Unmasking the Forefathers of Advanced NBA Stats
Advanced statistics and quantitative analytics have become an integral part of the NBA game.
Teams have begun taking on stat aficionados, looking for any edge they can find. But it wasn't always that way.
Thanks to a few brilliant minds, analytics now exist in practically every NBA front office. Some of these guys went from being math nerds to NBA executives.
Now, they've opened the door for a whole new generation of number-crunching analysts with little-to-no basketball playing experience.
These are the forefathers of advanced stats who've helped change the way NBA teams make franchise-building decisions.
John Hollinger helped put advanced statistics in the mainstream and make them a point of interest for both average and serious hoops fans.
He started Alleyoop.com in 1995, where he created and developed the formula for PER—player efficiency rating. It measures each player's per-minute performance so that we can compare each player with one number regardless of how many minutes they play.
For example, Nicolas Batum averaged 14.3 points per game, while Chris Copeland only scored 8.7. But Batum shot just 42 percent and played 38 minutes, compared to Copeland, who shot nearly 48 percent and only got 15 minutes per night.
Though Batum had bigger numbers, he only registered a 15.76 PER, compared to Copeland's 16.89.
It was Copeland who was the more productive and efficient player per minute.
After eight years at ESPN, where his formulas and popular "PER Diem" columns generated buzz across the basketball community, Hollinger was hired by the Memphis Grizzlies as the new vice president of basketball operations.
He gave hope to the basketball junkies trying to make a career out of numbers in hoops. Hollinger is proof that you don't need a playing background anymore to draw the attention of NBA front offices.
The Four Factors
Now with ESPN as the director of production analytics, Dean Oliver has previously done consulting for the Seattle SuperSonics and was once the director of quantitative analysis for the Denver Nuggets.
He's most known for developing the "Four Factors," which he believes determines basketball success.
Those factors include:
- Shooting: Measured by effective field-goal percentage.
- Turnovers: Measured using turnover percentage.
- Rebounding: Measured using offensive and defensive rebounding percentages.
- Free throws: Measured both offensively and defensively (getting to the line versus makes).
He lists them in this order based on their importance, where he gives shooting a 40 percent weight, turnovers 25 percent, rebounding 20 percent and free throws 15 percent.
"If you can control those four things — offensively and defensively — you win," Oliver said in 2009 in an article written by Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post.
Oliver also stressed the significance of pace and possessions, teamwork versus individual stats and shot creativity.
He's viewed as one of the first to put advanced stats in front of NBA fans with Internet access.
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The Houston Rockets were really the first team to hire a "stat geek" as their general manager, and that geek was Daryl Morey.
With an MBA from MIT and a computer science degree from Northwestern, Morey certainly passed the IQ test, but many were wondering if it would translate to building an NBA franchise.
Morey was working with a consulting firm when he was first discovered by the Celtics, who brought him in to run analysis on projecting college players based on stats.
He was soon hired by the Rockets as the assistant general manager in 2006 before being promoted the following season.
Morey's brilliant mind and love for the game struck a cord with owner Leslie Alexander, a former stock trader on Wall Street who valued analytics.
Since being named general manager of the Rockets, Morey has used metrics to make draft, trade and salary-cap decisions. And based on Houston's current roster (after acquiring James Harden and Dwight Howard), I'd say he has made some pretty good decisions over the past few years.
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Points Created System
Bob Bellotti has been dealing with quantitative statistics and analysis since 1989, when he wrote the book Basketball’s Hidden Game: Points Created, Boxscore Defense, and Other Revelations. He sent it to each NBA coach and general manager, which resulted in a phone call from Del Harris, head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks at the time.
He's known for his Points Created system, which he set up to evaluate a player's overall performance, as opposed to analyzing a variety of different stats in each aspect of the game.
Bellotti has since consulted for the Washington Wizards but refuses to specify what it is he actually does for them.
In an interview with Truthaboutit.net, Bellotti said, "I do work for the Wizards, but I don't want to tell you what I do for them, or how I do it. I don't want to give that stuff away."
Bellotti was one of the first to get recognized and ultimately hired in the pros for his statistical evaluation system.
Jeff Sagarin and Wayne Winston
Jeff Sagarin and Wayne Winston are MIT graduates and the fathers of WINVAL, a system that measures a player's impact in a particular lineup.
It's an adjusted plus-minus system. Sagarin and Winston found a way to figure out the best five-man lineup using their formula, which takes into account statistics that normally wouldn't be recorded.
''Ninety percent of basketball is made up of things there aren't stats for,'' Winston said in a 2003 New York Times article written by David Leonhardt.
Sagarin and Winston have worked mostly for the Dallas Mavericks, who started using WINVAL in 2000 and quickly saw results.
Mark Cuban began using it to assemble his rosters and sign free agents. Since then, they've conducted research and analysis for a number of NBA teams, most recently the New York Knicks.
Sagarin is now a statistician for USA Today, while Winston is a professor at Indiana University.
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Daniel Rosenbaum is an economics professor who does consulting work for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He's credited with being one of the first to use adjusted plus-minus analysis in determining the effectiveness of a particular player or combination.
Rosenbaum accounted everything from home-court advantage to garbage-time minutes versus crunch-time minutes.
He claims, according to 82games.com, to have expanded on Jeff Sagarin and Wayne Winston's WINVAL method by "combining estimates of player value using both pure adjusted plus/minus ratings and a statistical index derived from these pure adjusted plus/minus ratings."
Rosenbaum also provides his insight on the NBA collective bargaining agreement and luxury tax.
Roland Beech is the founder of 82games.com, one of the first sites to dive into specifics concerning plus-minus ratings.
Hired by the Dallas Mavericks in 2010, Beech is credited with helping find the right players and combinations on that 2011 championship roster. He's also widely known as the first "stat geek" to get a seat on an NBA bench, which is where the Mavs sat him during games alongside assistant coaches.
Mark Cuban told ESPN's John Hollinger in 2011, “Roland was a key part to all this. I give a lot of credit to Coach Carlisle for putting Roland on the bench and interfacing with him, and making sure we understood exactly what was going on. Knowing what lineups work, what the issues were in terms of play calls and training.”
Beech's work covers everything from team-oriented analytics like five-man units, player pairs and plus-minus combos to player-specific features such as production by position, shot selection, passing details and clutch-play statistics.
Cuban has invested a great deal in his coaching staff and analytics department over the last 10 years. Beech is just more evidence that advanced statistics are being valued more than ever.
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An MIT graduate with a mechanical engineering degree from Stanford, Aaron Barzilai is one of the newer-generation stat geeks to end up working in an NBA front office.
Barzilai created BasketballValue.com, a website that "focuses on calculating the impact an NBA player has when he's on the court." Through the use of adjusted and unadjusted plus-minus stats, Barzilai has been able to assess the effectiveness of different individual players, tandems and units.
He's also conducted analysis on the value of draft position.
In 2009, Barzilai was hired by the Memphis Grizzlies as a basketball analytics consultant. Three years later, the Philadelphia 76ers named him their director of basketball analytics.
Spacial Reasoning, Visual Communication
Kirk Goldsberry looks at analytics through a different lens.
A visiting scholar at Harvard, Goldsberry specializes in spatial reasoning, visual communication and geographic representation.
He started CourtVision Analytics, a project he's developed to evaluate player effectiveness and tendencies by documenting everything from shot patterns, shot selection and shooting trends to individual defensive breakdowns from every key spot on the floor.
But what makes Goldsberry unique is that he paints a visually appetizing yet comprehensible picture consisting of colors, shapes and faces.
Goldsberry recently generated a lot of buzz at this year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with his research on interior defense, which named Larry Sanders and Roy Hibbert the most effective rim-protectors and David Lee and Luis Scola the least effective.
He's now a columnist for Grantland.com.