Introducing ... Basketball Beyond Paper!
Dean Oliver's new book and what it's all about
We have a special treat today: a free 🏀5x5 piece by Dean Oliver that’s also a big announcement for NBA folks and anyone else who wants to understand basketball analytics — both the state of the art and what the future holds.
First, a quick intro to Dean for those who want to know more about the hoops analytics godfather:
Dean was the first person hired to do analytics in the NBA. He worked in the front office for the Sonics, Nuggets, and Kings, and on the coaching staff for the Wizards. He also spent several years at ESPN, building its analytics group.
Before any of that, in 2004, Dean published the bible of basketball analytics, Basketball on Paper, which Kevin Pelton called “a revolutionary strike for statistical analysis of the game of basketball.”
And now, Dean is finishing up his latest book — Basketball Beyond Paper — to be published next year.
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Dean and I have been talking about this project off and on for years. So, now that he’s written the bulk of the book, he agreed to provide 🏀5x5 readers with an early look at what Basketball Beyond Paper is all about.
Basketball Beyond Paper will be something new and different. Here’s how …
We think we already know Victor Wembanyama will be an NBA All-Star, a San Antonio hero, and a Hall of Famer even though he has played only a handful of games. We have an idea of how his story will go.
We knew LeBron was the promised one 20 years ago and we were right. We saw Steph Curry’s incredible shooting at Davidson when he was slaying Goliaths and, even though we didn’t know it would translate, we felt pretty good about it. Now we think we’re right about Wemby, so talented that Nike’s already calling him “The Extraterrestrial.”
At the same time, there will be drama along the way. Maybe he’ll struggle when he starts playing important games. Perhaps he’ll have crushing losses, clashes with teammates, clashes with opposing players.
So we watch for the emotional highs and emotional lows because maybe, just maybe, that’s where this Superman has his weakness. Is there something psychological that will hold him back, something that takes a while to come out, something that gives a little depth to his story?
Look — I’m a numbers guy. I’ve spent the last 20 years applying numbers to basketball, working for teams in the front office and on the coaching staff. I know how to use numbers to understand tactics and strategies and player values.
But what I’ve found in doing this is that there are psychological factors, and their impact matters. I can’t predict the specific path that Wemby will take, but I know that those factors will be important. And I know they are important for every NBA player.
That’s what Basketball Beyond Paper, the book I am aiming to have out in 2024, is about.
For NBA players, the difference between being motivated and not is comparable to the difference between an All-Star and an average player. — Dean Oliver
It’s strange to introduce a book a year before it will hit the shelves. But the topics have been on my mind for more than 20 years — since I wrote the book’s predecessor, Basketball On Paper, which introduced a lot of analytics to the game of basketball before we called it “basketball analytics.” That book got me jobs in the NBA, where I worked on how to pick players and how to make the players we picked better.
Basketball On Paper set up the rules of measurement of basketball. An offense is measured by how many points it scores per 100 possessions, via shooting, getting to the line, rebounding, and/or avoiding turnovers — those are the Four Factors that form the structure of the game.
But that was just, well, “on paper.” Those numbers are symptoms, signs that point you to what causes winning and losing, especially if you dig deep enough. Symptoms are things like going under a screen, being too far off a shooter, going right instead of left, making more open shots, and not boxing out enough.
Good hard digital data exists for all of those things and I’ve spent a lot of years thinking about what causes those things to go up and go down, whether it’s more detailed basketball data or whether it’s because the players don’t like each other today. Or because they don’t like the coach. Or because a player’s girlfriend broke up with him.
Basketball Beyond Paper gets at what you start finding when you have all that data rolling around in your head every day.
Here's one of the headlines: Motivation Matters. Whether you call it heart or having a motor or drive, motivation matters more than designing out-of-bounds plays.
Some coaches will tell you that it’s up to the players to play hard and be motivated, but I will tell you that, no matter what anyone says, the players still feed off the environment they’re in. They can bring their own motivation, but they can get demotivated or extra motivated by what their teammates say, what their coaches say, what management says, and even by what the media says, social or anti-social.
For NBA players, the difference between being motivated and not is comparable to the difference between an All-Star and an average player. The best out-of-bounds plays vs. the worst out-of-bounds plays will gain you about 1.5 wins per season. But highly motivated players vs. moderately motivated players will get you at least 10 wins.
How to motivate them? Basketball Beyond Paper talks about that. Being around other coaches and players has helped with that. Being around sports psychologists has also helped. The psychologists bring their own understanding of players to the table, and teams are increasingly using their expertise not only to understand the philosophy of how to build a group of players, but also to help players through the emotional ups and downs of an 82-game season that constantly interferes with Life, with a capital L.
When you’re watching a game, you see emotional ups and downs. You try to interpret expressions and gestures. Most of what happens in a basketball game is so focused and so intense that those gestures and expressions that you see are reflections of what just happened.
But sometimes the players have some beef going with another teammate, a coach, their agent, or the equipment guy who got them the wrong socks. Sometimes they’re stewing on it while the game is going on, and it’s distracting them from playing well.
Distraction makes players worse. If you can’t feel comfortable taking the jump shot, you’re probably going to miss it because you’re thinking about who is going to yell at you. If you don’t understand the defensive scheme and someone is trying to direct you, you’re probably going to mess it up anyway.
Confusion often gets mistaken for not working hard, but it’s merely not knowing what to do. And if you don’t know what to do, you can’t do it hard. All of the pregame preparation for an opponent can lead to distraction and confusion if there isn’t a solid base of knowledge of your own team’s fundamentals.
While in Washington in recent years and Denver and Seattle before that, I saw it in rookies from Rui Hachimura to Ty Lawson to Johan Petro – when their pregame focus was on who the guys were in the other uniforms, they could lose who they were in their own uniform. I saw it in early-season games where players were told about the opponent’s version of the Pistol Flip play before they could execute their own version.
That kind of stuff, with some of the numbers to support it — that’s Basketball Beyond Paper.
I care about the numbers of basketball in part because I care about the behavior of people. I have always seen basketball as this beautiful simulation of life, with a little L. How do people collaborate to compete? We’re all on some team — a family, a working group at the office, a political party, the PTA, the soccer moms’ association, whatever — and we not only want our team to win, we want to be the hero.
There’s an equation for that, in basketball at least, but also probably beyond it. In basketball, the equation tells me how much credit a player gets in light of how the team does on a play. Or how much blame. It’s how coaches tell us to play, right? “We win as a team, we lose as a team!”
Well, that’s kinda true. If the team scores, how much credit should the guy who made the shot get? Probably more than the guy who was standing in the opposite corner keeping his defender from helping. Giving equal credit would mean that the +/- in the box score represents value. And that would mean that the most valuable players in 2023 were Nikola Jokić, followed closely by Aaron Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Michael Porter Jr., and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Dividing equally is not what we mentally do.
Dividing credit and blame among players is interesting, you see, because we do it in life all the time, albeit imperfectly. In basketball, it’s easier and it’s not equal. It shouldn’t be. You want that guy in the corner to feel like he contributed, but not like he contributed as much as the guy who made the floater over Wembanyama. And if the shot was an airball, you don’t want that guy in the corner to share the same blame as the guy who launched the ball into outer space.
Players want to feel rewarded proportionately to what they did right and wrong. And that’s just math. Math with some assumptions and models or, if done really well, math done with the help of machine learning.
So that’s in the book, too.
Some soft stuff, some hard stuff, but it is basketball as Life or basketball as life. It’s what I learned in the league, both about how the game goes and how life goes when you’re doing it. I’m writing it to help do the math better, to understand the game better, to give away a few of my secrets (maybe not all of them), and to shed some light on the path that I took and the path that players take while in the league.