SPORTS MAY 19, 2013
The Memphis Grizzlies entered this NBA season as a good basketball team living in the worst of all possible worlds. Coming off two consecutive playoff runs, they were bound to compile a record sufficiently strong to fail to qualify for a lottery-high draft pick, yet not improved or even different enough to be likely to emerge from the super-competitive Western Conference to play for the championship. Meanwhile, they were spending big bucks on their talent, especially all-star big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and wing man Rudy Gay, placing them above the luxury tax threshold—an unsustainable position if you are not the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks, or another major-market one-percenter who can laugh off a $30 million penalty.1 ESPN writer John Hollinger summed up the team’s situation in a preseason preview in October. “If Memphis is going to contend with this nucleus,” he wrote, “now would be a good time to start.”
That analysis was pure Hollinger: sharp and sardonic. At the time, Hollinger, who had done stints at The Oregonian, the New York Sun, and Sports Illustrated, was suiting up for his eighth season at ESPN. He had established himself as one of the most incisive and influential basketball observers of an advanced-analytics bent—the kind who prize data, and especially certain kinds of data, over gut intuition. A statistic Hollinger invented, player efficiency rating (PER), attained such currency that either using it or criticizing it (it favors bad shots! it doesn’t accurately measure defense!) was as big a part of other NBA writers’ jobs as having an opinion about LeBron James. ESPN turned him into a brand, posting daily updates to “Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds,” based on proprietary “Hollinger Power Rankings.”
The Grizzlies, on the cusp but not the right side of it, needed an edge. New owner Robert Pera (a 35-year-old tech entrepreneur) and new president Jason Levien (an ex-agent brought on more for economic expertise than basketball acumen) found one in Hollinger himself. Basketball’s analytics community has not achieved quite the prominence—or purchase with decision-makers—as baseball’s, finance’s, or political forecasting’s, but they are a huge part of the conversation among analysts and serious fans. They find themselves in more and more front offices, from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to the Portland Trail Blazers' Ben Falk, a 24-year-old “basketball analytics manager.” Even the players are becoming aware of it: Last month, Sports Illustrated reported that Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant has a personal analytics advisor, who works with him to encourage him to take high-value shots and avoid wasteful ones.
In mid-December, Hollinger joined Memphis as vice president of basketball operations, making him the highest-profile outside analyst ever to be poached by a team—in any sport. Even Bill James, the unassuming Kansan ex-pork-and-beans factory security guard who 30 years ago essentially invented the advanced statistical analysis of baseball, is merely an advisor to the Boston Red Sox. (Hollinger speculates that he's also the first NBA executive who knows his way around a blogging content management system.) The Grizzlies immediately entrusted Hollinger with much responsibility. “He’ll run the draft,” Pera told me, and indeed, last week, as the Grizzlies fought the Thunder in the playoffs’ second round, Hollinger was in Chicago for the combine, where prospective draftees do drills before the glares of scouts, coaches, and general managers. And he was involved in discussions over potential trades.
In January, under Hollinger’s direction, the Grizzlies executed the biggest and most controversial trade of this season, getting under the tax and substantially remaking their on-court personality. Thanks in part to a post-trade burst, Memphis won 56 games, the most in the young franchise’s history, and emerged as a cult favorite among NBA geeks—not only better than before, but much less predictable—and, as the playoffs got underway last month, became the trendy pick to go deeper into the playoffs than its fifth seed suggested.
In the first round, the Grizzlies dispatched the Los Angeles Clippers (who had offed them in the first round last year) and then beat the top-seeded Thunder in five games.2 They have won eight of their past nine playoff games (before Sunday, after this article was published, when they lost to the San Antonio Spurs), and have won them their way—as maybe the last good team in the league to place a premium not on perimeter players and “small ball” line-ups in which a tall but relatively nimble scorer like Carmelo Anthony plays power forward, but as an “inside-out” team with two gigantic big men dominating the space around the basket. Now they face the San Antonio Spurs in their first-ever conference finals, one series win away from what seemed so unlikely when the season began last October: the NBA Finals.
In the process, Hollinger became Exhibit A for the advantages and limits of giving the wheel to a backseat driver—an experiment that, so far, is going pretty well.
When I met Hollinger a couple months into his new position, we were both in Boston for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (“Dorkapolooza,” to attendees), which annually gathers the most Moneyball-minded decision-makers, writers, and fans. It would be the first time in the conference’s seven years that Hollinger would not participate in its Basketball Analytics panel. Hollinger, excitable eyes and a shaved head on a slight, six-foot frame, seemed still to be getting used to a job in which not only does he need to have an on-the-record breakfast with a reporter at eight A.M., but he needs to watch what he says. Where four months before, Hollinger dispensed snide remarks about all 30 teams to his more than one hundred thousand Twitter followers, with me he took off-the-record what few criticisms he offered of competitors.
Hollinger grew only more cautious when the subject turned to the Grizzlies. Prior to his arrival, the organization was not particularly analytics-oriented. Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who dates back to the prior ownership, conceded this to me: “I’m not a statistician—I don’t know what you would call it, sabermetrician?” Hollinger described Memphis, politely, as “not that well set up from a data and information standpoint.” Among other things, Memphis does not have SportVU installed in its FedExForum. The system, which reportedly costs about $100,000 a year, uses cameras to track, in three dimensions, the movement of every player with exacting precision. (How exacting? Its technology is originally derived from an Israeli missile-defense firm.) It is unsurprising to learn that analytics-happy teams like the Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, and Boston Celtics have SportVU. Hollinger would say only that the team was looking into subscribing to it.
Hollinger might have wished for a Celtics-level analytics apparatus, but he had more immediate concerns. As he arrived in Memphis, the owner made it clear that the team needed to pull off a big trade to get under the cap. On January 30, the Grizzlies sent Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors, in a three-team deal that netted a veteran starter known for his defense and smarts, Tayshaun Prince; two role players, Austin Daye and Ed Davis; and a second-round draft pick.
“ESPN John Hollinger,” jokes Grizzlies Hollinger, “would have definitely approved of that trade.” The analytics suggested the move was shrewd. Though Gay was nominally Memphis’ leading scorer and only shot-creator, in good years capable of putting up nearly 20 points a game, the types of numbers Hollinger favors revealed a different player. According to PER, Gay was below-average during the first half of this season, and his effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for three-pointers by weighting them as 50 percent more valuable than a two-point shot) ranked him third-worst in the league among those with substantial minutes. Gay’s career "true shooting percentage,” an advanced figure that also appropriately weights three-pointers as well as free throws, is 52.4 percent, below the average small forward's 54 percent. Another sophisticated metric revealed Gay’s defensive liability: Last season, the Grizzlies gave up more points when Gay was on the court than when he was off it. Further analysis suggested that Gay, who might be more productive as a power forward, was not a great fit for Memphis. Those are a lot of caveats for a guy signed to a five-year, $82 million, maximum deal.
“His research had a great deal to do” with the transaction getting done, says Wallace of Hollinger. But the franchise was hardly unanimous on the deal. The trade exposed fissures within the organization, palace intrigue of the sort Hollinger was not required to negotiate when he was waking up, checking in with his editor, and writing about whatever he felt like. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Wallace had no say and is a lame duck. (“Chris has been tremendous to work with,” Hollinger said. “It’s a situation that could potentially have been difficult, so I gotta tip my hat to him.” Wallace said that he enjoys working with the new folks and hopes to stay in Memphis.) Head coach Lionel Hollins has been happy to state publicly, before and after, that he opposed the trade. Before a game in Brooklyn, Hollins gave me little comment on Hollinger other than, “John’s test will come when we get nearer to the draft,” and, “You have to look at the players from an eyeball perspective”—that is, at more than just the numbers.
“Gone goes Memphis’ chance to win a championship,” Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix opined the day after the deal—words Mannix probably wishes he could take back. What praise there was for the deal was lukewarm, a thumb half-heartedly up. Among other things, the Grizzlies could have unloaded Gay after the season was over and still gotten under the tax, albeit arguably at the expense of some leverage. Ultimately, simple economics gave no reason to expect a money-saving trade to improve the team that sent away its highest-paid player. After all, in an efficient market, better rosters always cost more, not less.
But, like the sabermetricians in baseball before him, Hollinger was brought in to identify and exploit market inefficiences. And it worked: The trades not only sliced payroll (nearly $40 million for this season and the next two, according to ESPN), it improved play. According to points-per-possession—a simple statistic favored by statheads, because it measures rates rather than absolute numbers—Memphis’ offense has improved. Gay’s departure gave Marc Gasol a larger place in the offense, helping him to emerge as one of the league’s best all-around players, and gave young bench players Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless bigger roles. Meanwhile, Gay’s nominal replacement, Tayshaun Prince, has joined Tony Allen in shutting down opponents on the perimeter—the Grizzlies finished the regular season with the stingiest defense in the league, the only to hold opponents to fewer than 90 points on average.3 Brass tacks: Post-trade, the Grizzlies’ winning percentage was better than it was pre-trade (much better when you include the postseason), and they are a different team than the one that couldn’t make it past the playoffs’ second round the past two years.
In the first two rounds of this year’s postseason, the Grizzlies have become the It Team, complete with the requisite Sports Illustrated cover—this one featuring point guard Mike Conley, Jr., already a second team All-Defensive player, who showed himself, particularly in the Thunder series, to be a scorer in his own right, with 24 points in Game 4. Sports Illustrated hoops blogger Rob Mahoney wrote earlier this week, “These Grizzlies are definitively better than the Memphis team—led by Gay in minutes, field-goal attempts and points per game—that lost in the first round a season ago. They execute more evenly (the Grizzlies have scored 105.5 points per 100 possessions in this year’s playoffs compared with 99.6 in the 2012 postseason), shoot more accurately (they’ve posted an playoff effective field-goal percentage of 47.3, up from 44.9 last year), and even defend more aggressively.” They appear well-positioned even to defeat the Spurs, who have won four championships in the past 15 years.
As the Grizzlies closed the door on the Thunder, the Twitterati took their shots: “*Rudy Gay squinting at his TV, trying to figure out who won*,” tweeted sports blogger netw3rk, while HoopsHype's editor Jorge Sierra wrote, “Thursday’s admission: Rudy Gay trade critics (like me) were wrong. That’s pretty much final.” Much of this is unfair to Gay—as Mahoney noted, the big problem was simply that his high usage crowded out the skills of others on offense, particularly Gasol and Conley. But the verdict is nonetheless in.
And that’s the sort of ego boost that Hollinger could never get at his old job. “When you have theories about how things should be done,” Bill James tells me, “it becomes an irresistible impulse to test those theories in practice. All of sportswriting, in some sense, is a way of saying: ‘If I was the coach, if I was the GM, if I was the owner of the team, this is how I would have done it.’” Hollinger felt that pull. “I loved what I did—don’t get me wrong,” he told me. “It’s a more emotional interest,” he said, “a different kind of fun.”
But therein lays perhaps the biggest challenge Hollinger now faces: The very thing that makes his new job worthwhile could compromise his talent. What if the secret, all along, was not just his facility with math, but his impartiality? “A lot of time the emotion in this business is what gets people in trouble,” he told me, discussing the Gay trade. “I’m sure my lack of previous attachment made it easier for me to not become emotionally—what do you call it?—deceived on that decision. I worry about that. Becoming emotionally attached to decisions or players. You see it happen in the league.”
Hollinger still maintains his game-watching system from his writing days, an intricate, self-organized rotation in which he watches two games a day and, over the course of a season, watches each team roughly the same number of times. Except there is one kink now: He almost never misses Memphis. After the first day at Sloan, Hollinger went to a hotel bar to watch the Grizzlies snap their eight-game winning streak in a loss to the world-destroying Miami Heat—almost certainly the team that will be waiting should the Grizzlies beat the Spurs. “He lived and died with every play,” said Royce Webb, ESPN.com’s NBA editor, who watched the game with Hollinger. “I watch games closely, but not like this.”