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October 25, 2007
The Guys Who Play for Pay
Our NBA Analyst Steps Forward

by Kevin Pelton

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What's this? An NBA column? Isn't this a college hoops site?

Like all of you, I was excited to hear the news that Baseball Prospectus was extending its coverage to NCAA men's basketball with the help of Ken Pomeroy and John Gasaway, two writers I've long considered must-reads. I was even more excited when I was offered the opportunity to join them and help provide the NBA perspective to the new site.

If you're familiar with the work of my NCAA colleagues, you should already have a good idea of how the NBA game has been analyzed as well. (If you're not familiar with NCAA or NBA analysis, might I suggest my Statistical Analysis Primer?) In both cases, many methods are derived from the groundbreaking work done by Dean Oliver, who is now working in the front office of the Denver Nuggets. There are, however, some subtle but key differences.

For one, give credit to the NCAA guys (Gasaway in particular) for coming up with a better name for their numbers: tempo-free statistics. That's a lot easier to say and spell than APBRmetrics, the sabermetric-esque name for the community that analyzes the NBA.

More importantly, we have big advantages over NCAA analysts in terms of the size and organization of the NBA. It's much easier, obviously, to keep track of 30 teams than the 300 and change that play Division I basketball. Standard tracking of play-by-play data, for example, means that plus-minus, which is just starting to make an impact at the NCAA level, has been a fixture in the NBA for some time now. 82games.com offers not only plus-minus, but also invaluable statistics like shooting percentage by distance, that help us understand how a player plays in addition to simply how well. There's also a wealth of individual historical stats available to NBA analysts and easily accessible through Basketball-Reference.com.

Ultimately, despite some minor differences, the goals of NCAA and NBA analysis are the same: Shed light on why teams win and how players help them do so.

In addition to Oliver, there is surely another key influence on basketball analysts, no matter their area of focus: sabermetrics. My introduction to modern statistical analysis came from Baseball Prospectus and Rob Neyer, and it wasn't long before I was thinking about the per-minute numbers I used to copy down off NBA basketball cards as a kid and how new numbers could provide insight in basketball.

Poking around the Internet, I discovered the Yahoo! group where the top NBA analysts gathered to trade notes and talk shop. That group has morphed into the APBRmetrics message board, which I moderate, that boasts posters affiliated with NBA teams including Oliver and Dan Rosenbaum; writers, most notably ESPN Insider's John Hollinger; and many others who contribute to the active discussion.

Over the last four years, I've written about the NBA in several different places, including my day job, covering the Seattle SuperSonics for Supersonics.com (as well as the WNBA's Seattle Storm). I've also written analytical columns for Hoopsworld.com, über-stats site 82games.com, SI.com and the now-defunct CourtsideTimes.Net.

To offer an idea of how this column is going to evolve, let me touch on a few of my favorite topics from my past work. I did a number of columns looking to quantify and understand the impact of the NBA's rules re-interpretation limiting contact on the perimeter (or, as you might know it, the rule change that allowed Dwyane Wade to attempt 97 free throws in a six-game NBA Finals series). I also tried to take an innovative look at the question of whether Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash do, in fact, make their teammates better.

Another feature I'll be happy to revive is an NBA version of the "Every Play Counts" series pioneered by Michael David Smith of Football Outsiders, which involves a close look at the tape (read: TiVo) to study a single player, team or in one notable case a controversial defensive tactic.

It's unfortunate that the way the NBA is covered in the media and marketed to fans tends to cast the pro game as a series of individual clashes, minimizing the important role of strategy and tactics. This only provides ammo for those college fans that are highly critical of the NBA game (you know who you are). The Every Play Counts columns are a way to offer a reminder of the kind of work NBA coaches put into complex gameplans 82 nights a year.

Above and beyond individual topics, I've strived to help make statistical analysis accessible and understandable to fans. To that end, if you ever have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to use the contact form to get in touch with me.

That's probably enough of an introduction. After all, we're only days away from tipping off the new NBA season. Anticipation is building, and in the near future I'll take a look at a couple of the most interesting questions as we enter 2007-08. I hope you'll join me.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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