Q&A: ‘Basketball Prospectus’ author Kevin Pelton
|12.03.09 at 11:58 am ET|
The basketball community has been graced with a number of exceptional books to start the 2009-10 season. From Bill Simmons’ epic tome to Jackie MacMullan’s fantastic look back at the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era, we are in a golden age of basketball books after a long fallow period.
But for the current season, one stands out above the rest. Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle have finally put together a book that echoes the best of the Baseball and Football Prospectus traditions by reviving the Pro Basketball Prospectus annual. Using new statistical metrics, the duo breaks down and analyzes all 30 NBA teams in an informative and entertaining volume.
If you are a fan of the other Prospectus books, it will open your eyes to all the nuances of the NBA game. If you are a fan of basketball, the Pro Basketball Prospectus is required reading, even if you’re a little unfamiliar with the concept of usage rates.
We talked with Kevin Pelton via phone and asked him about the book process, why former Sonics scrub Russ Schoene is so important, and how good he thinks Rajon Rondo can be (hint: really, really good).
How did the book come out?
Baseball Prospectus wanted to focus on publishing baseball books. We decided to go the print on demand route. We were fortunate that Football Outsiders tread the exact same path a few months ahead of us, so we were able to learn from what they did and use the same layout. That worked out really well for us. Doing a book had always been a goal since we started doing the website. We’ve always loved the prospectus books across multiple sports.
What were some of the things you learned from the process?
The only details you’re going to learn about individual players come when you sit down and focus on each of them. That’s not something you do during the season. You watch games and look for numbers as they stand out. When you have to do two paragraphs on DJ Mbenga, you learn something you didn’t know before.
The other thing you pick up are trends. Every time I had to write, ‘This is why you don’t overpay for role players in free agency,” that was something I thought before, but when you’re looking at all these contracts for terribly mediocre guys that get signed for the mid-level exception, it really hammers that home.
The Prospectus books are obviously geared toward a certain audience, but people are becoming more curious about this kind of analysis. So for the readers that are wary of unfamiliar numbers, tell me about your approach and how you’re able to put these numbers into context.
One of the most rewarding things about the book process is I had one of my co-workers looking over the chapters. She enjoyed it even though she’s not a numbers person, and she doesn’t necessarily understand what True Shooting Percentage means. But ultimately, it’s a book. There are a few tables of numbers that can be intimidating, but it’s the analysis that is much more important than the numbers themselves.
Dean Oliver told me once that numbers, whether they’re in business or sports, what they do is they help tell a story, and without the story the numbers are meaningless. So, they have to connect the dots in some way, shape or form.
Dean has been my mentor in terms of understanding the numbers and I totally believe what he says in terms of the story. The real challenge is the numbers sometimes tell an immediate story that makes a lot of sense, and sometimes the numbers don’t quite match up with what you see. That’s the interesting part of it.
The big challenge with NBA stats is while baseball has all these little things that can be measured, basketball has all these things happening at once. How do you approach that?
It’s something that people can grasp intuitively when you explain it, but it’s hard to break the pull of per-game statistics that have been used for so long and it’s all people knew. If someone’s giving up 90 points a game because they’re playing such a slow pace, like the Blazers did last year, it’s hard to appreciate that it’s mostly a factor of pace. But I think more and more we’re seeing people understand that.
At the player stat level, the first breakthrough was per-minute statistics and understanding that you can’t compare a guy that plays 40 minutes a night and a guy that plays 30 minutes a night on the same level and expect that to make sense.
Phoenix has helped people be aware that you have to account for a team’s pace and how many opportunities they’re getting even above and beyond minutes. John Hollinger had a lot of per-minute stats in his books, which were what was in use at the time, but we totally did away with that and did everything on a per-possession basis.
Where do you think we are now? We see teams employing people. The Celtics have Mike Zarren, Darryl Morey is running the Rockets. Where are we in terms of numbers analysis really impacting the way teams play and choose their players?
Over the last five years, as much as the fans and media have become interested in statistical analysis, the real change is with the teams. Five years ago, maybe you had a consultant you called every two weeks or maybe you had someone in the front office who looked at statistics every once in a while, but it was really uncommon to have one of these people as recently as five years ago when Dean Oliver was first getting his start on the inside with the Sonics. He really pioneered it and paved the way for a lot of these guys to do it. Mike was unusual in that he’s part of their front office as opposed to working outside and reporting to them, because he’s so brilliant and has such a wide array of skills.
Roland Beech in Dallas plays a much larger role. Dean continues to do more and more with the Nuggets, who have embraced him. There’s this group of probably 10 teams that are interested in statistical analysis and they’ve been very successful. Other teams see that and become interested for themselves.
With a lot of teams, all their information is proprietary and they don’t want to share with the public. That’s one of the arguments that people like Bill Simmons have made, which is: How are we supposed to get into the numbers if all the numbers are kept secret? How do you reconcile that a lot of the big breakthroughs are done in private?
To a certain extent it works against progress on the public side because of the fact that the best analysts generally end up working for teams. Dean wrote a brilliant book, Basketball on Paper, that I’m sure he could update now with several chapters about what we’ve learned for the last five years. That shows how much teams value it. They are secretive and unwilling to let anything leak out for fear of their competitive advantage. It does present a challenge on the outside.
Let’s talk about Russ Schoene and why he plays such a pivotal role in your book?
SCHOENE is the acronym we chose, like PECOTA for Bill Pecota and KUBIAK for Gary Kubiak, so we have to hope that he doesn’t become an NBA coach and mess everything up the way Gary Kubiak did. That’s a system I’ve worked on for several years after seeing Nate Silver unveil PECOTA for Baseball Prospectus.
One of the holy grails is being able to predict the future. We’ve done work on explaining the past and understand why things have happened in the past, but the next step is what’s going to happen in the future. The players’ part of it, like PECOTA, relies on using comparable players and seeing how they fared at the same age. This year we updated it on using three years of data instead of one, and that helps the accuracy of it. We’ve seen positive successes in the early going, like Danilo Gallinari playing as well as he has.
The team level part of it is by far the biggest challenge. Basketball is not like baseball where you can say these guys will hit this, so therefore the team will hit this. It depends so much more on how players fit together. The defensive end is so poorly tracked on the individual level, at least in a way that we can really use it. There’s a lot of information out there in terms of plus/minus or player counterpart statistics, but being able to put it all together and make it usable to predict how a team does is still very difficult. Although I think we can safely rule out Memphis winning 45 games at this point.
Why did you pick Russ Schoene?
I picked a good time to be a kid growing up in interested in the NBA in Seattle. The Sonics happened to catch fire when I started to get interested in sports around 1989. That was Shawn Kemp’s rookie season, and then the next year along comes Gary Payton. The following year George Karl joins up and they put together a team that wins 55-plus games six years in a row. They didn’t have the postseason success of the Celtics, obviously, for some kid growing up in Boston in the ’80s, but it was very much in the same way. They set the template for my love of basketball.
Let’s talk about the Celtics. SCHOENE was not real high on the Celtics. Fifty wins was the projection. What were the factors that caused SCHOENE to be wary of the Celtics?
Age is the first part of it. Part of it is the projection that [Kevin] Garnett will miss a certain number of games, which we haven’t seen play out yet. Knock on wood, we all help he stays healthy.
The other thing was a fairly accurate projection so far was on the offensive end they would fall off quite a bit in terms of getting to the free throw line and offensive rebounding. Trading Leon Powe’s minutes for Rasheed Wallace meant that they would be a much more perimeter-oriented team. What it didn’t quite capture, and a similar thing happened last year without Garnett, is that the Celtics were able to make up for it because of how well they shoot the basketball. That’s something that’s continued this season.
Ray Allen has exceeded what SCHOENE would say pessimistically about his chances of declining given comparable players at his age. Rajon Rondo has possibly been more impressive than what SCHOENE thought, which is hard to believe because it’s already in love with him.
At what point in the season can you start to connect the dots? What’s a good sample size when you can start to make some conclusions?
It depends on what you’re looking for. I did a column [in November] about how the Heat’s success defending the 3-point line is kind of a fluke because they were far and away the best team in the league whereas last year they were one of the three worst teams. Things like 3-pointers where you’re taking relatively few of them a night, there’s a lot of variance that takes a while to settle down as opposed to some of the hustle-based indicators like rebounding and shot blocking. They tend to be more consistent than shooting. Ten games is really not too early to start drawing some early conclusions.
One of the things that’s really interesting on the Celtics is the Marquis Daniels for Tony Allen switch. Strictly by the numbers, they’re roughly the same guy. Allen might even grade out a little higher, and yet, Marquis has made a noticeable impact on the Celtics’ second unit.
Usually I feel pretty good about our chance to capture things like that. Someone like Shane Battier we’ve been able to explain that while his per-game stats and even his advanced stats aren’t great, his intelligence can translate on the floor.
With Daniels in specific, a lot of it this year is how he’s able to complement the second unit. Tony Allen is not going to be able to help that much with the ballhandling duties, where Daniels is a much better distributor and someone who has been a point shooting guard at times during his career. That’s one factor. Tony Allen comes out as a really good defender, but he has his flaws in terms of being overly aggressive, so Daniels might be an upgrade there as well in terms of his basketball IQ.
It speaks to something about how a player fits a system. You argue in the book that Shelden Williams could be something of a saner version of Dennis Rodman if he just focused on rebounding and did away with the 15-foot jump shot. He’s gotten his chance, and his rebounding numbers have been terrific. He’s really been a nice fit on a Celtics team where maybe on a different team those things wouldn’t be appreciated as much or had as much of an impact. What about the ability to fit into a certain system?
That’s the next step for basketball stats, being able to quantify the importance of fit. Henry Abbott had a post [on True Hoop] about guys who look like busts with weaker teams or who seem unimportant and they go to better teams and all of a sudden they’re a key player. Williams is the classic example of player who has well-defined strengths in terms of his rebounding and his defense, and also weaknesses in that he’s not a great offensive player. Playing with more talented offensive players has allowed him to do that in terms of focusing on what he does well. That’s the classic example of why fit is important and how it changes how we view a player.
Eddie House is another one. He’s basically the same player he would be anywhere else, but the Celtics readily acknowledge what he does do well and try to cover up what he doesn’t do well, and that has made him a much more important player than if he was a 10th or 11th man somewhere else.
That’s also one of the most important things a coach can do; emphasize what a player does well and hide what they don’t do well. Doc Rivers, you’ve got to give him credit, has done a very good job with that.
Let’s talk about Rasheed Wallace. There’s been a lot of attention paid to the amount of 3-pointers he’s taken. In terms of Rasheed, and also the notion that the 3-pointer has gained much wider acceptance in the last few years, what’s the importance of the 3-pointer in the modern NBA game?
San Antonio, even though they’re not as connected with statistical analysis as much as Houston or Boston, looked at this years ago and realized that the corner 3-pointer is the easiest 3 on the court and therefore the best shot on the floor outside of the dunk. So let’s make sure we always send someone over to that corner and let’s make sure we don’t give up corner 3’s on defense.
You see teams like Boston and Orlando really embrace the 3-pointer. It’s a core part of their offense. It’s something that you set up intentionally because it’s so valuable. The stretch 4, the power forward with the ability to shoot, has really become a crucial component of the modern game. That’s something the Celtics really missed last year. Brian Scalabrine did it a little bit, but obviously he’s not at Sheed’s ability as an overall player and his ability to defend Rashard Lewis at the other end, who is a 3-point shooter.
It’s one of the things SCHOENE missed out on the Celtics. It doesn’t have a way to quantify the value of a shooter that opens things up for everybody else.
The old notion that you live by the 3, you die by the 3 is sort of like the old notion in football that you run the ball to set up the pass. When the general public catches up to a trend, the first reaction is, ‘This isn’t what I’m used to.”
For years it was considered a weakness. Why is this guy so soft? Why isn’t he playing on the inside? People lament the loss of the great dominant post center, but now people are starting to realize that you find these guys on championship teams. Whether it’s Robert Horry or James Posey who filled that role for the Celtics. Rashard Lewis is an interesting test case. As recently as last year you heard people say that Orlando needs a more dominant 4 who rebounds and plays in the post. But last year’s playoff run helped people realize that they weren’t successful despite Rashard Lewis playing on the perimeter, they were successful because Rashard Lewis played on the perimeter.
Rondo is such a unique player who draws as much praise as consternation as anyone on this Celtics roster. The numbers guys have loved Rondo for years. What is it about his game that translates so well, and also, where do you see him going?
Part of it is everything he does well. He’s a point guard who contributes on the glass. He’s arguably the best defensive point guard in the league at this point. Celtics fans may have been reluctant to embrace that he’s that good defensively because they see him getting beat from time to time, which is fair. But the way the rules are right now, everybody’s going to get beat, that’s just the nature of the point guard position. In terms of slowing guys down and presenting a problem, I don’t think there’s anyone who does it better than Rondo.
At the offensive end, he’s developed to the point with his quickness where his lack of a jumper no longer seems like that much of a hindrance. The way the Timberwolves defended Rondo, where they matched up off of him; that’s exactly the way the Lakers did it with Kurt Rambis coaching the defense in the Finals and they had a lot of success with it. But he’s gotten to the point you can’t do that on him because he’s going to find ways to make an impact. Whether it’s going behind the defense to come up with a layup or just blowing by his man even when he’s standing five feet off of him. He’s become such a difficult player to defend, and he’s a true point guard in terms of his ability to distribute the basketball, so he really makes the Celtics dangerous.
How good do you think he can be?
I don’t know if he has a ceiling. If he was someday to develop a consistent jump shot, that’s game over. As it is right now, he’s probably comparable to Tony Parker, who might be on the fringes of the top five point guards, except that he’s a vastly superior defender to Parker. He’s already to me on the fringe of being potentially one of the top 10 players in the game and he’s so young. I watched Gary Payton, and I think he can do similar things, and Gary’s one of the top 10 point guards of all time.
You can buy the 2009-10 Pro Basketball Prospectus through Amazon, and be sure to read Pelton’s in-season updates at basketballprospectus.com.