Before this season began, I had the pleasure of chatting a bit with the Mavericks’ newly-christened stat head, Roland Beech. We haven’t had the opportunity to check in with him since, but Mark Cuban provided us with an update at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Marc Stein asked Cuban about Beech specifically during the keynote basketball panel, entitled “Basketball Analytics,” and here was Cuban’s response:
If we were going to get to the point where we were able to collect more data and integrate the coaching staff more fully into using it, as opposed to just getting daily reports that we could sit down and review with the coaching staff, I wanted to have somebody there…on site that they could talk to at any time. Even during the game.
He talks to the players, don’t get me wrong — Dirk will give [Roland] as much of a hard time about his haircut as he gives anyone else. But that’s the type of thing where you don’t want too many voices. So we work back through the coaches.
Beech is officially a member of the Mavericks’ coaching staff, and he sits near the bench, often alongside Cuban, during the games. But even more important than the capacity in which Beech is working with the team is the note that Cubes touched on at the end, and one that was prevalent throughout the entire conference. Having the right statistics is one thing, and finding the right way to utilize them is something else entirely. You can’t just hammer raw data into a player’s head through their ear, it needs to be broken down. It needs to be analyzed.
Mike Zarren, Assistant GM and Team Counsel for the Celtics, hammered that point home perfectly:
I don’t know what it would mean to a player to tell him that “Some guy’s adjusted plus-minus is plus four.” I mean, how does that change what he does on a particular night? It doesn’t mean anything.
The most important thing to remember with advanced stats in basketball is that everything is contextual. That’s where the power lies. It’s the decoder that translates measures of all kinds into something usable, something real. It’s what separates those with an understanding of how to use the data — those who classify statistics as tools and never assume any metric to be omnipotent — from those who do not. The measures provided are simply descriptors of what we’ve seen on the floor. There are assigned values, calculations, and analysis that go along with those measures, but that’s simply another way to make sense of the information available.
But somewhere between that “adjusted plus-minus [of] plus four,” and the players on the court is a process. It involves the aforementioned decoding, it involves lineup analysis, and it involves evaluation of situational effectiveness. And it certainly involves Beech, the man working behind the scenes to ensure that the Mavs don’t miss a beat in the statistical revolution. Dallas is among the first franchises to not only embrace analytical research, but to have a full-time advisor on hand. Take pride, Mavs fans, because while franchises around the league are cavemen that run in fear of fire, your team, and more specifically your owner, realizes the value and application of it.
That level of analysis is the future of professional basketball. As teams accumulate more and more data, the advantages will become even clearer. There’s just so much that a coach can do when they know what Rick Carlisle knows. If basketball really is a game of match-ups, then the Mavs’ brain trust gives them a huge match-up advantage almost every night out; few teams are as progressive as your Dallas Mavericks, and that’s something to hang your hat on.
Picking up where we left off with Part I, new Mavs stat guru Roland Beech (of 82games.com fame) and I discuss a few Mavs-related items.
Rob: Obviously, it doesn’t really behoove you, me, or the team if you tell us explicitly the kind of work that you’re doing with the Mavs, but in terms of generalities, what would you say is your emphasis in your work with the team?
I think one of the problems with a lot of guys doing stats stuff is that they don’t really, fully see the full day-to-day reality of what goes on with the team: the coaching, actually what goes into what happens on the court. It’s really eye-opening for me to get this experience, and I’m getting lots of ideas. But the jury is still out on what I’m going to contribute to the team. You might want to ask me this a few months from now.
There’s a tendency with a lot of stats guys to be very opinionated, very…almost one-dimensional in what they’re looking at, and I think the game is much more complex than people make it out to be. So being here gives me an opportunity to learn all that and see all that and I’m hoping that from that there will be some good things.
According to your statistical “school of thought,” (your “pet” metrics and your own research) are there any Mavs players you consider to be under appreciated?
That’s a tricky one. I think we have really good players, I think the roster is really, really good, we’ve got a lot of depth and yeah, I think a lot of guys in the NBA generally have blind spots, things people don’t see. A guy like Dampier, for example, is really good at setting screens, but you’ll never really hear about that. It’s not like that’s in the public domain, a guy that sets screens that people don’t want to go through.
It’s not going to lead the AP recap or anything.
Right. So I mean a lot of guys have really undervalued qualities and characteristics. I can’t really speak too precisely [as] to [which] guys, but that’s kind of my hope for being here, being able to quantify some of that stuff better, as to the unseen parts of the game right now. Hopefully from that will arise some benefit to the team.
Okay, you’ll have to bear with me, this is kind of a long-winded question. But I dug up a 2004 piece in San Francisco Weekly that featured you, and, oddly enough, our good friend Erick Dampier. At the time, you cited Damp as being somewhat of an offensive burden back with the Warriors, and to an extent that has been true of his time with the Mavs as well. At the time you said that Damp was “one of these guys…who would seemingly be positive players, but for some reason aren’t.” I think that same perception is very applicable to the newly acquired Drew Gooden. Should it worry Mavs fans that their center rotation will primarily consist of these statistical anomalies, these players with solid numbers that don’t necessarily translate to team success?
Well first of all I disavow a lot of what I said in 2004. I really think I’ve learned a lot over the last few years and I still have a lot to learn to get to where I want to be. But as I recall, mainly the thing I remember about Dampier was his plus/minus, his on/off stuff, wasn’t that good with the Warriors, even when he was having what some people said was a career year. Ironically, I think the other piece of that article was about Brian Cardinal, who barely played but actually does have a pretty good plus/minus through the years.
Again, I think that Damp has a lot of real strengths as a player, and is probably a pretty underrated guy nowadays in terms of what he brings as a center. And Drew likewise. You know again, I don’t really believe that guys have a constant value, so if you put them in the right situation, at the right juncture, and the right plan, they can be good. And if you get a good player in the wrong situation, that can hurt them. That’s probably what we’re seeing with Durant’s early years. Y’know, if he had been drafted by the Lakers or something, his plus/minus would not be a problem.
But I think we’re looking solid, and we’re very comfortable with our roster.
How do you think the Mavs measure up with the rest of the Western Conference this year?
It’s a very tough conference, obviously. There are a lot of strong teams. But we think we’re definitely one of the good teams. We’ll see in the next few months where people are stacking up, but yeah, there are some real powerhouse teams in the West. We feel like we’re up there, as a team, with the rest of the top guys.
A huge thanks to Roland for taking the time to talk with me,
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.
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.