A condensed version of this will run in Wednesday’s editions of The Oklahoman. But I felt it was important to post the whole thing here. It’s something Thunder fans should find quite interesting. I want to thank John Hollinger for taking the time to answer these questions.
Q&A With ESPN.com NBA writer John Hollinger
John Hollinger is perhaps the leading authority on advanced statistics in the NBA. He’s authored four basketball prospectuses and has served as sports editor at OregonLive.com and as the basketball editor for SI.com. Hollinger’s most notable contribution is his invention of Player Efficiency Rating, a stat that combines all of a player’s contributions into one number. Hollinger has been following the Thunder throughout its first-round series against Denver.
Q: What’s been your impression of the Thunder this season?
A: They actually have continued improving more than I expected. I thought as big a step as they made last year, they were going to kind of need to consolidate a little bit those gains. I thought this year was actually going to be rougher than it actually ended up being. Because a lot of times when teams make a big one-year jump like the Thunder did, it’s very hard to continue progressing forward. It’s called the Plexiglas Principle. Most teams that make big one-year jumps actually come back to earth a little bit the next year. So for the Thunder to continue to improving their win total was very impressive.
Q: When you look at this team and compare it to how the Western Conference is shaping up, do you see the Thunder going far in the playoffs this year?
A: Yeah, I picked them to make the conference finals when these playoffs started. And now I’m wondering about that even. Honestly, of the top four seeds they’ve definitely looked the best in this first round.
Q: How would you explain Player Efficiency Rating to people who don’t understand it?
A: The most concise explanation I have is it’s a rating of a player’s per minute statistical effectiveness. So basically, you give them points for all the good stuff, subtract points for all the bad stuff and out comes a rating. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but in a nutshell that’s what it is.
Q: How has it changed the way that you looked at the game?
A: It’s given me an appreciation for some players I think that I might not have noticed otherwise because they do lots of things fairly well but nothing necessarily great. And a lot of times those guys show up more valuable in PER than you would think. And it’s also given me a suspicion, I guess, of guys who take lots of shots but do little else. Because a lot of those guys don’t rate as highly as their reputations might otherwise have you think.
Q: How did you invent this statistical rating?
A: It was a lot of trial and error. I’ve always been kind of a stat head. I was really influenced by Bill James’ books when I was a kid. I had started thinking about how I could apply it to basketball. I worked on PER for a long time just by myself just on Excel spreadsheets. And then when the internet came along, I started putting my ratings online. This was in 1996. Even from there, I think it was probably three or four years before it got to the point where it is now. So it was a lot of trial and error honestly.
Q: How do you think the growth of advanced statistics is going to change the game? Where do you think we’re going in terms of all the data that’s out there now?
A: I think what it’s changing probably more is how teams look at big picture personnel decisions. I think that’s been affected more than on a game-to-game coaching level. I don’t think we’ve seen much impact yet. We may see more. There are more teams tracking kinds of things that happen in-game now. What happens when we runs Play X to the left side with this player and doing things with that. I know the Thunder have been doing analytics for a while. It’s hard to know exactly what the teams are doing, though, because they don’t want to share it with anybody. It’s all kind of top secret. But I think it is definitely having an impact just kind of at the margins I guess. I don’t want to say it’s revolutionizing anything as much as making people five to 10 percent smarter I guess (laughs). That’s probably the biggest change. It’s allowed people to make more informed decisions.
Q: Do you feel like all this new data is helping fans enjoy the game more?
A: I think it has helped fans understand more of what they’re seeing on the court, especially the hard core fans. There’s always going to be fans who don’t necessarily want to get into this stuff. That’s not what they’re interested in. That’s not how they wish to experience the game. And that’s totally fine. But I think for the fans who do have that interest, I think it’s helped them to really understand more of what they’re looking at on the floor.