An Interview With John Hollinger

Recently the 2004-2005 edition of the “Pro Basketball Forecast” (formerly Prospectus) hit the bookstores, and it’s clear that John Hollinger’s work keeps getting better and better. Whether you’re a fantasy basketball GM, a hardcore hoops head, or just a casual fan, there’s something for everyone. Hollinger keeps readers interested with funny anecdotes in between the hard hitting analysis and his unabashed criticism. There are gems on every page, like when Hollinger jokes about little used 2001 draft pick Primoz Brezec being thrilled about having “front row NBA seats,” or when he declares Etan Thomas as the “NBA’s best dreadlocked big man.”

In the first edition Hollinger introduced us to a new stat, PER, which has become the de-facto standard of measuring an offensive player’s performance. Not only is he able to express a player’s ability in one single number, but Hollinger is able to quantify a player’s ability to rebound, pass, score, and turn the ball over in a way that makes more sense than traditional statistics. If you’re still unsure about buying “Pro Basketball Forecast”, go to the book store, turn to page 90 & read Hollinger’s take on Bimbo Coles. You’ll be laughing all the way to the cashier. If you have never followed basketball closely before, with one purchase, you’ll know everything about every team and their players for the upcoming season.

Luckily, John took some time outside of his busy schedule of writing for Sports Illustrated, the New York Sun, alleyoop.com, and of course next year’s Pro Basketball Forecast to do an interview with yours truly. [Hyperlinks added by me.]

Writing a Book

Do you use co-authors & how much of the book is written by you?
I write all of it.

How long does it take?
Well, the nice thing about an annual is that it can’t take more than a year. In all seriousness, I start writing bits and pieces before the season even starts, but probably 80% of the book is written in a furious blitz after the season ends

What is the process of writing a book of this magnitude?
There’s essentially two parts. During the seamy the most important thing is making the effort to see all the teams and players multiple times so you really get a feel for what they’re doing — even the guys who hardly play. Once it ends I’m pulling together all the final stats and writing most of my player and team comments. Then in July I have to make adjustments for the draft and as many free agent moves as I can accommodate before it goes to the publisher.

This Year’s Prospectus/Forecast

Why the name change from Prospectus to Forecast?
It basically had to do with a licensing agreement my publisher had to use the Prospectus name for their basketball and football books, which expired. So we had to call it something else this year.

What are some of the things that separates this year’s version from previous years?
I made a lot of progress in terms of coming up with new tools to help predict performance. I projected each player’s stats (at least, each important
player’s) for the coming season and that’s a tool I’m continuing to refine. I also came up with some metrics to help evaluate which players in Europe can be of assistance in the NBA.

In last year’s edition regarding defense, you said you weren’t on the tip of the iceberg, but rather “the tip of the tip.” How much of the iceberg can we see in the 2004 version?
Much more. I did some work to evaluate individual defense and provided a “Defensive PER” for every player for the past season.

Even though you acknowledge the offseason moves in the team descriptions, you have the players listed under the teams they played for last year. Why not list players like Shaq, McGrady, and Crawford under their new teams?
Because we can’t get every change in before the publishing deadline — for instance, Kenny Anderson and Jon Barry signed with the Hawks well afterward. So if we try to do it that way we’ll just end up confusing everyone.

Your book has gotten bigger and bigger each year.

'02 - 285 pg
'03 - 307 pg
'04 - 314 pg

For next year’s edition, should I take the over/under on 330 pages?
Well, the seven-page increase this year can entirely be blamed on the Bobcats, so I’d expect it to hold steady around 315.

Why should the casual fan buy this year’s book?
Because it has a lot of information you can’t find anywhere else, and critiques of the players that most announcers and beat writers don’t have the freedom to unleash.

All About John

Any chance that you’ll do reporting on a more frequent basis (either for SI or your blog alleyoop.com)?
Well, I write two columns a week for the New York Sun, so since you’re in the Big Apple that’s a big fat yes.
Otherwise, I’ll be doing a weekly piece for SI.com.

Other than your own, what are some of your favorite basketball books?
Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls is the gold standard, classic story telling mixed with some insights into a league not that many people saw. I enjoyed Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson as well, although I’ve yet to read his new book. And, getting really old school, the Wooden-Sharman Method by John Wooden and Bill Sharman is still on my bookshelf.

When you step on the court, which NBA player’s game does your style most resemble?
LOL … I guess I’d be somewhere between Nick Van Exel and a lefthanded Jon Barry. Lots of 3s, no conscience, not much defense.

Guessing on the Knicks:

By the end of the year, who will be the Knicks’ starting PF?
Mike Sweetney, if they know what they’re doing.

There are currently 4 players on the roster left from the pre-Isaiah era (Houston, Anderson, Sweetney & Thomas). What will that number be by playoff time?
I’ll say two. Thomas will be in the Western Conference and Anderson will be in the Eastern hemisphere.

Nazr Mohammed over or under 5.8PF/48mins (his average last year)?
I’ll say over. He got to play some power forward with the Hawks last year but won’t have that luxury as a Knick.

True or False, the Knicks will end up in the second round of the playoffs this year?
False. The Knicks will be No. 5 behind Indiana, Detroit, Washington and Miami.

Mainstream Analysis

Since the steady decline of ESPN, I really don’t go their web page much for analysis. It’s just too annoying to go to espn.com, and be forced to wait until some multimedia presentation loads up that I’m not interesting in watching or buying. As if being owned by the Disney/ABC family, their tv station, and the bombardment of ads on their website didn’t make them enough money, they ask their customers to pay for anything that would be worthwhile to read with the ESPN Insider. If I felt a majority of that money went to the writers and web designers then I might consider paying for it. But something tells me that my hard earned dough would be going to some guy in marketing who came up with these “brilliant” (& annoying) ideas.

These days if I want to get sports analysis I tend to go to pages that end with the word “Blog” or has at least one SAT-sounding word in the title like “Prospectus“. Mainstream pages are competing to get the widest audience, and in turn the quality suffers. As proof I offer up Steve Kerr’s small write up for Yahoo!’s NBA page. He did a piece that caught my eye: NBA Preview: Atlantic. The part that caught my eye was the description that proclaimed the Knicks would finish in first.

The article is short, just two small paragraphs on each team. In the Knicks’ section, Kerr mentions that the PGs have to find a way to keep “Tim Thomas, Vin Baker, Allan Houston and Kurt Thomas happy.” What a minute did he just say Vin Baker? Baker is third on the center depth chart, behind Nazr Mohammed & Kurt Thomas. I expect Sweetney, Nazr and Hardaway to be more involved in the offense than Baker, so why mention him at all? I don’t think Baker’s demeanor really figures into the Knicks’ chances this year.

In addition, Kerr mentioned three weaknesses the Knicks will have to face this year: defense, rebounding and team chemistry. He’s, at best, half right with the first two. The Knicks defense was average last year, ranked 14th by John Hollinger’s Pro Basketball Forecast. Consider last year the Knicks were 8th in defensive shooting efficiency, 23rd in creating turnovers, and 27th in letting their opponents score from the line. The Knicks don’t need to get better at contesting shots, they just need to force turnovers & stop giving away free points from the charity stripe. With respect to rebounding, the New York was strong on the defensive boards, but bad on the offensive end. This year should be different, as Sweetney, Mohammed and Williams are good offensive rebounders and will get enough minutes to make a difference.

As for that last weakness, I’m convinced that terms like “team chemistry” and “veteran leadership” is jock language for “I don’t know why.” Even if you take Kerr’s statement literally, it’s hard to see any basis for this. Crawford & Williams are the only significant additions over the summer, and the Knicks didn’t have a chemistry problem last year. Why would they have one this year?

The Knicks aren’t among the NBA elite, but Kerr’s ignorance of the statistics can’t help him to describe why, so he describes the problem as “team chemistry” (pronounced “I don’t know why”). Last year I was able to identify the Knicks’ five main weaknesses in a two part series:

  • Committing Turnovers (23rd, -7.0%)
  • Creating Turnovers (23rd, -7.2%)
  • Scoring From the Free Throw Line (22nd, -7.2%)
  • Sending Their Opponents to the Free Throw Line (27th, -11.7%)
  • Offensive Rebounding (19th, -2.4%)

The Knicks were near the bottom in both ends of turnovers & free throw scoring, and nary a mention from Mr. Kerr? It’s just what I’d expect from most mainstream writers, either Mr. Kerr hasn’t watched the Knicks enough last year or doesn’t know enough about statistics to understand their real weaknesses.

Preseason Watch #2

Two entries ago, I ranted & raved about unimportance of the NBA preseason. Being unable to write a column on the Yankees without professional help, I’m forced to eat my words and discuss the NBA preseason. I touched on a few things in preseason that would interest me, and I’ll try to discuss each of them before the season starts.

Today’s topic: What kind of impression are the young players making? Although it’s still early, two of the Knicks younger players are getting a lot of minutes this preseason. Michael Sweetney ranks among the top 5 Knicks in minutes per game. He played impressively over the summer & has had a good preseason so far. Rebounding has been one of Sweetney’s strengths, so it’s no surprise that he’s second on the Knicks in REB/min. His FG% is a bit low (44%), but considering it’s a small sample size of 5 games and that his PSA (points per shot attempt) is higher than last year’s average, it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Sweetney is ready to take over as the Knicks PF, and the Knicks management might hand over the reigns. New York could play small this year, starting Sweetney at PF, moving Kurt Thomas to center, and bumping Nazr Mohammed to “first big man off the bench.” With Mount Mutombo gone, the Knicks no longer have a shot blocker/finger shaker, so they might as well mix & match with their strengths. Thomas’ perimeter shooting game makes him a liability on the offensive boards, but playing along side a strong glass cleaner either at the 4 (Sweetney) or the 5 (Mohammed) would complement his style. Thomas at center could open up the inside by forcing the other team’s center to come out of the paint and respect his jumpshot. The obvious downfall is the matchup on the defensive end. With the big centers in Miami & Cleveland, the Knicks would be forced to abandon this plan, and play their big guys. Playing Thomas at the 5, when the matchup permits, takes away minutes from guys like Baker, Sundov and Bateer, and gives them to Sweetney. The Knicks lack of talent at the 5 and Sweetney’s development makes this idea plausible, but a more ideal solution would be to get a quality center.

Michael Sweetney’s success is not unexpected, but no one would have predicted Trevor Ariza’s play. John Hollinger, author of the 2004-05 Pro Baketball Forecast, described Ariza as the “third-best player on a terrible team,” hardly a ringing endorsement. However, the rookie has been filling the stat sheet like a veteran, not a freshman turned second round pick. The Knicks are giving Ariza a lot of time on the court, in fact he’s second on the team in minutes with 24 min/G. Trevor’s non-scoring traditional numbers are impressive; per game he is averaging 5.8REB, 2.2STL, and 4.4FTA per game. Ariza is second on the Knicks in steals and free throw attempts per minute. He’s a tad behind Sweetney in REB/min, which shows he’s hitting the boards as well. Given his status coming out of college, these are impressive stats.

Before we hit the presses with the Trevor Ariza ROY posters, his game comes with a caveat emptor. His main weakness is his poor shooting, which spans from beyond the arc (0% 3P%), to the free throw line (64%). Ariza’s current eFG% of 38% exposes this shortcoming. He also has a propensity to turn the ball over at an alarming rate. Trevor could make the rotation with his energetic play, but how many minutes he gets will depend on his ability to cut down on his poor shooting & turnovers. After years of first round pick failures, the fact that I’m talking about a Knick second round pick possibly making the rotation is a step in the right direction. For the next few years if Ariza can provide a spark off the bench for a couple of minutes a night, then the Knicks front office can consider that a success.

Preseason Watch #1

In my last entry, I ranted & raved about unimportance of the NBA preseason. With the blog story of the week ill fit for a basketball blog (Jon Stewart Rips Crossfire a New One) I’m forced to eat my words and discuss the NBA preseason. I touched on a few things in preseason that would interest me, and I’ll try to discuss each of them before the season starts.

Today’s topic: Allan Houston’s health. So far Allan Houston has not appeared in the three Knick preseason games. At the time of this writing, it’s been 209 days since Houston last played in an NBA game, and 498 days since his surgery. Put in that light, it’s hard to be an optimist on H20’s outlook for this season. So I decided to do as much research on his condition as a small time blogger can without a team of doctors or private investigators. My main source of information? The internet, which includes hosts of newspaper and medical articles.

On June 10th 2003, Allan Houston had “microfracture” surgery on his right knee. According to the AP Press:

“Dr. Norman Scott, the team physician, said the operation was to remove loose cartilage and stimulate growth.”

Microfracture surgery is done for those who have worn down their cartilage, causing the bones to directly rub against each other. This causes the joint to swell, become stiff, and cause pain, which is also known as arthritis. Since cartilage doesn’t grow back naturally, this surgery drills holes into the bone to stimulate a scar tissue growth that eventually acts like cartilage, reducing the friction between the bones.

Houston doesn’t have to look far to find someone who has gone through this procedure. Current teammate Penny Hardaway had the same surgery in May of 2000. Penny played in 80 games in 2001, the most since 1995. He missed 24 games the year after, and only 6 last season. Hardaway had numerous health problems prior to this surgery (he missed 118 games from 96-98), so that he recovered so well is promising. Other NBA players that had microfracture surgery were Kidd, Webber, Najera, Kittles, and Mashburn. Kittles’ story is another that would give Knick fans hope. The former-Net had surgery and missed the entire 2000 season. The year after he played in all 82 games, and has missed only 17 games in the 3 years since. On the other hand, not all the surgeries have been as promising. Eduardo Najera has missed 58 games over the last two seasons. Mashburn will miss the 2004-05 season, and may have to retire. Kidd and Webber have had it recently, so it’s too early to tell what kind of recovery they’ll have.

Athletes in other sports that have come back successfully from microfracture surgery are Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson, and Scott Hamilton. Some on the unsuccessful column are Eric Swann, Terrell Davis, and Andre Wadsworth. The one commonality among those that have responded negatively to the treatment is having multiple injuries and surgeries. Eric Swann had 7 different operations on his knees, and Terrell Davis had surgery twice in 6 months on the same knee.

Even with all this information what can we say about Houston’s chances for this year? Some of the players I’ve mentioned have come back from their injuries, others haven’t. Unfortunately, I don’t have the research to give an accurate prediction. It does seem that the players who haven’t healed properly had compounded or more severe ailments to begin with. Additionally, I don’t know how severe Houston’s injury was prior to the operation. Two different studies say the recovery rate is 75%, but these are for the general population. I’d imagine athletes exhibit more stress on their joints than the average person.

The Knicks and Houston are tight lipped on his progress, staying vague about his return date. It could be that they just don’t know when Allan’s knee will heal. It could be that the news is too bad to reveal to the public. The only thing I can say is this: I’d have a more positive outlook on the season if Houston appears on the court healthy during the preseason.

2005 NBA Preseason Starts

The NBA preseason started this past weekend, and excuse me if I don’t get excited. I’m a bit curious maybe even intrigued, but certainly nowhere near excited, overjoyed, or thrilled. Preseason for any sport is like playing the demo of a video game. It’s great for a few moments, but the novelty quickly wears off. In preseason, if the Knicks go undefeated or if they don’t win a single preseason game my attention might be piqued. But anywhere in the middle, and I don’t think it matters what their record is.

Preseason games just don’t matter. When the score doesn’t count, coaches do strange things like play all of their players. Sarcasm aside, I can’t get interested in a game where Dikembe Mutombo is out there for 22 minutes against a Shaq-infused Heat while a healthy Yao Ming sits on the bench. That’s not the Jeff Van Gundy I’m used to seeing, the ex-Knick coach who wouldn’t give minutes to Camby or Sprewell when they first arrived.

There are only two reasons why I’d have any interest in the NBA preseason. First is injuries. Obviously, preseason injuries can carry over to the season, but that’s not what I’m concerned with. More important is how players have recovered from last year’s injuries. If it seems it’s been more than a year since I watched a healthy Allan Houston, it’s because it has been that long. As a Knick fan, I’m interested if H20 has that lift off when he shoots his jumper, and whether he can move laterally on defense. If Houston looks like the limited player we saw last year, then it might be time to invest in a Jamal Crawford jersey.

The second reason I’d pay attention to the preseason is to watch the young guys. I’m not saying that preseason success or failure is the ultimate test of a player’s worth. However it can’t hurt if a player has a good preseason (or a great summer league), and it isn’t a great sign if a player struggles that should be having some modicum of success against second tier players. In the plus column, a good preseason for a young player might earn him the coach’s favor & some extra minutes when the games are for real.

Other than a glancing interest, I’m not going expend time on the NBA preseason when I have what is looking like a great Fall for New York sports. The Jets & Giants are a combined 8-1. Meanwhile the Yankees and Red Sox face off in what could be the biggest professional sports rivalry of the new era. The Celtics/Lakers are a decade old. The Bulls/Knicks are happily trading players. The Cowboys, Pigskins, Packers, Raiders, and Niners are all mediocre. The Dodgers and Yankees no longer segregate a city. The odds that the Cubs and White Sox make the playoffs in the same year is minimal.

The Mets were awful (again) this year, but Met fans can rally around the Red Sox in their battle against the “Evil Empire”*. It feels like there has been a sympathetic shoulder extended from Queens to Boston since 1986. Met fans would have been happy beating any AL team to win a World Series: Detroit, California, or Toronto would have been as good as any non New York team. It just happened that their second miracle run coincided with Boston’s then 68 years of psychological torture (now at 85 years). Like accidentally running over your neighbor’s dog, the Mets inherited part of the guilt that is passed along in Boston from generation to generation.

Want to spot the Met fans during playoff time? Go to any NY bar during one of the AL Series games, and keep track of the patrons. Cross anyone off your list that cheers when the Yankees or Red Sox score. Anyone left will have a secret smile when the Sox are doing well. Met fans in New York don’t dare cheer openly against the Yankees in October, for fear of reprisal.

* POST NOTES: If anything should bear the adjective “evil”, it should be Ben Affleck’s 2003 movies: Paycheck, Daredevil, and Gigli. Who in the movie industry signed off on Elektra, the Daredevil spin off? It had to be Matt Murdock, because it couldn’t be anyone who actually saw Daredevil. While I’m on a movie kick, can someone tell George Lucas that when you redo old movies, you’re suppose to take out the bad scenes, not insert them!