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:

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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.

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

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 21, 2009 under xOther | Read the First Comment

  • I  completely missed the tail end of SLAM Online’s Top 50 player rankings, but SLAM’s commenters did a great job of pointing out a travesty: Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony were ranked higher than Dirk Nowitzki. In most cases, I understand the tendency to put Dirk on the back end of the top ten. I do. And I have lots of love for both Durant and Anthony. But Durant is almost completely one-dimensional at this point, and Anthony only marginally more versatile. And when it comes to flat-out scoring, I’m not even sure that either is more skilled than Dirk. Nowitzki carries a 50-win team on his shoulders as the team’s best player, and Melo and Durant can at best only claim one of those qualifiers.
  • Kevin Pelton chimes in with a reminder on preseason statistics, in light of yesterday’s post: [Preseason statistics] mean more than you might think, but are limited by the small sample size, making shooting percentages potentially misleading.” You can read Pelton’s previous studies on preseason performance here.
  • Pun fun with Marquis Daniels.

No Game Is an Island: Plan of Attack

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 2, 2009 under Previews | 12 Comments to Read

The Dallas Mavericks visit the Oklahoma City Thunder
7:00 CST

I love the home-and-home.  It’s one of the regular season’s greatest creations, and what it lacks in variety it makes up for in intrigue.  It’s almost like a mini-playoff, usually against a team that you would never, ever, under any circumstances play in the playoffs.  Which is cool.

The Mavs and the Thunder are practically playing a home-and-home, although not entirely.  The Mavs played the Raps and the Thunder played the Grizzlies, but the overtimer in Dallas is still fresh on everyone’s minds.

The game’s in OKC this time around, and the Thunder are still decidedly lacking in the Durantula department.  Again, a pity.  In his absence, though, the Thunder are playing like wounded tigers with laser eyes and rabies, pushing the Mavs to the limit and taking down the Grizz.  They don’t need the best small forward in the West, apparently.  KD is expected to miss out on tonight’s game with the same ankle troubles, meaning OKC gets another crack at the Mavs.  This is where it gets tricky.  On one hand, you’d expect the better equipped team to take care of business in the second game.  They know what to expect from Green and Westbrook, and don’t have their gameplan scrambled around by planning for Durant.  On the other, a previously hungry OKC team may now be nothing short of ravenous, and could feast on a the Mavs if they show up even the least bit lacksidasical.  Or will a team with few offensive options outside of Kevin Durant snap out of it and realize what they really are?  SO MANY VARIABLES, PEOPLE.

Regardless of the turnout, last week’s preface provided a backdrop to an otherwise meaningless game.  No offense to the Thunder, but without Durant they’re small fries.  But, armed with the knowledge that this team is capable of getting all up in their biznass, the Mavs should be able to respond in ways that capitalize on the differential in talent and the fairly transparent strategy the Thunder will no doubt employ.  Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook are both awesome, but can they really beat the Mavs on their own when Dallas knows what’s coming?

EDIT: Thanks for the heads up from commenter Marrrkus – Jeff Green will not play tonight (back spasms).  Source.

Dallas Mavericks 110, Oklahoma City Thunder 108

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 28, 2009 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

Photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

“Ambivalence is a wonderful tune to dance to. It has a rhythm all its own.
-Erica Jong

To say that last night’s game has me drowning in ambivalence would be an understatement.  Wins just don’t get more bittersweet.

The call with the Mavs has been to play defense when it matters, and they did just that.  Down the stretch, the team came up with big stop after big stop to not only come back from 12 down, but to keep the Thunder at bay.  Credit that to Carlisle’s unabashed use of the zone, which turned OKC’s lineup of non-shooters into turnover machines.  Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green picked up the slack in a big way, but their work wasn’t easy.  Are Westbrook and Green elite scorers?  Not exactly, but when players get hot (or in this case, aggressive in their efforts to get to the line), the general measures of defensive success are bent ever so slightly.  I’m not thrilled that Westbrook scored 14 or that Green scored 7 in overtime, but I’m definitely pleased with the significant ruckus the Mavs’ defense was able to raise.

That’s not to say that the defensive effort was complete.  There’s a distinct reason that the Thunder turned a 5 point deficit into a 12 point lead, and it’s not solely because the Maverick offense went cold.  The Thunder should have no business taking the Mavs to task on the offensive end without Kevin Durant, even with a parade to the charity stripe.

There are games where Jason Kidd’s lack of scoring is a significant deadweight.  This was not one of those games.  Kidd was far from an offensive dynamo in terms of his scoring output, but I’m not at all displeased with what he did for the Mavs’ offense.  When the double-teams tried to curtail Dirk (who finished with 41 and was the Clutchotron 5000), Kidd was the principal influence on the Mavs ability to move the ball to the open man (either directly or through the ‘hockey assist’).  He came up big with two huge threes and went 4/4 on some crucial free throws (imagine that!).  Ballin’.

But where were Josh Howard and Antoine Wright?  Two of the crucial cogs in the post-Terrian Dallas attack?  They were there.  That’s about it.  Howard was plagued by foul trouble and bothered by Thabo Sefolosha.  His recent uptick in defensive activity was counterbalanced by a few extra whistles.  In spite of all that, Howard was +19 for the game, good for best on the team.  Wright on the other hand, was out of the game for the entirety of the fourth and overtime.  He wasn’t hitting his shots, but Wright wasn’t exactly terrible; his drop-off can be largely attributed to a Maverick surge behind Kidd and Barea in the backcourt.

James Singleton is a monster.  That is all.

Dirk scores 41, but the offense was hardly a well-oiled machine.  The Mavs defense gets stops late, but allows the Durant-less Thunder to push them to the limit.  The Mavs went off on a 16-0 run to avoid disaster, but still nearly blew it against an inferior team missing their best player.  Hey, if they gave us definitive answers and consistent play, they just wouldn’t be the Mavs.

GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: The Gold Star of the Night goes to none other than Dirk Nowitzki.  41 points (16-30) is always tasty, but Dirk did a great job of shooting and deferring at all the right moments for all the right reasons.  Welcome back, Dirk.

No Game Is an Island: Two Ships

Posted by Rob Mahoney on February 27, 2009 under Previews | Read the First Comment

The Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Dallas Mavericks
7:30 CST

Jeff Green can’t stop Dirk Nowitzki.  Josh Howard can’t stop Kevin Durant.  That certainly makes tonight’s game fun, doesn’t it?

One catch: Durant’s on fire, and Dirk’s sputtering.  That’s a pretty significant caveat.

The Thunder aren’t as talented of a defensive outfit as the Spurs or even the Bucks, but Durant, Green, and Russell Westbrook make them dangerous.  The Mavs have made it abundantly clear that they’re completely vulnerable to blowing games after demonstrative wins, and Dirk is in what is probably the biggest “slump” (by his standards) of his career.  Aggressive double-teams and cold shooting have put him in a funk, and I’m not even sure that a subpar OKC defense is going to be enough to lull him out of it.  Dirk’s going to turn it around eventually, but I’m of the philosophy that it happens when it happens.  If the Thunder aren’t coming strong with the doubles and Dirk actually gets off a reasonable number of attempts, that’s one thing.  But when Dirk struggles, it’s rarely because one particular guy is standing in front of him.  He’s either being swarmed or he’s off.  Not all defenders are created equal, but few can truly contest Dirk’s jumper.

Kevin Durant is really, really good at basketballing.  If you’re not legitimately scared of the myriad of ways this guy can carve up a defense, you haven’t been watching enough basketball.  His shot is effortless, his range is unreal, and his repertoire is unmatched for a second year player.  His faults are few, and he’s improving as a rebounder, defender, and passer.  It should be quite the contrast from the slightly above average Richard Jefferson, and Josh Howard/Antoine Wright/whoever draws the short straw is going to have their hands full and then some.  The Durantula takes no prisoners.

Regardless if Durant and Dirk end up as two ships passing quietly in the night, whichever supporting cast steps up wins.  Based on how the Mavs’ bench has been playing as of late, my money’s on Dallas.  This is one of the cases where no Jason Terry may be no problem; Josh Howard, Antoine Wright, Jason Kidd, Brandon Bass, J.J. Barea, and James Singleton are all more than capable and can all cause their own unique problems for the Thunder.

Does stomping the Thunder represent a quality win?  Probably not, unless there’s a complete Durant lockdown.  A win doesn’t mean much in terms of the team’s progress, but it also means the Mavs aren’t losing any ground in the standings.  I doubt the Mavs are circling this game on their calendar, but at this point in the season it’s as much about winning as it is not losing.