Basketball-Reference.com Interview

In the last 5 seasons (’00 – ’04), who has gotten the most offensive rebounds per game (minimum 200 games)?

A. Elton Brand
B. Tim Duncan
C. Kevin Garnett
D. Shaquille O’Neal
E. Ben Wallace

For those who like a challenge, feel free to make your guess in the comments section. I’ll post the answer tomorrow, with a link on how to find it.

The reason I’m in a trivial mood can be attributed to the fine options presented to me at www.basketball-reference.com. If you haven’t been there in a few weeks, or even a few days, you probably haven’t seen the changes that have been done with the site. Although it has the run of the mill player, team, and league stats, B-R (as it’s commonly referred to) has historical stats that you won’t find anywhere else like:

* Team Offensive & Defensive Points Per Possession
* Most Similar Players By Age
* Awards
* All Star Games
* Colege Stats
* John Hollinger’s PER
* Dean Oliver’s stats (ORtg, DRtg, PW, PL, PW%)

Recently a query page has been added currently called B-R Labs. With this, you can get customized stats on teams & players on just about anything you can imagine.

Justin Kubatko, the site’s creator, was kind enough to answer a few questions.


The Beginning:
What kind of background do you have in sports & technology?

In high school I played basketball (sixth man on a bad team) and tennis.
In college I played IM sports, mainly basketball and softball. After college I was the head coach for a JV boy’s basketball team in North Carolina for two years and an assistant coach for a boy’s high school basketball team in Albuquerque for two years. I started running seriously about three years ago and have completed two marathons (best time 3:31) and one half marathon (1:37).

On the technology side, I have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics, so technology has always been a part of what I do. One thing I am having fun with now is learning Perl and MySQL.

What prompted you to start a stat site up?

One day I noticed that Sean Forman (owner of Baseball-Reference) had the domain name basketball-reference.com reserved. Since I knew Sean through SABR, I asked him if he wanted me to work on a basketball site for him.

I enjoy designing web pages and working with data, and I also felt that basketball needed a reference site that approached the quality of Baseball-Reference. A site that was easy-to-use and fun-to-play with that gathered together old data as well as new.

How exactly did you meet Sean Forman?

Sean and I were both SABR members, so in that sense we had “known” each other for a few years. I originally contacted him by e-mail; I think it had something to do with Baseball-Reference. I met Sean in person at the 2003 SABR convention in Denver.

What kind of help did you receive from the other stat sites (Baseball-Reference & Pro-Football-Reference)?

I received a lot of support and advice from Sean Forman, especially when the site was getting ready to go live. Specifically, he provided helpful comments on the site design and suggested numerous ways to improve the presentation of the data.

What did you use for your source data?

Sean Lahman donated much of the data used to create this site. While I have made many additions and modifications to Sean’s data, he saved me a significant amount of time.

When did B-R come online?

May 10, 2004.

Current Opertations:
Am I correct in assuming that it’s largely a one man operation?

Yes, you are. Sean Forman helps with some things on the server side, but I take care of all of the site’s content.

How much of it is automated?

Most of the pages are created using programs I have written. However, almost all of the pages on the site are static. If I want to make the same change to all player pages I have to re-run my programs. That may seem inefficient, but static pages help a lot with site speed. I want to avoid the dreaded “The operation timed out when attempting to contact www.example.com” messages.

In 1974 – player offensive rebounds, steals, and blocked shots first recorded. In 1978 turnovers. In 1980 three pointers. Will you consider adding things from 82games.com like oPER, +/- for the years they have available?

Yes, at some point. I wish I had more time to spend on the site, but God and family — my wife Laura and my sons, Zachary and Cristian — come first.

What is coming up in the future?

In no particular order: player game logs, more query tools, more ABA data, and current season statistics.

Fun Stuff:
When can I make my lifetime advertising purchase of Patrick Ewing‘s player page?

The timing of this question is funny, as this is something Sean and I are currently working on. Page sponsorship should be available within the next month or two.

Who is your favorite NBA player to watch?

This is easy: Tim Duncan.

Why?

I lived about an hour from Winston-Salem when Duncan was a sophomore and junior, so I got to see him play a lot on television. He is one of the most fundamentally sound players I have ever seen.

When does the NBA expand to New Mexico?

When the coyotes stop howling.

Which basketball player most represents your game?

I am going to say Richard Hamilton, but only because we are both runners.

There was an article about Hamilton’s running in a recent issue of Runner’s World. If you ignore the running aspect, I would say Ollie McClellan from Hoosiers (although I am much taller than Ollie).

International Relations Part 2

Scott Carefoot runs RaptorBlog.com, the self-proclaimed “best Raptors fan site – now and forever”. In a tradition that began last season, we wrote guest blogs on each other’s sites before a Knicks-Raptors game. Here, Scott offers a preview of the new-look Raptors before Wednesday’s match in Toronto. KnickerBlogger returns the favor on his site.

“Addition by subtraction.” It’s one of those sports cliches that sound neat at first but nonsensical if you really think about it. The theory is that a team can improve after a negative influence is removed. Bill Simmons calls it “The Ewing Theory” in reference to his friend’s notion that the Knicks in the Patrick Ewing era always seemed to play better when he wasn’t in the lineup.

For years, Simmons has claimed that this theory applies to Vince Carter. Considering that the Raptors went 0-9 last season when Carter wasn’t in the lineup, I figured we could put that theory to bed as far as Vince and the Raptors were concerned. But a funny thing has happened to this team since Vince was traded to New Jersey for Eric Williams, Aaron Williams and Alonzo Mourning’s dialysis machine…they’re playing more like a “true team” and winning more games.

In all fairness to Vince, the Raptors had one of the toughest schedules in the league leading up to his departure. Toronto had a 7-14 record after the loss to the Pistons on Dec. 8 when he suffered his final injury in a Raptors uniform. If I remember correctly, he was diagnosed with “sand in his vagina”. Anyway, Toronto lost three of the next four games leading up to the trade, so Vince left as Toronto had an 8-17 record.

The Post-Vince era got off to a rocky start as the Raptors dropped four of their next six games before they returned to Toronto for a four-day rest. Lo and behold, the Raptors opened 2005 by winning six of their next eight games and we now stand two games behind the three-way clusterhump of the Knicks, Celtics and Sixers for the Atlantic division lead.

This resurgence can be partially attributed to an easier schedule, as they played 19 of their first 31 games on the road followed by six of their next eight at home. Considering that they are 3-18 on the road after beating the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Monday, there’s no doubt this is a mitigating factor. But it shouldn’t take Knicks fans long to see how different this team is from the Raptors that lost 108-102 in New York on Nov. 27.

The only two starters that remain from that game’s lineup are Rafer Alston and Chris Bosh. Morris Peterson has replaced Vince Carter at shooting guard, Eric Williams has replaced Jalen Rose at small forward, and Rafael Araujo has replaced Loren Woods at center. This lineup is bigger, plays better defense and defers to Chris Bosh as the first scoring option. The 20-year-old sophomomre power forward has taken a quantum leap in 2005 with double-doubles in all eight games while averaging 20.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, two blocks and shooting 54 percent from the field.

Meanwhile, the Raptors have some pretty decent players coming off the bench. Jalen Rose has played his best basketball in years since he was relegated to an “instant offense” role after the trade. Donyell Marshall still provides rebounding and long bombs from the corners (he made three of them in a row late in the fourth quarter to slay Minnesota on Monday). Matt “The Red Rocket” Bonner has quietly been a rookie revelation, as the 2003 second-round pick has returned from a season in Italy to provide the Raptors with the league’s deadliest shooting touch off the bench. He’s third in the NBA with a .556 field goal percentage and most of those shots have been taken a few feet inside the three-point line.

In summary, I am as thrilled with this 16-23 team as it is humanly possible to be without narcotics. Now that Vince is gone, players like Bosh and Peterson have capitalized on their opportunities to take on leadership roles and there is no doubt that the team chemistry has improved as a result. It’s easy to root for this team, which is more than I can say for the Knicks. That’s not a cheap shot, it’s just that I could never root for a team managed by Isiah Thomas and coached by Lenny Wilkens. I expect this will be the last Lenny appearance in the Air Canada Centre before Isiah puts him in a home.

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.

Basketball Authors Wanted

Recently I had plenty of free time due to a solo business trip. In case you’ve never been on one, a solo business trip is akin to being put in jail. Without your wife, your friends, and the comforts of home, you just try to find ways of killing time.

I never knew that going to the book store can be an activity on it’s own. Near to where I was staying was a large book store. On the two nights I visited, the place was jumping. Seriously for a book store, I couldn’t believe how many people were there. There were solo book readers, friends sharing passages in their respective magazines, and groups meeting in the cafe. It was a disco for the literate and sober.

With nothing to do other than browse their large selection, I spent a good amount of time in the sports section. There were about 10 baseball books I would have happily purchased. The selection was large and diverse when it came to baseball. You could get books on baseball statistical analysis, books on the history of baseball, books on the physics of baseball, and biographical books ranging from players, to managers, to umpires. I could name about 5 more categories, but I’ll spare you from the Benjamin Buford Blue impersonation.

On the other hand, almost all the books in the basketball section fell into one of three categories:

  • Books by college coaches
  • Books by outrageous players (Barkley, Rodman, Dawkins)
  • Books on coaching basketball

I’m not too keen on college basketball. Certainly I like watching March Madness, but given the option I would rather read a book on the pros. Books written by outlandish attention-craving players don’t really do it for me either. For those that are ready to point out that statistical books about basketball exist, I already own Basketball on Paper and all the Prospectii. There was a single book on the history of the NBA, which I purchased but is more of a businessman’s book than fan’s. There just aren’t many basketball books that interest me.

The last book on basketball that I’ve read is The Jordan Rules, by Sam Smith. Despite of what you think of Smith, the book is an interesting read. It was published more than a decade ago, so it was fascinating to see what things were like back then. I wonder how many kids today are unaware that there was a time when Jordan’s leadership was questioned. Years ago Michael had spent 6 seasons as one of the best players in the league, but without a lot of playoff success. His inability to win a championship had columnists labeling him as a selfish player. Six championship rings later, no one would dare question his Airness in such a matter. However the book is about the Bulls’ first championship run, before his greatness was bronzed.

Unless you were a member of the 90-91 Bulls, you won’t be able to verify the book’s authenticity. Whether or not the stories are true, it’s certainly an entertaining page turner, as Sam is good at creating the mood of the team. Often times we don’t know anything about a player other than what they do on the court. In my experiences, I’ve seen that often a person’s on court demeanor is different from his off court one. Nice guys can step onto the floor and become the meanest SOBs you’ve ever met. Quiet guys turn into field generals. Funny guys loose their sunny disposition. Guys that would cross town to give you the shirt off their back won’t bother to chase a loose ball.

Sam Smith goes into the locker room to let you know what everyone is like off the court. It’s just like any work place, with conflicts left and right. The bench guys want more time. Pippen wants more money. Phil Jackson uses Bill Cartwright as the team’s pincushion in a complicated psychological ploy to motivate the team. Grant is fighting off losing his job to a younger player. Everybody wants the ball more. Everyone is jealous of Krause’s obsession with the unknown Toni Kukoc.

Jordan is the central figure in the book, but he’s a solitary mysterious figure. Michael is the genius that suffers no fools. He criticizes the GM frequently. He blames his teammates when the team looses. Seemingly his only concerns are his golf game, playing poker, the scoring title and winning a championship. The Jordan Rules refer not to the Pistons’ defensive rules that kept Jordan in check, but rather how the rules are changed for Michael off the court due to his fantastic ability on the court. It’s these Jordan Rules that help separate him from the rest of the team.

Unfortunately Smith’s book is the only one I’ve been able to find that illustrates the NBA in such an entertaining manner. I can’t even begin to count how many baseball books that I’ve read in my lifetime (25? 50? maybe 100?). Unfortunately the hoops section of any bookstore is far behind their hardball bretheren. There is no basketball version of the American classic Ball Four. Nothing as indepth as the Bill James’ Hoops Historical Abstracts would be. No Physics of Basketball to tell me why some shots go around the world before dropping. No Big Book Of Basketball Lineups to pass the time with franchise tidbits. Nothing as funny for hardwood lovers as Nice Guys Finish Last. The NBA is still 75 years behind MLB, so maybe this generation of youngsters that fill the playground courts will be tomorrow’s authors of great basketball literature.

Grizzlies Get Defensive

Man I was mean but I?m changing my scene
And I?m doing the best that I can.
I admit it?s getting better
A little better all the time

— “Getting Better”
The Beatles

Tonight’s opponent is the Memphis Grizzlies. A team that finished 28-54 (.341) last year. Dallas finished in first place in their division last year. This year is a different story. Memphis at 44-26 is tied with Dallas in the standings for the 5th seed. This can only further solidify Jerry West’s genius as a GM. In case you didn’t know, West was the GM of the Lakers from 1982 to 2000. Not only did he help to shape the Lakers in the 80s, but he was the one to bring Shaq & Kobe to the Los Angeles.

So how did Memphis improve so much? My best guess is they turned it up on the defensive end. Last year Memphis’ points per 100 possessions were 97.6 for, and 100.7 against. This year the offense is a little worse at 96.4, but the defense is an impressive 93.9! That’s an almost 7 point turn around. The biggest difference in the team stats department is lowering the opposing team’s eFG% (effective FG%, aka adjusted FG%, aka accounting for treys in FG%) in jump shots. (As opposed to dunks, tips & close – you really have to look at the graphs on 82games.com). Last year they allowed .434 eFG% from jump shots, and this year it’s down to .401.

The largest changes roster-wise is the addition of Posey & Wells, a full season from Mike Miller, and 20 minutes a game from Bo Outlaw. Other than Outlaw, I’m really not familiar enough with the players to comment on their defensive prowess. With Outlaw, you can just look at his stats and tell he’s a defensive specialist. Why else would someone that scores 6 points in 25 minutes stay in the league for 12 years? Funny thing is I can recall Outlaw playing for teams like the Suns and the Magic, because he’s one guy that always gets your attention on the court. He’s a freakishly athletic player, with seemingly little basketball skills on the offensive side. Kind of like Dennis Rodman minus the circus show.

I can’t believe that Bo Outlaw is a good enough defender to account for all of this difference. The assumption doesn’t have to be that Posey, Wells & Miller are great defensive players, but rather they’re probably better than the guys that they replaced, namely Gooden, Giricek, and Person. Of course there could be other factors as well, such as coaching, defensive schemes, improvement in the players that were there, voodoo dolls, etc.

The Knicks’ prospects against a good defensive team is not promising. They are 15-28 against teams that rank among top 19 teams in points against, and 18-10 against the bottom 10 teams. They are also 6-15 against the best 10 teams in def eFG%. In other words they struggle against good defensive teams & eat up the bad ones. Now before Knicks’ fan can go into despair these are stats for the entire year, and the team has changed much since then. Also remember that the Knicks are home tonight, which evens things out considerably.