Law state’s the first team to reach 100 points in a game usually wins.]
Yeah! I have a lot respect for the other announcers around the league.
I’m glad you brought up the competitive aspect of the broadcast because I wanted to ask something about that. It seems like the competitor in you comes out occasionally on the air and then you seem apologetic about it afterwords. Specific example was Derrick Williams having a nice game against the Wolves last year, and you sounded on the broadcast like you were almost angry about his performance in a competitive way: “oh sure, NOW you do that!” You were apologetic about it on broadcast and twitter, but as a viewer I thought it was great!
The only thing that really gets me upset as a broadcaster is when guys don’t play hard. That’s the only reason I made it. I was a third round pick. A bunch of guys fell asleep at the wheel and I took their jobs, basically. I made it because I played hard. I may not have been the best player in terms of skill, but I know the value of playing hard.
So when I see a guy who has every single physical gift, and I’m not saying Derrick Williams did this, but when a guy isn’t playing hard all the time. Isn’t prepared. Doesn’t take care of their body. Maybe was out partying too late. That gets me.
For me, Derrick Williams had those gifts and he just didn’t bring it every night. I saw Kevin Garnett, every night. And I saw him practice like that, practice harder than he played and be so competitive. So when I see Derrick Williams not do that, it’s disappointing to me and it’s disrespectful to the game because I think he’s better than that.
I don’t like wasting second round draft picks.[7. Don’t read this then, Jim] We spent a second round pick and ended up having to trade him because Rick Adelman couldn’t get him to play hard. But when he plays against us, he’s going to work hard that game? Because if you watched him in Sacramento he was just as inconsistent there as he was in Minnesota. Then when he chooses to play hard against us, that just irks me. I value guys who work hard, and grind because that’s what I had to do. Like P.J. Tucker. I love guys like that. Raja Bell was always one of my favorites. Not the most gifted player, but dang did he play hard. Jimmy Butler! But most guys do play hard.
Mike Conley! Every time we play Memphis I have to go up and shake his hand because I know how hard he worked. I remember seeing videos of “Mike Conley ball-handling drills” and you’d see him and there would just be sweat dripping down his face as he was doing ihose drills every day to make him a better player.
So that’s the one thing that will set me off as an analyst.
Last question for you; it seems like one of the real dangers for a local broadcast crew is that when the team starts to become pretty good is for a certain amount of smugness to creep into the broadcast. Aside from that being a problem you hope to have to worry about soon, is that something you’re aware of avoiding?
Being in this sort of basketball purgatory with the Wolves for these last 11 years has made me more empathetic. To the viewer, to writers, to players, to other broadcast teams. I’ve seen how some other broadcast teams can be, I’m talking about from the good teams. They might come over, pat you on the shoulder and say “it’ll get better. You guys have a nice young core.” That’s what they’ve been saying to and about us for years, “you’ve got a nice young core.” Whatever.
No. I will continue to be complimentary of the other team. In fact, I’ve been accused of being a Timberwolves hater because I’m complementary to opponents. But I do that because I respect the game and I respect good play and I’m trying to find the value in everything. That’s the way I would want to be treated, you know?
When I was playing, I’d hear things. Broadcasters might say something and it might get back to me. It never bothered me because if I played badly and they said I sucked, I did suck! I wasn’t good that night.
I do hope I have that problem though, real soon. I hope the Timberwolves become a powerhouse and I have to wrestle with that. But I’m always going to default to strategy and respecting the other team and loving the game. That’s how I hope to deal with it.
A good play is a good play regardless of the jersey color?