On The Hiring Of John Hollinger And The Abuse Of Statistical Analysis In The NBA

  • Joe Levine

Thanks to former ESPN NBA analyst-turned-Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger, there’s a new model for getting hired by an NBA franchise: use misleading statistics that ignore circumstance and lean on it so hard that it turns into a job with a team that doesn’t know any better.

Okay, admittedly I’m being pretty heavy-handed there. I’ll admit it; I’m not a fan of John Hollinger as an NBA analyst (he seems like a nice enough guy outside of that, though!). Although the Player Efficiency Rating he developed is certainly a useful tool for measuring how well a player stuffs the box score (my apologies if I’m slightly snarky about a formula that makes Glenn Robinson seem as useful on the court as John Havlicek), his analysis of the game outside of pure statistic is, err, lacking.

Take, for example, his analysis of the team he was just hired by. Via Deadspin, here is Hollinger’s take on key member of the Memphis Grizzlies starting lineup prior to this season (Note: Deadspin edited out the good things he said about each player, but still, some of these critiques are iffy to say the least).

Mike Conley:

[H]e still is more of a caretaker point guard in some ways. He has an extremely low usage rate for a key starter and often just spots up on the weak side while the Grizzlies’ post weapons go to work.

Mike Conley averaged over six assists per game last year and is averaging over six per game this year despite apparently just hanging out on the weak side while Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph go to work. Criticizing him for that makes about as much sense as criticizing Tony Parker for doing the same while Tim Duncan bangs down low. Granted, Conley’s usage rating is low, but… why does that matter? He’s playing with Gasol, Randolph, and Rudy Gay, who are all definitively better than Conley. Is Hollinger’s point that Conley should be hogging the ball a bit more?

Statistics exist to prove a point, so why cite Conley’s usage rate unless he thinks it would be better for Conley to do more despite having better teammates, and especially when he plays with players who are best when left to create their own shots? As much as I’m sure we’d all love to see the Grizzlies’ fat big men moving without the ball (for comedic purposes, I mean), I’m sure the Grizzlies are much better off dumping it down low and letting their old school big men go to work.

Rudy Gay:

Gay has All-Star talent, but his jump shot let him down last season and he hasn’t picked up his game in other areas. For starters, there’s the jumper. Gay’s stroke looks wonderful, but it doesn’t go in as often as you think. Last season he made only 33.8 percent of his long 2s, and his 31.2 percent mark on 3s dropped his career mark to just 34.7 percent […] Gay is guilty of dribble blindness, and while he’s improved from a few years ago, he still ranked among the bottom 10 small forwards in pure point rating. Defensively, he’s had a hard time converting elite athleticism into decent results.

I think Rudy Gay’s defense is nothing if not “decent.” His career defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108 is decent (for reference, elite defensive small forwards like LeBron James, Shawn Marion, and Luol Deng generally boast defensive ratings of 100-103). Gay has averaged in the neighborhood of 1.5 steals and 1 block per game over the last three seasons. He averages over six rebounds per game despite playing with Zach Randolf and Marc Gasol. If that’s not “decent,” what is? I don’t think anyone would accuse Gay of being an elite defender, but he’s certainly decent.

As for his shooting stroke, last year was certainly a down year for Gay, but he was coming off of surgery the previous season and has struggled to shake off the rust since. Not to say that Gay shouldn’t be expected to return to form, but there are certainly more factors in place than him just suddenly throwing up bricks.

Zach Randolph:

The Grizzlies would like to treat his [2011-2012] campaign as an outlier, but at 31 the fear lingers that he’s entering his decline phase. If so, the three years and $50 million left on his contract will be rather unpleasant to swallow.

As for 2011-12, Randolph had superficially solid defensive stats that belied his clear struggles at that end, especially in the playoffs. He also had difficulty regaining his touch and timing, shooting just 29.2 percent from beyond 15 feet and shattering a career low with a 65.9 percent mark at the free throw line.

This is a really good analysis of a player if you ignore the fact that he missed half the season due to injury and had his averages significantly affected by trying to get back in shape post-injury. Not surprisingly, Randolph’s number have returned to norm this year now that he is healthy again. Huh.

Marc Gasol:

Gasol basically doesn’t try for offensive rebounds.

I mean, Zach Randolph is a top five offensive rebounder in this league. I think the Grizzlies are better off if, you know, Gasol isn’t getting in his way. For the same reason why teams with Dennis Rodman on the roster generally stayed out of his way on the boards. Although I suppose Luc Longley could have hit the boards a little harder…

To be fair, though, yes, Gasol could hit the offensive boards harder. But as the second best rebounder on the team, his current average of 2.3 offensive rebounds per game are about on par with other teams’ second best rebounders. Chicago’s Carlos Boozer, for example, also averages 2.3 offensive rebounds per game as he fights for boards with Joakim Noah. Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic averages 3 offensive rebounds this year next to Kevin Love, and that number is inflated by the fact that Love has already missed significant time this season.

Admittedly, I’m doing an incredible amount of hating right now. But I do so to emphasize my point that Hollinger’s theoretical basketball physics is only so useful without taking into account the circumstances they exist in. And though I do believe in the “moneyball” direction the league is going in, there should be an acknowledgement that such a philosophy can only go so far. One only has to look to the title the statistically-imperfect Dallas Mavericks won over the statistically-perfect Miami Heat in spite of all of the raw data, Hollinger’s included, that said why it shouldn’t have happened.

Here’s hoping the Grizzlies didn’t just make a hiring that could turn them into an Isiah Thomas-era Knicks disaster that puts way too much emphasis on what looks good on paper and way too little emphasis on the intangibles.

All statistics via Basketball Reference