NBA executives discuss sports analytics with students and faculty

Co-owner of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies Steve Kaplan (P Madeline ’14 Leo ’16) and Grizzlies’ Vice President of Basketball Operations John Hollinger spoke to a group of students and faculty in Ahmanson Lecture Hall Friday about their development and use of sports analytics in managing the NBA franchise.

Sports analytics utilize and manipulate statistical data to assess a player or team’s performance in the sport. Hollinger, a former columnist for ESPN, is an expert in sports analytics and has formulated several standard advanced NBA statistics. Perhaps his most famous analytic, Player Efficiency Rating, quantifies a player’s complete contributions to the team with one statistic.

The NBA executives are the latest in a series of sports statistics and medicine experts speaking to the sports and statistics interdisciplinary class, though many other students and faculty attended the Ahmanson event. Sports analytics utilize and manipulate statistical data to assess a player or team’s performance in the sport.

Kaplan, who hired Hollinger in December 2012, opened the presentation by introducing Hollinger, calling him the Grizzlies’ “biggest free agent pickup” over the last year and emphasizing his skill in calculating and analyzing NBA talent. Had the Grizzlies selected players in the NBA Drafts according Hollinger’s suggestions before 2012, Kaplan said, the team would have ended up with current NBA stars Kevin Love and Stephen Curry on its roster.

Hollinger followed by speaking about his own background. Hollinger graduated from the University of Virginia in 1994 and wrote for an NBA blog before eventually joining ESPN, where he worked as a daily NBA columnist for eight years. The Grizzlies’ Vice President of Basketball Operations briefly detailed his experience in sports analytics before spending most of the 45 minutes responding to questions from the audience.

During the event, Hollinger emphasized the importance of keeping out emotion in making decisions based on statistics.

“There’s a saying that if you torture the numbers enough, they’ll tell you anything,” Hollinger said. “There are times where we’ll be on win streaks and we’ll feel we’re doing everything right with the numbers. Then there are times where the opposite happens, we go on losing streaks and begin feeling down. We all tend to involve emotion in what we do, but in the end, we have to keep emotion out of it and just go by what the numbers tell us.”

Audience questions pertained to a variety of topics, such as Hollinger’s own methods of analyzing data, which statistics carry over the most and the least consistently from college basketball to the professional level, and the statistical reasoning behind the Grizzlies’ player transactions. Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas referred to the latter in asking about the Grizzlies’ decision to trade away former top scorer Rudy Gay in the 2012-2013 season, as did Addison Abdo ’14 when he asked about Memphis’s acquisition of center Kosta Koufos – Hollinger replied that the numbers supported both transactions.

Hollinger discussed questions on whether statistical analysis, and how he accounted for factors such as passion and hustle.

“I think [passion and hustle] can be found in the numbers,” Hollinger said. “Look at [Grizzlies guard] Tony Allen, for example. He’s one of the best defenders in the game right now. And while his game doesn’t look the prettiest, I have a lot of statistics which show that when he’s on court, our team’s defense is better as a whole.”

The NBA analytics expert also responded to the possibility of having to adjust analytics like Player Efficiency Rating in the future.

“Over the next twenty years? Sure, they’ll change” Hollinger said. “The game of basketball changes and you have to change with it – as they say, the only constant is change.”