The Dean Oliver Interview

Baseball is in the midst of a revolution of sorts. No it’s not about steroids or home run records, but rather the wave of statistical analysis that is hitting the league like a Pedro Martinez high and tight fastball. The grandfather of this uprising could be Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers GM. More than half a century ago, he knew there were flaws in measuring a player’s value with stats like BA, RBI, and even fielding percentage. Even though the baseball world ignored these simple findings, other people did not. A small group of people asked: “what are the best tools we have to evaluate baseball players?”

The fathers of the revolution are guys like Bill James, Pete Thorn, and John Palmer, who have given birth to the modern day soldiers. Current GM’s like Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, Paul Depodesta, and Theo Epstein value statistical analysis over observational appraisal. Columnists like Rob Neyer are part of the mainstream and have forced the old regime to pick up new terms like OPS to adapt. Voros McCracken, a lawyer turned baseball consultant, turned a world of baseball thinkers on their head with his theory that (with few exceptions) pitchers have little effect on a batted ball in play. The movement has hit the streets with a new generation of writers from all walks of life preaching the new credo.

What does this have to do with Dean Oliver? His book is part of a parallel movement in basketball. Dean’s goal with his book is to better understand basketball through statistics. Where current statistics don’t give enough information, Dean creates his own. Whether you’re a casual fan or a failled GM looking for a way to improve your way of thinking, Dean Oliver’s book should be of interest to you.

“Basketball On Paper” tries to answer the tough questions. Is Team A really good defensively or does their slow tempo give that illusion? Read the book. Which team was the best offensive team of all time? Read the book. Can my team benefit from playing a risky strategy or should they tone it down? Read the book. How valuable is Iverson with his low FG%? Read the book.

The fires of same revolt are slowly starting to kindle in basketball. No there are no Billy Beane’s in the front offices of the NBA, yet. Nor is Bill Walton scrambling to learn what PER means. Jon Hollinger’s “Basketball Prospectus”, columns like Kevin Pelton’s Page 23, discussion groups like the APBR, and Dean Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” will change the way people think about basketball, like their sabermetric cousins are currently doing in baseball.

And now, on to the interview:

“Basketball on Paper”:

KB: Since writing your book “Basketball on Paper,” what have you been working on since & what can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve actually been working on marketing the book and convincing NBA teams of the value of this kind of work — any of the type of statistical work that is logical and reasonable to help a team. I have been talking to a number of teams, the league office, and to media. I’ve done a couple of limited studies relating to work I’ve done for years for the Seattle Sonics. I’ve written a couple things and I am outlining another book on statistical approaches to basketball strategy.

KB: What were some of the responses to your book?

I did a radio show down in Tampa and Doc Rivers came up to me after hearing it and really wanted to talk to me and get a copy of the book. That was nice. I sent the book on to Bill James, who in an email to me said it was an excellent book. He is planning an endorsement. I know that some readers get concerned by seeing formulas or numbers of any sort, which is a bit of a shame since they really are there to support stories and lessons of how the game works and how good talent is.

KB: What is missing or what is next in the literature on basketball statistics?

I think what is missing is the same large audience that baseball stats have. There isn’t a lot of money in a lot of the basketball writing at this point. And it’s a difference in the games. Baseball is slow enough that fans can really talk about what’s going on, pull in numbers. Basketball numbers are tremendous, they’re plentiful, and they’re insightful, but the time to use them or to make adjustments based on them is just not there. So fans look for the excitement and coaches make a lot of decisions based on gut feel. I’ve introduced some rules of thumb for hoops that can be applied on the fly, but it’s going to take a little while to catch on.

What is next in line for research is really a translation system for players from one league to the NBA. College stats have the best history, but high school and international leagues have significance now. We’re just catching up on this and it is not an easy problem. I’ve figured a few things out, but I have too many rules like “The Pitino Rule” that are just annoying and not very general. (Basically, Pitino’s system causes some of his players to be overvalued by stats.)

KB: When I read your book, “Basketball on Paper” I couldn’t help but think of it as the “Win Shares” of basketball, because of :

  • It’s ability to try and understand defense, where traditional methods are lacking
  • The clarity in which advanced statistical ideas are presented
  • The author’s humor

Do you see yourself making a book similar to “The New Bill James’ Historical Abstract”, either by making a recount of basketball by historical periods, or by ranking players by position?

I would very likely do such a book in combination with people like John Grasso, Bijan Bayne, Harvey Pollack, and my contacts in the NBA. The statistical library to evaluate the older players is incomplete, so video and news stories would be very important to make some accurate representations. These guys could definitely help. And I wouldn’t want to do what Elliott Kalb did with his book recently either, which is subjectively rank guys without a lot of link to objective evidence. You mention the recount of basketball by historical periods and I have done a lot of that. Total Basketball does some work along these lines, but doesn’t really talk about why Wilt scored 50 ppg in 1962, for instance, which is important. I mention those things — pace, less judiciousness in shot selection, lack of double-teams — in Basketball on Paper and would like to assemble more of that in a book like this.

Is this something that is right around the corner? Probably not. The group of interested basketball historians is growing, but it isn’t large enough to pay for the massive research involved. I hate having to say it that way, but basketball writers do need to make a living.

Stats:

KB: On ESPN’s MLB main stat page, they have a “sabermetric” stat OPS on the main page, and a sabermetric page with such stats as isolated power and runs created. On ESPN’s NBA page, the closest they have to advanced metrics is points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage. How long do you think it will take before the major sports web sites will post stats like your off. Rtg., stop%, or Hollinger’s PER?

We’re getting there. The WNBA will put out possession stats and points per possession stats this year. The WNBA is also quite receptive to some of the defensive work we did with them a couple years ago and we’re hoping to do that again this year. Issuing monthly reports on what individuals forced the most misses would be nice small pieces of information that help that league and intrigue the bigger brother, the NBA.

The NBA does now have something it calls “efficiency”, which is just a sum of the good things minus the bad things, something I’ve heard referred to as “plus/minus” or is almost Tendex or Bob Bellotti’s Points Created. Going to the more advanced individual numbers is going to take a while. Putting team numbers out there first is huge. Then, in a couple years, we can start talking about other stuff. What we don’t want is another NFL-like passer rating stat that everyone jokes about as the lead stat.

KB: How would you define who is the best rebounder in the league? Would you simply look at REB/48min, or are there other considerations (incl. FG% and pace)?

Primarily, rebounders can be evaluated by the percentage of available rebounds they get. With 10 guys on the court, 10% would be average. I think Rodman was up around 20%. This accounts for pace and FG%. What it doesn’t account for is whether it really makes the team a good rebounding team, which is a modifying factor. A guy who gets 15% of available rebounds on a bad rebounding team is not as useful as one who gets 15% on a good rebounding team (because he is competing against his own teammates for boards). But that is relatively small in terms of importance.

KB: Is there a way to translate a player’s college statistics into his success at the professional level?

As I said above, this is one of the most important projects on the front burner. I’m getting better at it by studying the cases that just don’t work the first time and figuring out why.

KB: What has surprised you about the NBA season this year so far?

In terms of wins and losses, there aren’t a lot of surprises. I’m a little surprised at how successful the Nuggets are. I thought they’d be a lot better, but not this much better. I have been surprised by the coaching turnover. Doc Rivers was out quick, though the losing streak made it less surprising. Byron Scott’s firing and the discord between Ainge and Jim O’Brien — those really surprised me. I also was surprised at how cheaply Portland got Shareef Abdur-Rahim.

The Knicks:

KB: What do you think of the job Isaiah Thomas has done with the Knicks this year?

He wasn’t shy. Being decisive is usually a good thing, but his history in charge generally concerns me. So, picking up Marbury is a nice thing. Marbury is a very good piece to have. I just don’t know if the baggage of the other players, plus the losses were worth it if he’s trying to build a championship team. It’s more important that Isiah know how to follow up the moves he has made than just standing on what he’s got. So he gets a big Incomplete at this point.

KB: If you had to, where would you rank Stephon Marbury among today’s point guards?

Jason Kidd is solidly above him. Otherwise, he is in a class of points who are quite good (Nash, Parker, Billups, Cassell, Payton, and I’m sure I’m forgetting someone). Marbury is the best on the offensive side, but his defense lacks. Intangibly, he’s worn out his welcome a few times now and that matters.

KB: In your opinion, what player (current or former) is Nazr Mohammed most similar to? In the best case scenario what player could he aspire to become?

Curious that you ask that. Curious that the Knicks really valued him. One of my techniques for looking for players is to look at successful players in the league and see what guys are modestly similar to them who may not be getting much time. Mohammed came out modestly similar to a couple prominent big men in a study I did for the Sonics. I think Garnett or Duncan was one. But I have sooo many numbers that suggest he just isn’t going to end up good that I discarded him as a legit possibility. I did all that right before the trade, so I found it very coincidental. Best case: he might be Jamaal Magloire. He just can’t consistently score inside.

KB: Is Kurt Thomas worth $30 over 4 years, or could the Knicks have gotten similar production out of a cheaper and younger player?

Kurt Thomas is serviceable. He’s not a bad player. But he’s just not someone I see as a significant component of a championship team. It’s a risk to go after a younger player, but I would have taken that risk.

One final question:
KB: What do you like best about the Knicks?

Weeellllll, I do tend to root for Lenny Wilkens. He may be old-school and not care about the kind of work that I do, but he’s always seemed like a decent guy.

We’re Back!

Once again, back is the incredible
The rhyme animal
The Incredible D. Public Enemy #1

— “Bring Tha Noize”
Public Enemy

I wish I could say I’ve come back from vacation where I was able to kick back and watch the Knicks a few times. However fate was against me, as the satellite company used by my vacation spot somehow decided to not show any of the Knicks’ games.

I felt bad for the poor waitress at the local bar who had to hop on a chair to try to find in vain the Knicks-Nets game without a remote control. In case you ask, yes they do have remotes for the televisions, but there are 4 TVs within 5 feet of each other, so if you don’t aim the little sucker right, you’ll change the channel on all the TVs. Not a pleasant prospect to be yelled at by the people who were watching either Kentucky beat Flordia A&M or Pacific knock off Providence.

Keeping up with the Knicks wasn’t an easy task. My internet access was limited to a couple of minutes visiting the local library, and some of that had to be devoted to checking my email. The box scores published in the local paper were the olde style jumbled mess, something to the effect of: K.Thomas 3-4 12 0 6, T.Thomas 7-19 7 2 16, N. Mohammed 7-13 10 0 14, etc. You don’t know how much you rely on things until you don’t have it. Not having advanced technology at the tips of my finger is a tough thing, since I grew up on computers.

Even though I caught a bit of the Knicks’ game on MSG Rewind, I really don’t have much to say about it. They trounced a Nets team without their two best players (Kidd & Martin). These are the games they should win if they are to be a “contending” team.

The win puts them back into the 6th spot, a half game ahead of Cleveland and Miami. They’re still behind the 5th seed Bucks by 3 games. As I noted in a previous column, home teams win about 64% of the time in the NBA. Fortunately for the Knicks, the Bucks play 15 more games, with 9 being on the road. New York only has 7 of their next 13 games away from home. Just eyeing the schedule, the Bucks have tougher opponents than the Knicks, so it’s possible for New York to climb up to that 5th spot. The two teams don’t play each other again this year, so their final matchup of the season occurred last Sunday, where the Knicks won 103-100.

That’s it for today. I will have the Dean Oliver interview up on Monday, (maybe late Sunday), so stay tuned.

Good News and Bad News

KnickerBlogger fans. I have good news and bad news.

First the bad news. There will be no entries for KnickerBlogger until Monday March 21st, due to KnickerBlogger and Mrs. KnickerBlogger going away on vacation. There is a small chance I will post something while away, but it’s doubtful. Even though I won’t be going to one, I might as well be on a deserted island as far as internet service goes.

Now the good news. Come Monday I will have an interview with Dean Oliver. Yes the Dean Oliver. So if you haven’t already, you should run out and buy his book Basketball on Paper (or order online while sitting in front of your computer). If you won’t take my word on it, you can read the review by Kevin Pelton, who called it “revolutionary.”

Dean’s writing is colorful, entertaining, and intelligent. He is a master in two areas that seperates him from the rest of the basketball writers out there. First Dean understands what goes on during a game. Second is his ability to think clearly in relation to statistical methods. It’s his ability to combine these two talents that puts Dean in the same class as Bill James. Some of the title chapters alone should pique curiosity:

  • The Significance Of Derek Coleman’s Insignificance
  • Reserve Your Playoff Tickets Now! We Won Three In A Row!
  • The Effect Of Bad Referees and Other Short Stories
  • Should I Firebomb Billy Donovan’s House?

The books is filled with fascinating things like: the best (and worst) offensive and defensive teams of all time, how good were some of the league’s best players (Bird, Magic, Jordan, Ewing, Shaq, Iverson, Stockton, Malone, and more!), and the interesting plight of the 2002 Raptors (they did loose 13 games in a row, then won 9 to get a playoff berth). Knick fans will be satisfied getting this book & learning exactly how good defensively those Ewing/Oakley/Riley teams were.

Here’s some suggested readings for the week:
Monday: The Corner Triangle – This is a Bucks blog, and since the Knicks play the Bucks on Sunday, there should be something about the Knicks on there.
Tuesday: Page 23 – If Dean Oliver is the Bill James of basketball, then Pelton might be Rob Neyer. His articles are sharp, and he’s been posting an article every few days recently, so something new should be up. If not, check out his archives, on of my recent favorites is Do Point Guards Develop Differently?
Wednesday: Knicks Clicks – The Knicks play the Wiz on Tuesday, so as always Mr. Avallone should have some great stuff.
Thursday: GroupHug – Like Penthouse letters, where you’ll wonder how many are true. Go make a confession!
Friday: Aaron’s Baseball Blog – The best sports blog out there. On Friday’s he’ll have a wrap up of the week’s blogs, and you’ll have plenty of great material to read.
Saturday: RaptorBlog.com and Bulls Blog – These two teams play each other on Friday, so you can read both for a full report on the game.

Catch Me If I Fall

20,000 miles to an oasis
20,000 years will i burn
20,000 chances i wasted
Waiting for the moment to turn

— “Texarkana”
R.E.M.

I don’t think I can say anything about last night’s loss that won’t be said in any of the New York newspapers. I’ll keep it short and say they had plenty of chances to win, and the game should not have gone into overtime. Kenny Thomas hit a lucky three point shot to tie the game. If the fact that it banked in hard off the glass doesn’t convince you, then consider his three point stats.

Year	Team	G	Min 	3PM	3PA	3P%	PPG
 1999	HOU	72	25.0 	0.4	1.7	26.2	8.3
 2000	HOU	74	24.6 	0.3	1.2	27.2	7.1
 2001	HOU	72	34.5 	0	0.2	0	14.1
 2002	HOU	20	29.3 	0	0	0	9.8
 2002	PHI	46	30.3 	0	0	0	10.2
 2003	PHI	57	35.0 	0	0.1	0	12.3
 Career		341	29.5 	0.2	0.7	24.4	10.3

That’s right, he’s a career 24% shooter from beyond the arc, and hasn’t attempted more than 0.2/G in more than 4 years. Obviously someone figured out he wasn’t effective from that far & made him stop shooting treys a few years ago.

Watching the game (at least the first 47:59.6 minutes of it) I kept thinking about two things. I was alternately saying to myself “Wow they look pretty deep” and “Calm down, they look good because they are playing Philly without their two best players.”

The Knicks are a deeper team now than they were in the beginning of the year. Back in October, the only depth we had was PF (McDyess, Thomas, Harrington, Spoon, Lampe, Van Horn and Sweetney). You could argue that we had 3 PGs, but I think you’re giving Eisley too much credit. We’re certainly deeper at the bigger spots. Nazr Mohammed and Vin Baker are our centers, and don’t forget Dekembe Mutombo. Kurt Thomas also can play the 5, as had Sweetney versus albeit a very small Celtics lineup. At PF we have Thomas, Sweetney, and now little used Othella Harrington. Vin Baker can play there as well, as can Tim Thomas for small stretches.

Small forward is adequately covered with Thomas, Hardaway, and Anderson. Even if Marbury didn’t play the mega-minutes that he routinely does, we would be deep at PG with backups Frank Williams, Mochie Norris, and Penny Hardaway. With Allan Houston back, shooting guard is covered along with Anderson and DeMarr Johnson.

Isaiah Thomas has done a commendable job putting together a team, as opposed to the collection of players he inherited. The Knicks still have their weaknesses, but at least Lenny Wilkens has options on who to play instead of trying to figure out how he’s going to fit 7 power forwards in the game.

Two Feet Off The Ground

And when my friend and I were
done we went to rest upon the
sun ’cause life takes from us
the things, we love and robs us
of the special ones and puts
them where where we can’t climb
and we only miss them all the time

— “Life Is Shit”
Dead Milkmen

The Knicks head into Philly Friday night to face the Sixers. Although the Sixers are only a game and a half away from a playoff spot, they’re more likely to vie for a lottery spot than a playoff spot. Their second leading scorer, Glenn Robinson will need surgery on his elbow, and will likely miss the rest of the season. The Sixers could potentially face the Knicks without their two leading scorers, as leading scorer Allen Iverson has missed his team’s last two games with a sore right knee. There is no word on whether or not Iverson has practiced this week either.

Despite not having Iverson or Robinson, Philly has won its’ last three games. Two were against the league patsy Chicago, but the other was against a pretty good team in Milwaukee. Looking at the box score, it’s easy to see why the Bucks fell to the Sixers on Monday. First is that little used Zendon Hamilton and Greg Buckner dropped 39 points on them, 32 more than their season average. Second is the huge 14-4 advantage Philly had on the offensive boards. Finally Keith Van Horn played only 20 minutes for Milwaukee, before fouling out.

I wanted to see why the Sixers beat the Bulls twice. Looking at the stat sheet, the Sixers just shot at a better percentage each game. Most of the stats were the same. Yes they did have more defensive rebounds, but that’s because they had more attempts due to Chicago’s extra misses. (In other words each Bull miss=Philly defensive rebound). In one game Philly had almost twice as many turnovers, but Chicago shot itself out of the game with less than a 38% field goal percentage (40% AFG% for those that are curious).

Iverson has missed 20 games so far this year, and the Sixers are 8-12 without the Answer. No one person has taken up all of the scoring slack for Philadelphia during their latest injury-filled win streak. Kenny Thomas has done well, but they’ve also seen good performances from Hamilton, Buckner, Salmons, Snow, McKie, and even Kyle Korver. So even if Iverson doesn’t show up, the Knicks will have to be careful, since Philadelphia seems to be able to get points from a number of different people. The last time these two teams met, Tim Thomas and Nazr Mohammed combined for 27 rebounds. A repeat performance would be welcomed by one blogger, since I picked up Nazr for my fantasy squad.

Side Note: With the Knicks in Philadelphia, my thoughts go out to the friends and family of Dave Blood. Dave was the bassist for the iconoclastic Pennsylvania band the Dead Milkmen. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent playing his bass lines. Rest in peace, Dave.

62

The Knicks have not signed Vin Baker (yet), and the Knicks don’t play again until Friday. I don’t have a comment (yet) on Kurt Thomas, so what else is there to talk about?

WARNING: This column has little to nothing to do about the Knicks or basketball stats.

All I have to say about this, is I have both T-Mac and Gilbert Arenas on my fantasy squad. In case you don’t know just yet, they’ve combined for 102 points last night. Don’t email me with kudos just yet, because I’m still in last place.

As of this post there is nothing up at Orlando Magic Fan yet, but I’m sure there will be something there in a bit. I found them by putting Orando Magic Blog into a Yahoo! search. Of course it was the first site to come up. I decided to put New York Knicks Blog into a Yahoo! search to see where this lowly site ranks. I’m not even in the top 100. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Avallone’s Knicks’ Clicks (which I highly recommend), but if anyone has any advice to get me higher in their rankings, I would be most interested to hear about it.

One thing about the number 62, is that for a long time it was one of the holy grails of baseball stats. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, to break the great Babe Ruth’s record by one. Home run number 62 would be another record breaking shot. Everyone knows that McGwire hit #62 back in 1998. I’m sure we all remember something or another about that game, whether it was the ball barely clearing the fense, Sammy Sosa being on hand, or McGwire lifting his kid up in celebration.

The ironic part of this story is that a few people predicted Big Mac hitting #62, and they did so 11 years before! Yes back in 1987, an arcade version of RBI baseball was released. It was similar to the NES version, but instead of having the best teams of ’86 & ’87 it had the best players of all time on 10 teams. For example, the Yankees consisted of Ruth, Mantle, and Mattingly, while Boston had Williams, Yaz, and Boggs.

Oakland had McGwire, who had just come off his rookie season where he hit 49 home runs. In an effort to stay timeless, they made projections on some players. Canseco stats would read 54 homers, while Cards slugger Jack Clark had 41. Neither would ever hit that many home runs in a single season. However McGwire’s blast a decade later would make them look like mind readers, since the programmers decided to give him 62 home runs.

Sure if they had real psychic power, they could have put him in a Cards uniform with 70 dingers. Despite that, it’s probably one of the better prediction jobs I’ve seen, and it wasn’t done by some baseball experts, but rather video game programmers.

Welcome to the NBA, Michael Sweetney

There is a wait so long
You’ll never wait so long
Here comes your man

— “Here Comes Your Man”
Pixies

The official stats say Michael Sweetney has played 25 games so far this year. I’m here to tell you they’re off by 24. #50 for the Knicks, has played his first NBA game. Before you call Dr. Phil and ask him to examine my noggin, let me explain.

In a previous column, I said this about Sweetney:

The Knicks rookie PF looks skilled, but lost at times especially on defense. I expect that if the Knicks are patient enough to give him playing time, this befuddled play will disappear…

I also wrote about Sweetney on Raptorblog.com :

Sweetney is undersized vertically, but a bit wide in the midsection with a long wing span. He’s a bit timid, and gets lost on the defensive end. He’s every bit the wide-eyed rookie, but with Wilkens slowly giving him minutes he’s looking more and more comfortable on the court. Due to his lack of minutes, there isn’t much to say about him other than he can rebound, and he makes a great looking inside shot every few weeks or so.

Previously, Sweetney never looked comfortable on the court. If you watched him the whole game, you’d see him make mental mistakes. He looked uncomfortable on defense, always switching a little bit late, and sometimes looking around for his guy. On offense, he seemed to never get into the swing of things. His main asset seemed to be getting defensive rebounds.

Last night we saw a different Michael Sweetney. Sometimes during a game I’ll take notes, because it’s hard to remember all the subtleties that occur. To recap Sweetney’s night, I didn’t have to pick up my pen. The images were burnt into my memory. Maybe not all of them, but enough anyway.

Early on he received a pass in the post on the right blocks. He spun to his right, gave a head fake, and hit an easy layup over a fooled defender. A few plays after that Marbury was double teamed off of Sweetney’s pick, and kicked the ball out to Sweetney for an easy 12 footer. It’s the first time that I can remember Sweetney hitting an inside and an outside shot in the same game.

The rookie would show his quickness, with a steal near midcourt. With no one between him and the basket, only a Celtic flagrant foul would prevent him from scoring. Later in the game, he out rebounded Paul Pierce on the offensive glass for an easy lay in.

Sweetney just loooked comfortable out there. If you had never seen a Knicks game before you wouldn’t have been able to pick out who the rookie was. Even his mistakes weren’t entirely his fault. One was a bad cross court pass while being double teamed. It wasn’t all Sweetney’s fault, since the the Knicks didn’t get open to give him any other target. On another fast break, Sweetney received the ball from Shandon Anderson on the wing, and passed it back quickly, but it was Anderson that couldn’t handle the pass. In the second half, Sweetney was rejected attempting a dunk by a trio of Celtics. However, he calmly got the rebound under their rim, and went up again, this time banking the layup off the backboard. At that point, he looked like a veteran that had seen it all.

I’m sorry if you came here to read about some esoteric stat. They’ll be no Dean Oliver’s Off. Rtg. No John Hollinger’s PER. No “Joe’s” linear weight performance. On a night, where the Knicks lost on a missed last second shot, I’ll be happy to write about their first round draft pick’s fabulous performance.