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Old 02-27-07, 09:33 AM
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Buck Harvey: Hail Spurs, the champs of statistics

Buck Harvey: Hail Spurs, the champs of statistics

Web Posted: 02/27/2007 12:32 AM CST


San Antonio Express-News

The Spurs won again. The Dallas Mavericks, only 8.5 games ahead in the standings, may never catch up.
Those unaware of the magic of numbers may not understand this. The Spurs impressed against Toronto by pumping up their point differential, and this is the kind of stuff that prompted an ESPN.com writer to declare Monday the Spurs are the NBA's best team.

San Antonio should be giddy about the news — if not for one problem. These same formulas projected Jackie Butler, not Francisco Elson, would be the starter this season. Better yet, these same formulas also had something to do with the Spurs signing Butler.

This is the work of ESPN.com's John Hollinger. He is one of several who have tried to do with basketball what Bill James did with baseball. Hollinger has searched for answers through numbers, and sometimes his data has impressed; Mark Cuban once announced Hollinger was his favorite writer.

Before this season, Hollinger ranked all NBA players based on a projection of their per-minute production. In what amounted to statistical guessing, Tim Duncan ranked seventh among power forwards, just four spots ahead of Houston's Chuck Hayes, and Bruce Bowen ranked 315th.

Hollinger wrote then that Bowen, because he doesn't block shots or get steals, is hard to evaluate. "Statistically, he really is near the very bottom of the league — he's just so good defensively that it offsets his lack of numbers."


But that's just it. If Bowen offsets his lack of numbers, then what good are the numbers?

That's also why some NBA scouts roll their eyes when it comes to this reliance on stats. Numbers may define baseball, and basic statistics can reveal obvious trends in any sport. But the essence of basketball is too fluid to base too much on numbers.

After all, how does anyone quantify a solid pick? A computer can't see how a teammate meshes with another. And Bowen, after Monday's game, came up with something else that no box score shows.

He held his hand in a reporter's face.

Hollinger isn't simplistic. He attempts to rate teams, for example, by weighing home-road records, as well as the always-vital point differential. That's how his data spit out this week that the Spurs currently are the league's best.

"At first glance," Hollinger wrote, "I understand how this seems totally illogical."

It's totally illogical at second glance, too. The Spurs are contenders, and they are playing their best right now. But put them ahead of Dallas? Only a computer would do that.



Hollinger's work has been in the public domain, but he's taken it further. To use his words Monday, he said he has pointed teams "in the right direction."

Among those he's helped are the Spurs. Asked if they paid him, Hollinger said, "I'd prefer not to disclose that."

It's the blurry dot.com world, where columnists sometimes act like fans, and everyone poses as journalists. And last summer, when the Spurs signed Butler with advice from Hollinger, the move was later hailed by, well, Hollinger.

"For the Spurs to get a young player of this quality this cheaply was highway robbery," Hollinger wrote in his preseason projection story. "All they were missing were the ski masks."

Larry Brown loved Butler, too, and who knows? Maybe Butler develops in time.

But Hollinger's per-minute analysis turned Butler into something he isn't.

On an awful team and in limited minutes, Butler put together enough stats for Hollinger to say, "I expect him to be a revelation this season as the Spurs' starting center."

Elson instead started again Monday, and afterward, Gregg Popovich made sure to commend him. "He did a great job," Popovich said.

Great? Elson had only six points, only five rebounds, only one block. But he slowed Chris Bosh, just as Bowen chased Anthony Parker. And these are the ways the Spurs can actually become the league's best team.
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Old 02-27-07, 11:48 AM
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true dat
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