Data analysis, statistical immersion, a deep dive into numbers that can confuse all but the intelligentsia, came to baseball 20 years ago and now is mainstream. Such number-crunching finally has come to basketball, packed in the brain and the eyeballs of people like Sam Hinkie. The pride of Stephens County. The Houston Rockets' vice president of basketball operations, a Price College of Business alum and 1996 Marlow High School grad, seems an unlikely factor in the NBA playoffs. A campus leader at OU, graduating summa cum laude. Went to work for Bain and Co., a global strategy consulting firm. Resigned to get an MBA from Stanford. Sounds like a path to the Petroleum Club, if not Wall Street. Instead, Hinkie is analyzing Dikembe Mutumbo's rebounds and recommending whether the Rockets should trade Bonzi Wells for Bobby Jackson. And Hinkie does it with stats that don't show up in the box score. Player points per minute. Team points per possession. Rebound percentage. Not exactly the raw numbers we embrace to argue LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant. But almost surely more accurate. For instance, is Stephen Jackson's 20.1 points a game more impressive than Tim Duncan's 19.3, considering Jackson's Warriors play much more quickly than Duncan's Spurs and thus have a lot more possessions? Hinkie's computers can tell you. Such analysis is a cottage industry — embraced most by the Rockets in the NBA but catching on in other locales — and a quick search of 82games.com will show you how serious are some NBA stat-analysts. Here are just a few of the stats available at 82games.com: Floor-time stats (individual player plus/minus; how a team fares with a certain player on the floor), 5-man unit stats (most-used five-man combos and how they fare together), player pairs (stats looking at team performance with each two-man pair on the court) and many, many more that frankly are too difficult to explain. Talk of a special sauce makes Hinkie nervous. Yes, he's a numbers geek and admits it. Yes, he and his staff devour forests of NBA numbers. Yes, he thinks it's comforting to know that while he can't personally watch all 1,230 NBA games in a season, his computer can analyze all 1,230 NBA games. But Hinkie doesn't claim those stats are the gospel. They are just one more piece to a complicated puzzle, and when you're dealing with players whose multi-million dollar contracts can make or break a franchise, every morsel of information helps. "Every team is looking to beg, borrow or steal any ideas any chance they get,” Hinkie said. And don't think Hinkie studies only computer printouts. I met Hinkie last December at the All-College Classic. He was scouting, which could get him kicked out of the numbers-geek union. While watching the likes of Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and Gonzaga's Jeremy Pargo, here's what Hinkie looked for. Does he talk to teammates? Does he talk to the crowd? Does he yell back at his coach? Does his coach baby him, and if so why? If he dunks off a lob, is it because the pass was perfect, or the play was a great setup, or did the defense go to sleep, or is the guy athletic enough to dunk without any of the above? "What we try to do is draw a clearer picture,” Hinkie said. The data "trend will continue to be a part of our business, along with the judgment of experienced basketball evaluators and the unique chemistry building that coaches can create. This is yet another piece.” You have to say that whatever the Rockets are using, it's working. Despite losing superstar center Yao Ming to a broken foot in February, the Rockets went 55-27 and fashioned a 22-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history. Major-league sports are copycatters. Expect more and more NBA teams to dive into data. Hinkie grew up in Marlow and played every sport available. He was the kind of great-character, so-so athlete found all over small-town Oklahoma. "From a talent standpoint, I'll get you beat,” Hinkie said analytically. Hinkie thought about walking on to Kelvin Sampson's basketball team — "the fans would have loved me” — but instead focused on school, and no one can argue he made the wrong decision. He always wanted to work in sports, even when thriving in big business, and went to Stanford because its MBA program had ties to major-league franchises. Hinkie helped out with the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, working on new draft policies as it pertained to the pricing of players, and eventually made contacts with the Rockets and began commuting even before graduating Stanford. Hinkie is the kind of thinker every NBA franchise needs. I hope someone is analyzing this stuff for the Sonics. For instance, Peja Stojakovic's five-year, $64-million contract with the Hornets. That's a lot of money for a bad back, great shooter and all. Wouldn't you want someone to tell you just how valuable is Peja, just how much tread a 29-year-old with a bad health record is likely to have? Here's what Sam Hinkie and the NBA's other stat-geeks have figured out. Data is your friend.
The Houston Rockets and guard Tracy McGrady have been assembled by an in-depth look at stats, a trend catching on with other teams. ASSOCIATED PRESS