Dean Oliver on Quantitative Analysis
Oliver talks about the role his statistical analysis plays in the NBA.
SLAM: Maybe I should ask what are the stats that most and least representative of a player’s effectiveness.
DO: Yeah, and assists are tremendous because they are inherently subjective. The definition that you see within the NBA…the wording isn’t all that clear. Certainly there are different leagues in which assists are more readily rewarded, and some less. I think even our concept of what is an assist…there’s this concept of a hockey assist. Sometimes those make sense, sometimes they don’t. That’s what analysis is about. You have these stats. Even if they don’t have a lot of subjectivity, what analysis can do is it can tell you a little more about how much they mean. Sometimes assists, even with their subjectivity, can give you some meaning. But other times they can’t. Maybe on one team a guy’s assist numbers are high but going over to another team it doesn’t carry over. But that’s one question. Whereas the question of we’re facing this team, those guys faced that team, how important are his assists? That’s a different question and probably has a different answer.
SLAM: Does Pace Factor help solve some of those issues in terms of how much a team handles the ball?
DO: Yeah, in some ways I skip over it because it’s such an automatic thing in what I do. You have to account for Pace. So yeah, absolutely.
SLAM: What are you looking for in your analysis? The most efficient players?
DO: You’re looking for the best team, right? That’s a combination of the best players, the players who may not be necessarily efficient but they do a role for you. You try and fill a lot of roles that a team has. I wish I could say there was a type of player, but there isn’t. There’s a team that you build. I have respect for a lot of ways teams are built in the NBA. There’s a lot of GMs and coaches who put their style on a team. Sometimes that style just doesn’t fit a player that’s there. That doesn’t mean the player is bad. But you do like to have your GM and coach talking so that they’re at least on the page. You won’t get it right every time, even then. But that’s the goal — the best team. it’s not a simple description of a player that does that.
SLAM: With a team like the Nuggets that has an offensively-minded coach like George Karl, do you tend to look more at the offensive side in your analysis?
DO: No. I try to look at the whole player, for sure. I think there are more obvious measures of offense, but that doesn’t mean you look more at offense. In some ways you might twist it around and say that because there’s more obvious metrics on the offense, you end up spending more time on the defensive side and make sure you got that right.
SLAM: Does the adage that defense and rebounding wins championships hold up through statistical analysis?
DO: [Laughs] Depends how you ask the question. What does it mean? There have been a lot of people who have done studies on it. It’s how you translate those words into numbers that suggests what that answer is. If you say defense wins championships and so you’re looking at all the best defensive players, people have looked at that. Their answer has been, ‘Well, not quite.’ There’s other ways to look at these questions. That’s why I think in many ways this is a great field, because you are translating between words that mean something, qualitatively, and numbers that definitely mean something. If you come back with an answer, maybe it doesn’t confirm what the words say, but that doesn’t mean the words are wrong. Maybe your translation is wrong. That can also help focus how to actually teach that to the players you got. I think Bill James got that right, in a way. He talked about that numbers are a way to tell the story, and they can really enhance it by focusing your words. Words a lot of times are pretty vague and numbers can make it a little more concrete and vivid.
SLAM: If you see a player’s numbers don’t match how he should be playing, how do you determine if the information is incorrect or if you’re interpreting the information incorrectly?
DO: That’s the process. What numbers are you using? When you watch a game, maybe a player had a great fourth quarter but where were they during the first three quarters? Maybe some of the turnovers were credited to the player, and you know officially that’s the way the turnovers should be credited, but it really wasn’t his fault. In games, you can have that kind of mismatch, between what the numbers say and what you see.
SLAM: Are box scores representative now of how a game is played? Should there be additions, subtractions?
DO: You’re getting at how you want to use the information. I don’t know a lot of people who sit down and look through box scores a ton who are outside the analytic realm. Inside the analytic realm, sure, we look at those. What story are we trying to tell? Are we trying to help [the media] do your job better? If that’s the case, there is certainly a big hole in the box score on the defensive side. That’s more work to collect. I think people are still going to read your story before they look at the box score. If that story can benefit from additional numbers, certainly, some of the defensive side is helpful.
[ESPN.com's] Henry Abbott, I think, was trying to get someone to write a story based solely on the defensive perspective of a game. I thought that was a very interesting experiment, a very clever idea. I think it showed that it can be well done. But it does change that perspective, which can be reflected in the box score.
SLAM: What’s the been the challenge in getting the players to accept some of these analytics? Chris Ballard noted in his book that Shane Battier pores over game stats to help himself defensively. It doesn’t seem as if every player is like Battier, though.
DO: [Laughs] Is there a challenge in always getting your employees or kids to do exactly what you’re asking them to do? Yeah, it’s a thing where everybody, including the players, know what they need to do. But not necessarily execute it. It can also be that every single one of the coaching staff and management knows what a player is supposed to do, but they just don’t get it. Those things happen.
Human communication is pretty good, but I don’t think we’re perfect at it. For the most part, we tend to be on the same page for goals. But that is part of the art of coaching. I give credit to the many good coaches we have who are good at communicating their idea and getting it to the players. I think that’s one of the things of coaching is to see when the players are executing what you have in your mind. It’s a tremendous thing.