Dean Oliver on Quantitative Analysis
Oliver talks about the role his statistical analysis plays in the NBA.
SLAM: Have you seen more intrigue from players in quantitative analysis?
DO: Since I work through the coaching staff, I don’t ask about that. If I had a player like that, I would ask what he thinks. What they have to digest is not small. There’s a mentality for scoring, for defending man-to-man, for defending the paint. Certain people can adopt a personality at times to change their normal minds. Shane, on the defensive side, he knows for him to do what his mental mindset wants to do, those scouting reports help. Maybe the next guy who wants to digest all this stuff is a completely different player from Shane. I don’t want to dismiss that this happens already, except they do it with tape. If you do that right, that can be very representative of what a player does.
SLAM: I want to go into a couple stats and what value they bring to the game. How about possession-based analysis? What value does that have?
DO: What you’re trying to do is separate out what happens in a game. So, you see the final score. Win and loss is the most coarse measure of what happens in a game. There’s the score, 129-121, like those guys scored a lot of points. The next stage from that is, whether it was because they were shooting the lights out, or because they were running a lot. Possession-based analysis is taking it to that one level beyond the score to understand whether they were running a lot or whether they were just shooting the lights out. Sometimes both teams have that kind of night.
I think that’s a theme of what I do. You’re trying to break everything down from a top level, which is win or loss, to the details. With possession-based analysis, you have the four factors (effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, turnovers per possession, free throws made per field goal attempt). Then each of those factors can be broken down. All these things tell a better story. Or they can tell a very detailed story. It may not necessarily be the story you need to tell to make a trade, but it may be the story you need to tell your coach. You tell whatever story you need to tell to solve the problem you have.
SLAM: Good rebounders are certainly skilled in that area. But you don’t always know where and how the ball will bounce off the rim. How much do you incorporate luck when you do at rebounding analysis?
DO: It’s a little more complicated than what you said, because of course you have guys who are, by the nature of their position, in the right place at the right time more often. It’s a little bit convoluted. There is certainly some luck. There are players who’ve figured out the skill and other players who haven’t. They tend to rebound their area, but they won’t rebound outside of that. The gradation between the ones that don’t and the ones who are perfectly good at it isn’t perfectly smooth. You have guys who definitely play the same position and who are better than others.
SLAM: Do you do referee analysis?
DO: I stay away from it. I like looking at the things that we can control. Frankly, there are a lot of people who are courtside referees. A lot of fans’ favorite pastime is criticizing referees. Those guys probably get booed more than the road team. I stay away from analyzing them too much.
SLAM: What does the future hold for quantitative analysis in the NBA?
DO: I think as long as there is a demonstrable edge to it, it’s going to grow. Any divide between qualitative and quantitative people will diminish fairly quickly. As I was saying before, a lot of times those divides aren’t that real when you listen to the conversation. The danger is when you start off by saying you like a guy, and the other guy says he’s okay. Are you really on the same page? In what way?
Wall Street — this is my understanding more than my own study — for a long time was made up of people who guessed at the market. Guess is probably too strong of a word. They analyzed in whatever way they did. But that they had a feel. Then people came in with high-level math and analyzed Wall Street. You have 40, 50 years of quantification of what goes on in Wall Street, and the early adopters made a lot of money and of course a lot of people continue to make money using quantifiable methods on Wall Street.
SLAM: Could you coach in the NBA? Do you have a desire to do that?
DO: I love the coaches. I think it’s more of a coach’s game sometimes than people realize. I like being around the coaches. I like hearing their stories about what matters on their level. Certainly I like being there. What I want is I want to win a championship. If that’s working closely with a coaching staff and being part of a coaching staff, that’s fine. If it’s not, that’s fine too. I realize how basketball is played. I’ve played, I’ve coached, I’ve scouted, I’ve done all this numbers stuff and I realize I like all of it. There’s frustrating aspects of all of it, too. But if you ask me to do something and I think it’ll help us win, shoot, I’ll do it.
SLAM: How many games do you watch per night?
DO: [Laughs] Usually not more than one. Because realistically, in many ways the numbers are watching a lot of games. Depending on what I’m doing, I may be watching a college game, a minor league game, an international game or an NBA game. It depends on our time of season and our needs, that sort of thing.