Through the Looking Glass, and What Roland Found There (Part I)

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 22, 2009 under Commentary | 11 Comments to Read

Just weeks ago, Wayne Winston’s time as statistician for the Mavs came to a close. But the sun never sets on the statistical empire. In fact, it shines brightly on the newest face in town: founder of the exquisite 82games.com and newly ordained Mavs’ stat man, Roland Beech.

He analyzes lineups faster than a speeding bullet. His metrics are more powerful than a locomotive. And his body of work leaps over basketball convention in a single bound. If advanced statistics are truly the future, Beech and his contemporaries are blueprints for the flying car. Though their full utility may not yet be actualized, they give teams and fans a glimpse into the mechanics of something both basic and incredibly complex.

So I thought it worth both my time and yours if we got to know Roland a little better. He’s only recently traveled through the looking glass, but he’s already gone from an outsider reading reflections to one very aware of the goings-on of the other side. Without further ado:

———-

Rob: How exactly did you get involved with the Mavs? Did you apply for the position or did they seek you out?

Roland: Well, I launched the 82games website I guess back in ‘02-‘03, and Mark Cuban found the site in like two weeks. He was one of the first people to come across the site. So, y’know, from way back when we were kind of talking. And then, after a few years, I actually started to do some stuff for the Mavs. I mean that was a number of years, but back in California. This year, the idea was to be here, so here I am.

So you being with the team isn’t necessarily a new development, just a more advanced role than you had before?

Well it’s pretty different. I mean certainly in the past, being in California, I was trying to be responsive to what people were interested in and also being creative, trying to come up with ideas. But now I’m here in a much more immediate capacity, so it’s definitely a very different situation. I don’t really know of many other NBA teams with stats people — Houston in particular has a lot that seems to be going on – but it’s kind of an experiment to have me here in this way.

As a basketball fan with a pulse, it’s safe to say I’ve been to 82games. Just out of curiosity, do you consider it to be more of an online showcase of your talents, or a ‘public good’ sort of thing?

It’s a bit of both. I don’t think I had a real clear-cut mission for the site when it started, but it certainly was a bit of an online resume in a way. And that’s been true for a lot contributors, a lot of people that have contributed articles to the site; Dan Rosenbaum, Dave Lewin, Steve Ilardi, people like that have actually been working with teams, so it’s a good way to get a little attention. But I like the fact that it’s essentially this free resource. [82games and] Basketball-Reference, I think, are the two primary stats sites. And things like Basketball Prospectus where they write about a lot of their stats, too.

I heard somewhere that you used to be involved with football statistics, is that true?

Yeah, a long time ago. I actually started with horseracing.

Wow.

I went to a college near a racetrack, and I found myself going down to the horses. That’s a very statistical field, with lots of numbers on how horses have done in the past, and what the jockeys and trainers do.

So that was my start, and I tried to get into the NFL a little bit but it’s very tricky because unless you have the game film it’s very tough to see what’s going on. On the TV broadcasts, they snap the ball and half the guys go off the screen and you can’t really see the blocking and what’s going on. So I became pretty frustrated with football because I felt like there was lots of cool stats that could be done, but I didn’t have the resources to do it. I mean Football Outsiders, I have friends there, and that’s an amazing site but they even with all they’re doing, there’s this frustration that unless they have the game film they can’t do everything they’d like to do.

Whereas in basketball you get a pretty good picture of the game from a standard angle. Basketball I just think is an amazing game. I really kind of oscillate back and forth as to what my favorite sport is. But basketball’s really an incredible sport, so I’m really happy to be here.

Between basketball and football, at least in terms of statistics, which sport has come farther in terms of determining player value?

I mean, that’s hard – I’m not that –

Kind of a loaded question, I know.

Yeah, I think a lot of the NFL teams are very secretive about what they’re doing. I’m sure there’s a ton lot of really innovative work going on there. I do have a few friends in NFL circles and there’s definitely some pretty intense stuff going on there. In some ways in football, guys have very specialized roles. So it seems like it should be easy to figure out the cornerback’s contributions cause he’s got such a specialized part of the field that he’s on. But in basketball, there’s so much movement going on all the time, and these guys do a bit of everything, they rebound, pass, defend, everything, and they’re not quite as specialized as in football. I think they’re both doing a lot of work, I’m just not sure I can say which one is further along.

You mentioned the behind-the-scenes work going on in football, and there’s this weird complication with statistics and sports in general. On one hand you have this casual NBA audience that’s largely uninitiated in advanced stats. Maybe they’ve heard of Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, maybe not. In a perfect world, that would change. But the exclusivity of the best statistical work makes the most innovative and useful numbers – like what you’re doing with the Mavs – highly classified. Given this give-and-take between fan and team interests, should those of us on the outside even dream of a day when this information might be made available?

I think most teams are really interested in finding out what they can and keeping it to themselves. So if they find anything that will give them some kind of competitive advantage, it’s not something they’re likely to release to the public. On the other hand, I think you can see in the last few years there’s been a massive amount of data made available to the public. Even something like shot charts, people can get a much better understanding of efficiency from different parts of the floor, and guys’ strengths and weaknesses. But to me it’s not clear that to the typical fan, [more advanced stats are] really even that necessary to enjoy the sport.

Yeah, I think you’ll see more and more data as the years go on, maybe even to the point that we have more data than we know what to do with. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that. But at the same time I’m not convinced that the interest in this kind of thing is that widespread. Baseball people are pretty consistently aware of stats, but basketball already has stats. The box score already has a lot of individual stats. But even with plus/minus being recently added, I don’t envision the box score getting a lot more added to it.

As you’re probably well aware, the latest stats-centered controversy in the NBA concerned Kevin Durant’s woeful adjusted plus/minus rating. Henry Abbott talked to Wayne Winston a bit about it, and Wayne went as far as to say that he wouldn’t take Durant on his team for free. What is your take on the developments surrounding Durant’s counter-intuitive numbers?

I’m actually not a big fan of the regression plus/minus rating, even though I’ve actually published a few articles on it. I just don’t believe players have a constant value. The whole foundation of regression is trying to find a constant value for a guy, but value can change pretty dramatically with a different role, a different coaching scheme, different teammates, or different match-ups. I certainly look at plus/minus statistics, but I don’t view it as a one number rating – I don’t think anything is a one number rating that captures everything. I don’t put too much stock in regression plus/minus. I mean, I look at is as a factor.

In Durant’s case, his plus/minus is bad – his on/off, whatever you want to look at. But I still think he’s a great player, and I think we’ll see a progression that’s common from what I’ve seen with a lot of the young players where their plus/minus starts getting better. I think that typically, defense takes a long time to learn when you first come into the league and so over time that should improve. I think Durant will clearly be very good player for a long time to come.

It’s always tickled me a bit — I’ve read in several places on 82games that you don’t believe in the concept of a one metric determination of a player’s value…yet you’re also the guy with a metric as his namesake, the Roland Rating. But I’ve seen people use [the Roland Rating] in that context and it just gets at me that they obviously haven’t read your explanations.

Right. The Roland Rating started out just being an on/off rating, and then people assumed that I was suggesting it was an overall rating. So I threw a bit more in there to actually make it a more serious rating. I just threw in a bit of the PER rating, that type of stuff. But yeah, the Roland Rating is a basic, quick look at the guy. You can see some patterns, like you can see Ron Artest defensively always has a good effect. But if someone were to criticize those ratings I wouldn’t jump out and try to defend them, as I don’t think there is really a summary number.

But yeah, that’s doubly ironic since my name landed in the title.

———-

That’s all for the first installment of my talk with Roland. Check back tomorrow for more, including much more about the Mavs.

  • John

    As I said previously, I wasn’t crazy about the W.W. Truehoop article, mostly because of how contrived Winston’s methods seemed, not to mention his ridiculous assertion about Durant (It’s almost like he said that just for the sake of controversy and to garner attention).

    However, I can say with complete honesty that this interview with Roland shares some of the most enlightening information concerning advanced statistics that I have come across. Not only was the content of the article immensely enjoyable, but I have far more confidence in our management’s future personnel decisions now that I know we have a true expert like Roland on our side.

    Really looking forward to the next installment.

    PS. I wonder what he would have to say about the Harris/Kidd trade, and if he was involved with the Mavs at that time?

  • http://www.thirdquartercollapse.com Eddy

    Great stuff, Rob. Look forward to more of the interview tomorrow.

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  • Kyle

    The stat insiders never say anything to demonstrate that they are advanced beyond the best fan observers. They can have their big databases, advanced stat training, PhDs or Harvard degrees, etc. (and that probably plays a big role in getting them the jobs- maybe too big) but it comes down to analysis and interpretation and achieving implementation and results. Don’t really know how good they are or how influential they are.

  • http://www.truehoop.com Henry Abbott

    Kyle: Really? I could make you a long list of players who are in the NBA because of their defensive reputations. At the time the Rockets gave up good talent to get Shane Battier, he was one of many guys with that reputation, along with Earl Watson or Quinton Ross or many others. But the team that got Battier took the champion Lakers to seven games with two injured superstars. Without advanced stats, there’s really no way to even begin to know who the other Battiers are. Can’t imagine why any team wouldn’t want to use all available tools to help find them.

  • Kyle

    I think I know what type of comment you thought you read or understood Henry but your answer doesn’t really get at what I was saying. You thought it was something else, something more common, an anti-stat perspective, something easier to bat down.

    I said:
    The stat insiders never “say” anything to “demonstrate” that they are advanced “beyond” the best fan observers.

    That was my main point and you didn’t address that main point or any of these key words.

    I am not against advanced stats. I am all for them. I am just saying there is little in depth, in words to show for sure what the analysts have actually added uniquely to the talent, traditional management and coaching.

    How do we really know what the analysts have added? I should have said they never say anything (or substitute much or enough) about their “actual NBA work” to really demonstrate it. They said enough before working with a team to show they are very good at analytic techniques but I am not sure how exceptional (both high quality, beyond others and different from others) they are at using and successfully promoting the findings. They can’t say anything substantive apparently to guard company knowledge but it is still true they don’t. I am not judging their actual work just saying we don’t know enough about it. Well, Winston spoke up but hardly anyone else has revealed that much. Their employers know and aren’t saying much and I assume and grant they are satisified. If they are happy, that is of course a primary validation.

    Another test in the change in players, roles, combinations and stats but again we don’t know enough to isolate their unique impact. Just guess or take it on faith.

    Bosses get impressed by resumes and certain rare things on resumes even when they may not be essential or that strong a predictor of performance and get satisfied and miss other less gilded talent all the time in every field. Operating a big database is a valuable skill but it is not that rare and in the face of the availability of league provided NBA Stat Cube the basics are easier now for everyone to have and not really the main test of who to hire in my mind. Advanced statistical training can be very useful but how many products of truly advanced statistical training get used by coaches and players? I don’t claim to know but I think it is ok to ask and have some skepticism given what coaches say about advanced stats and their own work and how little players seem to know about even the basics of advanced stats. I’d guess that a lot of the work is within the reach of the non-PhD with a good eye and a creative mind and a knowledge of the game and the main analytical tools in the public realm. Of course advanced technical skills can push further but technical skills are not enough and you have to guide them and interpret what they find and boil them down. If the GMs and coaches are mainly reserving that role to themselves that is one thing but that would be a concern too. I’d think there would be value to free search and listening to another source of opinion and judgment. But bosses choose what they want, what skills they want to add to their own skills, and what they will listen to.

    Beech had enough to get that initial shot and now after time an even bigger role. Congrats of course and not a surprise. Cuban knows what he wants and has and this sounds like a good hire / good utilization. Over time more analysts should be added and given more influence.

    You are a good person to keep pushing to learn more about the analytic work in the NBA and share it with the larger basketball world. If they really play ball with you. After Winston that seems unlikely but good luck.

    P.S. Battier has usually slipped quite a bit in the playoffs. He doesn’t shoot enough and refuses too.

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