The Sonics Play Moneyball: Part One
Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | January 19, 2005
"Part of me is partial to the Sonics because they're the closest thing the NBA has to the Oakland A's in terms of their willingness to let the numbers tell the story."

This is the first installment of a four-part series detailing how the Sonics have used statistical analysis to their advantage. If you missed them, check out the other three installments:
  • Part Two: The Outsider
  • Part Three: The Front Office
  • Part Four: The Coaching Staff

    Also see the following associated articles:
  • Statistical Analysis Primer
  • Dean Oliver's Individual Ratings
  • Dean Oliver's Four Factors
  • John Hollinger, the NBA's most prominent statistical analyst in the media, wrote that about the Sonics in his Pro Basketball Prospectus: 2003-04 Edition. Several months before the 2003-04 Prospectus was published, Michael Lewis had already introduced the A's front office and their use of statistics to the world with his best-selling book, Moneyball.

    The phenomenal success of Moneyball forced sabermetrics - the statistical analysis of baseball, so named for the baseball research society, SABR, which spawned many of baseball's top analysts - into the parlance of even casual baseball fans. It also helped spur fans in other sports, including basketball, to ponder whether a similar revolution was possible.

    However, Moneyball wasn't the catalyst for attempts to reinvent statistics in the NBA and the NFL. By the time Moneyball was published in the late spring of 2003, Hollinger already had one Prospectus in print and was working on the follow-up while writing for And Dean Oliver, considered by his peers the leading NBA analyst, was in his third year of consulting for the Sonics.

    Since Hollinger wrote about the Sonics prior to the 2003-04 season, they have actually stepped up their use of statistics. Through this fall, Oliver consulted for the team on a limited basis while working as an environmental engineer and writing his basketball opus, Basketball On Paper. Just before the Sonics started training camp this fall, they brought on Oliver full time. While he still lives in the Bay Area and remains a consultant in title, Oliver's influence has grown, as he has worked with the coaching staff - with their blessing - as well as the front office.

    There is at least one person in virtually every NBA front office that is well-versed in the language of statistics, but Oliver remains an anomaly. No one else plays as large of a role as Oliver based solely on their ability to use statistics, but Oliver is not alone in Seattle in his use of statistics. Sonics President and CEO Wally Walker holds an MBA from Stanford University and used analytical methods during his time as a money manager for Goldman, Sachs. Assistant GM Rich Cho worked as an engineer for Boeing before joining the Sonics and is also known for his analytical skills.

    It was when Walker hired Cho as an intern nearly a decade ago, at the end of his first full season as general manager, that the Sonics began their development into the NBA's most statistically-minded organization. Cho's first project was, with the help of Microsoft engineers, to create a program, Sonics Explorer, that tracks the statistics and contracts of players throughout the league - a first of its kind.

    "In the old days - I know, my first year here - you start talking about a player in a trade and you start breaking out the old NBA Guides," says Walker. "'Here were his stats the last three years.' That's just the way it was always done. To be able to see, 'Well, maybe there's a trend on a per-minute basis over the last four years, the player's productivity is going down or going up,' is a little better than just dragging out the old books."

    It was another analytical mind in the Sonics organization, area scout Yvan Kelly - who teaches economics at a small college by day - that introduced Oliver to the Sonics front office, adding another dimension to the Sonics use of statistics.

    So what does this mean, that the Sonics play Moneyball? Using the name of the book in the title of this series means more curiosity. The average NBA fan, having read or at least heard of Lewis' book, will have their interest piqued by the controversy Moneyball spawned. At the same time, Moneyball has become a loaded word, one that divides a new guard interested in what the numbers have to say and the traditional theory that favors sight and feel. Like many characterizations of Moneyball, drawing that divide is an oversimplification, but that's what's bound to happen when complicated theories are brought to the general public through the media.

    Walker: "I think if you're consistent with your analysis as you put together a team, you stand a better chance of having a balanced team."
    Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
    To some, Moneyball merely means the use of statistics, but that's too simplistic. After all, some statistics have always played a role in managing basketball teams, just in a more haphazard and less scientific manner. There's also the statistical star of Moneyball, on-base percentage, but its role was overrated by the book and there is no exact basketball equivalent. In this case, the most accurate description of "Moneyball" is probably this - using statistics to find undervalued skills, strategies or players so as to make the most efficient use possible of money and salary-cap space.

    "When I thought about it (Moneyball) in basketball terms," says Walker, "I do think we get carried away with athleticism at times, which you need - you always want athletes - but sometimes at the expense of looking at a player's productivity and skill level."

    Statistics have traditionally been less useful in basketball than in baseball, where play is not continuous and most action occurs in the isolated pitcher-hitter matchup. Context is key in basketball. While in baseball, a good hitter is a good hitter with little regard to who surrounds him in the lineup, an NBA specialist like Fred Hoiberg (shooting) or Bruce Bowen (defense) has more value when playing alongside a superstar like Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan.

    That's where Oliver's work, as well as analysis of lineups and plus-minus data, has helped the Sonics grow beyond individual statistics in recent years. Oliver's player analysis starts with looking at how the player fits into the six individual roles he identifies as necessary for a successful team - outside shooter, ball distributer/passer, rebounder, foul drawer, interior defender, perimeter defender.

    "I think if you're consistent with your analysis as you put together a team, you stand a better chance of having a balanced team," Walker says.

    One measure of Moneyball is something Lewis wrote in the introduction to the book: The A's caught his eye because of their remarkable performance in a metric invented by the late sabermatician Doug Pappas, Marginal Wins/Marginal Dollars, which evaluates team efficiency in spending money. The A's ranked second by this measure in 2002 and first in 2003.

    Last year, I adapted Pappas' method to the NBA. Thus far this season, the Sonics have faced intense competition from other front offices, as two of the other top four teams in the league - Phoenix and San Antonio - also boast payrolls barely above the NBA's salary cap. Real's Kevin Broom reports that, excluding the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, who are bound by a different salary cap during their first two years, the Sonics rank third in the NBA in Marginal Wins/Marginal Dollar, trailing the Suns and Spurs.

    For a team like the Sonics, which has had one of the league's lowest payrolls in recent years, front office efficiency is critical to the success they've achieved this season.

    "We have to be efficient," says Walker.

    The Sonics aren't the Oakland A's, but don't be surprised if you see Michael Lewis hanging around The Furtado Center in the next few weeks.

    This is the first of a multi-part series detailing how the Sonics have used statistical analysis. Next Thursday, we take a look at how Dean Oliver went from outsider to NBA insider.