Sports Opinion & Analysis

Moneyball’s Latest Influence On The NBA: John Hollinger And The Memphis Grizzlies

In NBA on February 28, 2013 at 8:02 am

By Jeff Weyant

After he lectures about his expert knowledge of statistics throughout the history of basketball, he’ll then tell you how aliens and Bigfoot played a part in it.

In the film Moneyball, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) delivers a brief soliloquy to Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) in an underground parking lot: “People that run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.” While this sort of mentality – which goes against basically the entire history of sports in America – has yet to spread like wildfire in any of the major leagues, it’s catching on bit by bit, and the trend is nowhere more apparent than in the NBA.

The award for Biggest Transaction of the Last Five Years definitely goes to the deal that sent John Hollinger from ESPN to the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies (and by “deal” I mean Hollinger jettisoned himself from ESPN as fast as possible in order to take his dream job). His departure was highly publicized, but Hollinger was merely following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Dean Oliver, the godfather of APBRmetrics (sabermetrics, but for basketball). In 2004, Oliver left the blogosphere to join the Seattle Supersonics for an advisory role, then two years later joined the Denver Nuggets as a permanent, administrative basketball analyst. He was the architect of the Allen Iverson trade that netted Chauncey Billups, destroyed the Pistons, and vaulted the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals; of the Carmelo Anthony trade that produced lots of cheap talent which has since become the core of Denver’s success; and of the surprise Ty Lawson pick in the 2009 draft which has been vindicated consistently every time the North Carolina point guard steps onto the court. In other words, this isn’t the first time a basketball stat-head traded a volume shooter for a member of Detroit’s ’04 championship team.

Remember this? Blame Dean Oliver.

Oliver created the template that one assumes Hollinger hopes to follow (except perhaps the third stage of Oliver’s career, which has him at ESPN doing wizard-like behind-the-scenes things with numbers, a job that only pertain peripherally to basketball). Given history, then, it was no surprise that less than two months after Hollinger came aboard, the Grizzlies traded their overpaid and underperforming shoot-first superstar for a few guys who, as an aggregate, more than make up for Rudy Gay’s absence. If you modify the quote from Moneyball so that it applies to basketball, it’d be something like: Don’t buy players, buy wins, and to buy wins, buy efficient points. You’ll notice that defense doesn’t factor into that but the adage that defense wins championships is a bit overblown. The reality is that top-10 defenses win championships. You don’t necessarily have to have the greatest defensive season in the history of the NBA but you also can’t be a punching bag all season long. And besides, for a small market team like Memphis that just wants to make the Finals at all and which already has the league’s second-best defense, buying efficient points seems more important at this point.

So they traded for Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye, and Ed Davis, three players who score efficiently. With a volume-shooter like Rudy Gay out of the picture (the kind of player who ruins many of the possessions he’s involved in), your offense is going to get better by default. Adding team-first players like Prince, Daye, and Davis should only make it even better.

Et voilà! That’s been the case these last eleven games. The team has won nine of them (including the last eight) and their offensive efficiency (ORtg) over that span is 106.5, which is not only nearly two points higher than their ORtg pre-trade but it’s also, if kept up the rest of the season, good for 10th in the league (up from 19th). A long-term jump like that and Memphis would be almost as likely as San Antonio and Oklahoma City to make the Finals and a legitimate rival to the Eastern Conference representative (which, barring tragedy, is going to be the Miami Heat).

The Grizzlies would love to avenge their semifinal loss from two years ago.

But lest we forget, moneyball tactics also involve a financial aspect and this was certainly a factor in trading Rudy Gay, whose contract was arguably one of the worst in the league. The Grizzlies were essentially paying him $1.13 million for each point of his Player Efficiency Rating ($16.46 million contract vs. 14.56 PER). In comparison, they’re now paying Prince $537,000 per PER point ($6.75 million contract vs. 12.58 PER). And this doesn’t even take into account Austin Daye and Ed Davis who, combined, are playing over 20 minutes a game while contributing around 10 points (at 55% shooting), 4 rebounds, and almost 2 blocks (their combined PER – impossible to calculate precisely when combing statistical figures – would nevertheless, if normalized, be in the mid teens – in other words, very good for a bench player).

This was the kind of money-crunching that almost certainly took place in Memphis’ front office as they went about constructing a profitable trade. And in true APBRmetric fashion, they’re now better positioned to win this year and also in the years to come (they saved around $4 million in cap space in the transaction and, given player contracts, will save about the same every year through at least the 2015 season).

As Jonah Hill says, buy wins, not players. And that’s just what Hollinger and Memphis have done. They traded a volume shooter for three players that do as much on offense and more efficiently at that. Of course this makes me wonder: if every team had a John Hollinger or a Dean Oliver in the front office, where would they send all their volume shooters?

The D-League, probably.

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