The Memphis Grizzlies have been cited as a team ready to head full force into the analytic stage with the recent hiring of former ESPN writer John Hollinger.
Hollinger, one of the foremost basketball sabermetricians during his eight years at ESPN, was hired in December as a vice president of basketball operations.
With the hiring, the Grizzlies have been lauded in some quarters for their advanced thinking and questioned in others for entering a new stage in analyzing players. While this story makes good copy, it’s not completely accurate.
That’s because even before Hollinger’s hiring, the Grizzlies constantly used advanced statistical analysis as part of the process of assessing players and scouting opponents. It’s just that the Grizzlies didn’t receive the attention because there wasn’t a person whose full-time job dealt in the subject.
From April of 2009, until he was hired full-time as director of analytics for the Philadelphia 76ers in November, Aaron Barzilai served as a consultant to Chris Wallace and the Grizzlies.
Wallace said that analytics are a part of putting together a scouting report on a prospect or a team, but just a piece of the overall big puzzle. Still, he said the importance can’t be understated.
“There was no transaction we made whether it was a draft choice or free agency that we didn’t consult Aaron,” Wallace said. “We didn’t go lockstep with all the numbers but at least we let him present his case.”
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins says there is a long history in the NBA for advanced statistics, although he concedes not as in-depth as today.
“Advanced stats have been around when I was playing and it is just they get more notoriety now that so many people outside the game use them,” said Hollins, who played from 1975-1985. “When people in the media use them, it becomes more important than when the players and coaches use them.”
Hollins says that he benefits most from keeping advanced stats simple when making a point to his players.
“When you talk about points per possession, players don’t understand it,” he said. “People who create it understand it and sell it and people believe that it is better than old stats.”
That doesn’t mean Hollins scoffs at using advanced statistical information. In fact he says that when talking to a player who has been slumping, he backs up anything he says with statistical analysis.
“I don’t like going to talk to a player unless I have something to show them,” Hollins said. “You always want to quantify something when you talk to the players.”
Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen is among the NBA’s top defensive players. He brings a cerebral approach and is known for his exhaustive video and statistical pre-game preparation.
So it’s not surprising that Allen considers advanced statistics an extremely useful tool.
“I like to know a player’s shooting percentage from the corner, the top of the three-point line, the side of the three-point line, mid range, you name it,” Allen said. “The reports do a good job letting you know where a guy’s sweet spots are.”
He suggests that the statistics being read off a paper simply aren’t enough.
“You need to look at video combined with the analytics and go from there,” he said.
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is another player consumed with advanced statistical analysis.
“I like to look at the in-depth details of a players’ game,” said Conley, who along with Allen combine to average nearly four steals a game. “If they go right 68 percent of the time, how effective they are from 10-15 feet, 15-20 feet, and those kinds of things play a big part for us on the defensive end and it’s something we really take advantage of.”
Conversely, since so many teams have advanced metrics on Conley, he was asked a simple question – whether that makes him re-adjust his offensive game.
“No, you don’t ever get to the point where you have to change you game,” Conley said. “I can tell you Manu Ginobili likes to go left but I can’t stop him.”
That is because talent can still trump any scouting report.
“Sometimes you can know everything about a player but you can’t do anything about stopping him because he is so gifted,” Conley said.
The perception that a person like Hollinger is going to do all his advising to Memphis behind his computer screen, is also off. Nothing still beats in-person player evaluation and the Grizzlies understand that.
“John will go out and scout players and evaluate them based on what he sees,” Hollins said. “The statistical aspect is just part of it.”
Wallace has long been a believer in advanced metrics since his days with the Boston Celtics, where he served as general manager from 1997-2007. He recalls the Celtics using extensive statistical analysis beginning more than a decade ago.
“We had new ownership in Boston on Dec. 31, 2002 and we were using advanced metrics by the 2003 draft,” Wallace said.
Among the people who made a name for himself at Boston was current Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who has been at the forefront of the analytical explosion. As an executive in Boston, Morey developed analytical methods and technology to enhance basketball decisions. He then left for Houston, first as the assistant general manager and now as the No. 1 guy.
Wallace says being with the Celtics was eye-opening from a statistical standpoint.
“I always looked at statistics like nearly everybody else, it was more stat sheet stats generated by SIDs (Sport information Directors),” Wallace said. "Somebody like Morey and (current Celtics assistant general manager) Mike Zarren took it to a new level.”
Analytics is merely another tool in the ever complex world of player evaluation and scouting.
“It’s a valuable tool but you can’t get gaga over all these tools,” Hollins said. “You put them in place and use them when necessary.”