John Hollinger to the Grizzlies, and the future of basketball analytics

Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE

Does John Hollinger's hire by the Grizzlies mean that the mountain has been summitted by basketball statheads, or is this just Morey II?

John Hollinger is not the first of what you'd call the "basketball quants" to ascend to an NBA front office. This has been going on for years and years. Dean Oliver, the godfather of the movement, worked for the Sonics and Nuggets before becoming ESPN's top numbers person. (Oliver wrote the bible on the subject, Basketball on Paper, a decade ago.) Roland Beech has worked for the Mavericks. The great Kevin Pelton has done it from both sides: he was the beat writer for Sonics.com, infusing quantitative analysis where possible, before later doing some quant work for the Pacers. Aaron Barzilai did work for the Grizzlies before joining the Sixers this year. David Lewin does work for the Cavaliers. There are numerous others, former and current.

And, of course, there are two more in major positions of power: Mike Zarren, the assistant general manager of the Celtics and a now constant candidate for open GM jobs, as well as Daryl Morey, the GM of the Rockets.

Here's the interesting thing about the Grizzlies: despite having an old school GM in Chris Wallace, they have shown an inclination to trust and accept quant analysis in the past. Barzilai was one of the brains behind widely available adjusted plus-minus data, and that's a pretty strong strain of quant basketball analysis. Having someone fluent in that language is killer, and Wallace recognized that. But Barzilai was a consultant for Memphis, he had to go to Philly to get an executive title. Bringing in Hollinger as a senior executive is a shift for the Grizzlies, and it's a shift that is all about new team CEO Jason Levien.

Levien was once the assistant GM in Sacramento, leaving behind his burgeoning player rep business to get on the inside. He was considered an obvious successor to Geoff Petrie. Those of us around the team, including several inside the team and other agents close to both Levien and Petrie, knew that at some point, if Levien remained, a high-profile stats guy would come along. In fact, Hollinger was specifically mentioned by team employees as the probable hire once Levien took over. Levien loved Hollinger's work, both its accessibility and its sophistication. That's hard to do in quant analysis: make something that is robust enough to actually be valuable while also being understandable to coaches, players and, in Hollinger's case, readers. It's sort of the final frontier of quant analysis in all sports: make these great theories digestible for the common math-averse person.

Levien ended up getting pushed out of Sacramento when Petrie decided he wasn't ready to retire after all, and Sacramento remains one of the only teams in the NBA without a known quant analyst under contract. (The Kings' front office is longtime Petrie assistant Wayne Cooper, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Petrie's son Mike, and former GM and coach Jerry Reynolds.) Several NBA teams had employees speaking on panels at Sloan, the famous annual sports analytics conference in Boston. The Kings have sent a total of one employee to the conference over the years: a staffer from the sales department. The joke goes that while Levien was using Hollinger's PER to judge college prospects in 2009, Petrie was asking people to help him find ESPN.com on his computer.

The major difference between Hollinger and, say, Morey is that we all know Hollinger's theories. We know his positions, and we've learned from his work. The same applies to guys like Pelton, Oliver and Beech. But Hollinger is a senior executive in Memphis now; we can imagine that some day Wallace might be let go and Hollinger will be making basketball decisions. Will his canon hurt his ability to make moves? We can lay out exactly which players he likes based on his public formulas and his writings. Other GMs will know which Memphis players he'll sell low on. You can anticipate his draft choices if you're picking behind him. If you've got a high-production, low-minutes undersized power forward, you know you can goose the price on him because history indicates that Hollinger values him quite seriously.

This is all a gross simplification: Hollinger's oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn't rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He's not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world. Morey isn't shy, but that big Michael Lewis spread on Shane Battier was as far as we ever got into the GM's gears. Zarren is notoriously careful about what he says. He might be the only GM or assistant GM in the league more secretive than Petrie.

In the end, what Hollinger's hire means is that the ability to do the hard analysis is important, but so is translating that to a language the people on the court can understand. That's always been a wonderful Hollinger strength: making quant analysis accessible without dumbing it down. Even someone as brilliant as Morey, who has a team of quants, can't always achieve that.

I'm reminded of a tale from Rick Adelman's days in Houston. Morey's team would deliver lengthy scouting reports to the team and coaching staff well before a game. It'd have player tendencies, shooting charts, instructions on match-up advantages -- everything you could ask for to prep for a game. And out of all of the coaches and all of the players only two - Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes - would devour the reports. The rest (Adelman included) would leaf through, pretend to care and go play ball. That story might be an exaggeration on the part of the person who told it, but even if that's the case, it shows how important accessibility is. You can build the world's greatest performance model. And if you can't explain what it means to the people using it, it's worthless.

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Disclosure: I know and like very much numerous people mentioned in this column.

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The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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