as one can imagine, not all basketball people buy into the concept that some geek with a computer can tell them how to play the game. Still, one doesn't find the generational divide or the hostility between traditionalist and stathead that's so pervasive in baseball. This is, in part, because the NBA numbers spit out by the computers of Oliver, Hinkie and Morey often reinforce the beliefs of old-schoolers rather than refute them. In fact, the number crunchers have found some unlikely allies within basketball's old school. Del Harris is not young (he's 68), mathematically inclined ("I can't even remember my phone number") or high-tech (rather than a tablet PC or laptop, he carries around thick blue binders of stats, marked "offense" and "defense"). Regardless, the Mavericks assistant has long been one of the coaches most open to statistical analysis, dating to his days as coach of the Rockets, Bucks and Lakers. As a result, he has cred with both crowds.
For years the Mavericks have worked with Jeff Sagarin (of Sagarin football ratings fame) and Indiana University professor Wayne Winston. The duo, who created a system called WINVAL in 2000--a precursor to Rosenbaum's adjusted plus-minus formula--sends regular updates throughout the season to Cuban, Harris and coach Avery Johnson. "Some of the conclusions," says Harris, who parses the data, "make you laugh, like when they take data from a few games and tell us one of our best defenders is actually our worst." Still, there is plenty of promising data to consider.
Last year, after Game 5 of Dallas's second-round playoff series against Phoenix, Winston sent an e-mail that broke down how different Mavs combinations fared against various Phoenix lineups. The correspondence highlighted a recurrent postseason theme. As Winston wrote, in scenario after scenario, " Daniels Stack horrible," " Daniels and Stack a disaster," "Stack and Daniels a killer." In each situation the team fared poorly--a minus-13 point differential here, a minus-15 point differential there--when Marquis Daniels and Jerry Stackhouse play together. Harris discussed the findings with Johnson, who took them into account in substitution patterns (he didn't even play Daniels in Game 6), even if they weren't easily explained. "It didn't make sense to us why," says Harris. "Both are good players, and both do well with other combinations. But together, it didn't work out."
As for the players themselves, most have no idea that they've been reduced to living, dribbling equations. Sonics forward Nick Collison, for example, is unfamiliar with the new math, even though Oliver works for his team. "I've heard about what he does, seen him at practice," says Collison, "but I'm not sure how it works." When he was informed that according to Oliver, he is one of the NBA's more effective reserves (opposing teams shot about 3% worse when the Sonics sub was in the game), Collison brightens up. "Good," he says. "Then he's a genius."