Now That I'm in the Show

Dean Oliver, Author Basketball on Paper
Dateline: 01/09/05

I HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH THE SONICS SINCE THE START OF TRAINING CAMP and the team continues to do well. Now that I've done this for three months a few impressions:

  1. People are more open to stats than I would have expected. I have been able to talk to a lot of people who are stats-averse because I have been a coach and a scout, but when I raise stats in the conversation to support the story, they are OK with it. But a majority of people use stats in one way or another. What I've done is build a framework of stats that is more compatible with what coaches and management see. It's not just an evaluation of players, but an evaluation of the system, which is what coaches have to manage.
  2. NBA coaches are good. When I started sitting down with the Sonics coaching staff, I had to first assure them that I knew something beyond numbers. Once we started talking, I realized the immense depth of what they knew -- plays that teams run, quick counter-strategies to different styles, ways of developing players. I've read a ton of coaching books and been around players, but not to the extent these guys have. Their stories and willingness to communicate with me has made what I do better. (Some of the best new stat work I do came directly out of a conversation with one of our assistant coaches.)
  3. The season is long and every team is good. It's easy to sit back and say that the New Orleans Hornets are a bad team. But they have quality players and you have to prepare well to beat every team. (I understand how Lou Holtz could compliment even the worst teams he faced because every team has some strength that you have to deal with.) Doing that preparation for 82 games is grueling. Every game feels like a test. You can't get 120% motivated for every single one -- and this is just me, who is not playing or coaching. So I personally treat some games as learning experiences. We as a team have a lot to learn and improve upon and we can do that whether or not we win. We better learn when we lose or we haven't gotten anything out of the game.
  4. Different stats have different stories. I use a variety of tools to communicate what I see. They all say something different to me as I work to form a big picture understanding of our team, other teams, and players in the league. To communicate that picture requires me to call upon my coaching/scouting background, but also to pull out different statistical measures. I can't just say "His player rating is 208, ranked third in the league" because that means nothing to anyone. The story of what that means, why a player is so good, how it impacts team chemistry -- those are important. A big help in telling that story is, which has great stats that aren't ratings, but context-specific data like how well a team scores on second shots.
  5. Talking to the media is hard. I've been interviewed for a number of articles since the season has started. I initially answered a lot of their questions like most of us would -- honestly and happily. All those answers are small parts of the story. But it is easy for the story in the paper to not reflect the depth of what I think the story is. It is easy for little pieces of the story to take a bigger role. As some would say, things get blown out of proportion. I don't know the media well enough to understand the intent. Given their limited space, I can see how this would happen. For instance, I have repeatedly said to interviewers that I am not just a stat guy, but also traditionally trained in basketball. I have also repeatedly given credit to our management, coaching staff, and players. These things haven't come out in the articles because they're not weird enough to be the story. But they are true.
  6. I'm a little guy. This means that there are a lot of people doing the deals that make the economy of the NBA. This means that it's not easy for me to get tickets. And, like a little guy on the court, this means that I set up other people to succeed. I"m glad to do that and be part of a team that is winning.