Posted: Friday October 21, 2005 12:51PM; Updated: Friday October 21, 2005 12:51PM
The concept is by no means new. Teams have long had video coordinators to break down game film and internal "stat guys" to compile trends on players and teams. Coaches like Del Harris, when he was with the Bucks and Lakers, and Tom Sterner, an assistant with Orlando and Golden State, put an emphasis on acquiring and analyzing stats, using computer programs like Lexicon and Advanced Scout (a data mining program created by Dr. Inderpal Bhandari, then of IBM, along with help from Sterner and Knicks assistant Bob Salmi).
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They were joined by men like Bob Bellotti, Bob Chaikin, John Hollinger and Jordan Cohn (formerly of the Heat and Knicks, now a scout with the Nets) -- all league outsiders who began looking at new ways to value players and trends.
Not until recently, however, did a community analogous to baseball's SABR evolve, when the Association for Professional Basketball Research was founded in 1997. Today, the APBRmetricians -- who are clearly better with numbers than acronyms -- tend to agree on certain truths. For example, a team's efficiency is best measured per possession, not per game (a running team may rack up points but still be an inefficient offensive team), and the one inscrutable player stat is how a team fares when someone is on the court versus when he is off it, because this ties back to point differential. And point differential, obviously, is the end goal.
Unlike baseball, however, in which pitchers and hitters create individual matchups, every action on a basketball court is influenced by nine other players, not to mention a coach. For this reason, there is no "holy grail" in basketball equivalent to baseball's on-base percentage. Instead, the APBR community looks at factors like adjusted plus/minus, eFG percentage, rebounding rates, shot-charting and defensive "stops."
Grand Central for this type of information is 82games.com, which is run by an affable 36-year-old named Roland Beech. If you have a free hour, or seven, head over and immerse yourself in the various "studies" and in Beech's data, which he has accumulated by charting games in great detail. Well, not him specifically.
Beech follows an open-source model, not unlike Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, in which he recruits dozens (this year, perhaps hundreds) of volunteers to chart games. They keep track of not just who took a shot and whether he made it, but where he took it from (within 16 "zones" fanning out from the basket), at what point in the shot clock he took it and innumerable other details. This year, they'll include contested shots, screens and off-the-ball player movement. Across the league, teams like the Celtics, Rockets and Mavs will be watching, keeping their own data, and running their own analyses.
The end goal: to find a better way to value what it is that makes players, and teams, effective. Not just points per game and rebounds, but the little things, the kind that would reward shorts-pullers like Foyle.
"I always feel queasy about somebody in an office looking at a sheet and saying pretty good, OK, good, must be good," Foyle says, pantomiming looking at a box score. "I think of myself as an ugly player, for example. I'm like the wine, the first time you taste it, you spit it out and you think, 'it's s--t.' But you sip it and you look a little bit more and you sip a bit more and you're like, 'not baaad.'"