The Sonics Play Moneyball: Part Three - The Front Office
Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | February 2, 2005
The negotiations between Wally Walker, then the Sonics general manager, and the agent for one of his team's players seemed to have stalled when the agent claimed his player was the best in the NBA. (He wasn't.)

This is the third 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 One
  • Part Two: The Outsider
  • Part Four: The Coaching Staff

    Also see the following associated articles:
  • Statistical Analysis Primer
  • Dean Oliver's Individual Ratings
  • Dean Oliver's Four Factors
  • Walker didn't lose his cool; he pulled out a printout listing where the player ranked amongst players at his position in various statistical categories. It having been established to the agent's satisfaction that the player was not, alas, Michael Jordan, he and Walker hammered out a deal.

    Fast forward to this past summer. Having drafted their center of the future, Robert Swift, the Sonics looked to move center Calvin Booth for a rebounder who could help address the team's weakness on the boards. With only a few clicks of their mouse, Walker (now president and CEO), GM Rick Sund or Assistant GM Rich Cho could call up a list of all the NBA players they could trade Booth for straight up who were above their minimum rate of rebounds per 48 minutes.

    From this list, one name jumped out: Dallas forward/center Danny Fortson, whose contract was virtually identical to Booth's and who had led the league in rebounds per 48 minutes (19.2) in 2003-04. The Sonics made a deal for Fortson, and midway through his first season in Seattle, he's averaging 8.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and has played a key role in the Sonics emergence as one of the NBA's top rebounding teams this season.

    Were these scenarios what Walker imagined when he told a prospective intern, Rich Cho, in 1995 that he wanted to make the Sonics into the NBA's most technically advanced team? Yes, as were many more that have come to fruition thanks to an NBA player evaluation system unlike any that had ever been used before.

    After being hired by Walker, Cho, an engineering major at Washington State University who worked for Boeing before going back to law school and joining the Sonics, set to work building a software system that would integrate player statistics, scouting information and contract details, giving the Sonics the opportunity to quickly get an overview of all the pertinent information about a player they were considering signing or trading for. Cho also saw the tool as valuable for contract negotiations with players already on the Sonics in terms of looking at the contracts of comparable players.

    Rich Cho, pictured with legendary coach John Wooden at Athletes for a Better World's Wooden Cup presentation.
    Courtesy ABW
    "I tried to envision myself in the shoes of a general manager," says Cho, "and asked myself what tools would not only help make my job easier, but at the same time would assist me in my decision making process and perhaps allow me to gain a competitive advantage over other teams."

    In exchange for Sonics tickets, he scored the assistance of a pair of Microsoft programmers to build the actual program, Sonics Explorer, from a 70-page functional specification document he wrote. The process of building, testing and refining the software spanned the two summers Cho spent with the Sonics as an intern while in law school.

    "The most important component, at least from my view," says Walker, "is that it does it (rates players) on a per-minute basis, so it enables us to track guys better or notice players - particularly Eastern Conference players that we don't see as often and ones that aren't playing a lot of minutes if they're really getting a lot done in lesser minutes and not getting much notice."

    NBA statistical analyst John Hollinger wrote in this year's edition of his Pro Basketball Forecast series, "It's a pretty simple concept, but one that has largely escaped most NBA front offices: The idea that what a player does on a per-minute basis is far more important than his per-game stats."

    Not so the Sonics front office, and if they didn't believe per-minute stats before, the immediate dividends paid them by Fortson - who had averaged just 11.2 minutes during his one season in Dallas - have provided proof as ample as Fortson's 265-pound frame.

    Using per-minute stats is not of itself revolutionary - Sund used them in Detroit and Dallas, before he used a computer - but the key is the ease with which they or any other relevant data can be obtained thanks to Sonics Explorer.

    "You've always had statistics of some form or another," says Sund. "Now we have them and we can put them into the computer and it prints them out per minute played, it prints them out per minute played, it prints them out on a per-36 minute basis [what Sund likes to use because starters typically play about 36 minutes], it prints them out in certain areas that we have developed here - taking point guards and analyzing the statistical attributes of a point guard that can be computerized into the Sonics Evaluation Number. That becomes useful, because you can look at them and say, 'These are the top players at their position because these are the elements of those positions that we think are important.'"

    The Sonics Evaluation Number (SEN) Sund references is used by the front office to rank players by position (a process Sund also regularly has them and the coaching staff do on a subjective basis). The Sonics don't go down the list and sign the top player or use the SEN that literally, but do use it as a first cut to find players that might be undervalued by the market. For example, Walker recently began watching a somewhat obscure Eastern Conference rookie because he had rated so well in limited minutes.

    What makes the SEN unique is that the weighting for various statistics depends on the position. When Sonics Explorer was first being built, the Sonics coaching staff and front-office personnel submitted their list of the most important statistical criteria for each position. A composite of these rankings was used to create a formula for each position. Notably, the Sonics place a heavy importance on assist-to-turnover ratios for point guards, and their ratings at the position reflect that.

    As valuable as per-minute and individual statistics can be to rate individuals, their weakness often comes in describing how players fit together. Walker says that many of the mistakes the Sonics have made - including the contract they gave Booth - have come when they've been unable to strike a balance between a player's low productivity and how well he would fit the role envisioned for him.

    WINVAL, a software program designed by Jeff Sagarin and Wayne Winston used by the Dallas Mavericks extensively and a handful of other teams, was one attempt to do this. WINVAL takes the concept of plus-minus - how much the Sonics or another team outscores or are outscored by their opponents with a given player on the court - to another level by adjusting for the quality of teammates and opponents. But the Sonics did not feel they were using WINVAL enough to justify its cost.

    Sonics consultant Dean Oliver, featured in the last installment of this series, has proven more valuable to the front office in this role. Oliver's work focuses on evaluating players roles and how they fit together to form a team. Oliver and the rest of the front office have also made extensive use of the data, both plus-minus and otherwise, available at the Web site over the last two years, adding to their analysis.

    Sund uses statistics, but believes that decisions have to ultimately be made by gut instinct.
    Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
    Of course, the Sonics front office does not rely solely on computers to scout players. While Cho and Walker have embraced the move towards statistics, Sund is more of an old-school talent evaluator who favors first-hand scouting and tape evaluation. Sund says that he's more interested in the big-picture conclusions than the numbers themselves.

    "The math, for me, is very difficult to decipher," says Sund. "What I like with what Dean does for me is that he puts it in paragraph basketball form, and that's very understandable. It's understandable for the coaches, it's understandable for me. I think that's very useful."

    The key, all involved are quick to point out, is establishing a balance between statistical analysis and first-hand scouting.

    "As long as you keep (statistical analysis) in the right perspective as a valuable tool and not the absolute answer, I think it's important because it does help keep a discipline in your decision-making and eradicate some of the other emotional or subjective stuff that enters into it," says Walker. "You still need some of that; there's still an instinct in making those decisions. You combine it with the objective side, I think you've got a good framework for making decisions."

    "You want to gather as much information as you possibly can to make decisions," says Sund. "I think that becomes important, so if you can get more computer data, because that's what it basically is, to help you in your decision-making, that's good."

    "I think they go hand-in-hand and combining those two with a lot of videotape analysis will give you a good idea of how a player may be able to succeed," says Cho. "Seeing a player first-hand will often give you a better feel for his game as well as his physical attributes than watching him on tape. At the same time, players can be hot and cold on specific nights, so we like to supplement watching a player in person with both statistical analysis over the course of a season as well as extensive videotape analysis."

    The Sonics had to rely entirely on traditional scouting as they decided to select Swift with the 12th pick of last June's Draft, and the work of European scout Lojze Milosavljevic and Director of Player Personnel Dave Pendergraft, as well as individual workouts, was key in the decision to take Vladimir Radmanovic nearly four years ago.

    The Sonics fine track record with young players, including getting starters Rashard Lewis and Reggie Evans with a second-round pick and as an undrafted rookie free agent, respectively, is a testament not to their use of statistics but instead their scouting staff.

    Both the statistical analysis and the Sonics traditional methods of scouting fit into a framework that is as much Moneyball as the use of statistics, viewing basketball decisions as business ones.

    "At the end of the day, it's a classic business equation - it's a cost-benefit analysis," says Walker, who holds an MBA from Stanford. "You've got to look at what you're paying. Our system does do a bang-for-the-buck calculation. We have to be very efficienct, given our resources, because ultimately our goal is still the same as anyone else's - to win an NBA Championship."

    Daniels' sure-handed ballhandling was a key reason the Sonics pursued him as a free agent.
    Kent Horner/NBAE/Getty
    It doesn't take complicated calculations to determine the Sonics have gotten plenty of bang from some of their moves. Fortson is the quintessential example, but fellow Sixth Man Award contender Antonio Daniels was signed away from Portland with little fanfare. In the press release announcing the move, Sund referred to Daniels' efficiency, and the Sonics were attracted by Daniels' ability to avoid turnovers. Lo and behold, he led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio last season and is first again this year.

    A Daniels repeat would give the Sonics three straight league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, as guard Kevin Ollie, considered something of a throw-in in the trade that brought Ray Allen to Seattle from Milwaukee, led the league in 2002-03. Ollie was another player the Sonics had long coveted because of his error-free performance at the point.

    Any list of the best trades in Sonics history has to include acquiring Brent Barry from Chicago in exchange for an aging Hersey Hawkins. Barry was another player the Sonics had liked based on his efficient shooting. Lo and behold, Barry would lead the NBA in true shooting percentage twice while with the Sonics and come to be regarded as one of the NBA's most underrated players.

    The Sonics expect more of those success stories in the future, even as the rest of the NBA begins to embrace the Moneyball movement.

    "I think with all the technology out there, itís just going to get progressively more advanced," says Cho. "With the growing number of both high school and international players entering the league as well as the steady increase in salaries, I think itís important to be on the leading edge."

    "I'd like to believe we can maintain a competitive advantage," adds Walker.

    This is the third installment of a multi-part series detailing how the Sonics have used statistical analysis. On February 14, we conclude the series by taking a look at how the Sonics coaching staff uses statistics.