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2004-05: The Year in Stats

NBA Stats Writer Kevin Pelton

by Kevin Pelton, 7/14/05


The 2004-05 season was a good one for the Phoenix Suns, a great one for the Detroit Pistons and an even better one for the San Antonio Spurs. Ultimately, however, the big winner from last season may end up being the NBA's community of statistical analysts.

Breakthroughs came on two fronts. Dean Oliver, the aptly-named dean of statistical analysts, became the first outsider to land a full-time job with an NBA team on the strength of his statistics work when the Sonics hired him as a consultant just before the start of training camp. During the middle of the season, the preeminent statistical writer, John Hollinger, was hired by ESPN Insider.

For Oliver, 2004 was a time of transition, as he quit his day job to pursue a career in the NBA. In October, after speaking with multiple teams, he signed on with the Sonics for a one-year "experiment" that has given him the opportunity to work closely with both the front office and the coaching staff and put him in the Sonics Draft Room last month.

"What I did in 2004-05 was great experience," says Oliver. " After years of developing methods and that seemed like they would help a team, I got a chance to see whether those methods actually work."

Helped in part by Oliver, the Sonics were one of the NBA's most improved teams during the 2004-05 season, winning 52 games, the Northwest Division and their First Round series against the Sacramento Kings.

"Our success on the floor was a result of coaches putting the players in a position to succeed and the players working hard to do so," Oliver says. "What I helped the coaches do is identify those positions to succeed, both through identifying roles and tactics. I absolutely know that I helped the team win more than expected this year, but I know also that management identified those players, the coaches communicated and motivated the players, and the players threw it all out there on the court."

Oliver's experience was well-chronicled by the media, with Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and David Leonhardt of the New York Times authoring profiles and Michael Cunningham of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel featuring Oliver in a larger piece on the NBA's statistics community.

Spurred by Oliver, President Wally Walker and Assistant GM Rich Cho, the Sonics during 2004-05 gained a reputation as the NBA's equivalent of baseball's Oakland Athletics. Your humble author pulled back the curtain in a four-part series on the Sonics and statistics for SUPERSONICS.COM, and Sonics fans received a heavy dose of stats between the official Web site and pre- and post-game radio host David Locke, who did the best job of anyone of explaining the Sonics' surprising success using advanced statistics in his weekly columns for the Post-Intelligencer.

As important as Oliver's move was, Hollinger's opportunity on ESPN.com may eventually prove of more long-term importance to the statistical community. Already the best known analyst thanks to three editions of the Pro Basketball Prospectus/Forecast series and his two-plus years at CNNSI.com, Hollinger saw his exposure dramatically increased at the Worldwide Leader.

Even though the vast majority of Hollinger's columns have been behind the subscription wall of ESPN's Insider service, they've received heavy promotion on ESPN.com's NBA frontpage as well as the site index itself.

"ESPN's exposure has been great for me, and even though I'm behind the pay wall most of the time, they haven't been shy about having my work lead the site," says Hollinger. "Also, I've had a chance to work on some bigger projects (like redoing 10 years' worth of drafts) that have helped expose my work to more people."

While a generation of analytical-minded sports fans grew up on baseball Bill James, the generation now finishing college and entering the workforce, myself included, came of age after James had already stopped writing his annual Abstracts. Our introduction to sabermetric thinking, in many cases, came not from James but instead ESPN.com's Rob Neyer. Hollinger can do the same for basketball.

"Certainly it seems possible, since I'm doing a lot of the same things Neyer did," says Hollinger. "If that helps get more people interested in NBA analysis, then that would be a wonderful outcome from this."

A good example of Hollinger's influence is his ESPN.com colleague Bill Simmons. In November, Simmons decried his inability to demonstrate Andrei Kirilenko's value with statistics.

"Here's the thing: We can break down baseball players with all these elaborate stats like OPS, win shares, zone ratings and everything else," wrote Simmons. "Yet there's nothing in basketball that can quantify the impact of someone like Kirilenko."

(He was later pointed to, and linked to, this Web site.)

By the time the playoffs rolled around, Simmons was referencing Hollinger, writing, "All right, here's my task for ESPN colleague John Hollinger: Come up with a stat that quantifies how much of an offensive disaster Lindsay Hunter has been in the 2005 playoffs."

The 2004-05 season will be memorable for more than just Hollinger and Oliver. For one thing, advanced basketball stats have never been as easy to find as they became in 2004-05. If it's current stats you're looking for, KnickerBlogger.net's stats page is the place to be. Meanwhile, the priceless Basketball-Reference.com added advanced stats for the past quarter-century and beyond, allowing current performances to be grounded in their historical precedent.

Discussion of statistics took a step forward during 2004-05, moving from the former APBR_analysis discussion group to the new APBRmetrics forum, allowing Ed Kupfer to go crazy with graphs, amongst other things. At the same time, the new message board also forced a decision about what to name the basketball statistics community, choosing to follow baseball's lead in using a derivative of the basketball research society, the APBR.

(As far as how to pronounce the name APBRmetrics, your mileage may vary; I prefer to add an invisible E and pronounce it App-burr-met-rix.)

The blog boom has had its impact on statistical analysis. The premier analytical blog, KnickerBlogger.net, sprung up last season but really caught stride in 2004-05, leading ESPN.com columnist Eric Neel to term the site "indispensable." In addition to veterans KnickerBlogger and BullsBlog, ForumBlueandGold burst onto the scene quickly.

Where is APBRmetrics going for 2005-06? Only time will tell, of course, but it's safe to say we'll see further progress. This Web site's effort to track every play of every game stands the potential to open up avenues of research that are currently unimaginable. Expect Dan Rosenbaum's new blog to bring us even more of Rosenbaum's high-level thought. I'm also privy to a yet-unannounced coming venture which should help some of the amateur authors pursuing statistical analysis on the Internet increase their exposure.

Here's to another great season.

Kevin Pelton formerly wrote the "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com. He provides original content for both SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com, where you can find more of his analysis of both the NBA and the WNBA.


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