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"I wanted to understand a bit more about the game myself, to figure out why some players are effective and not effective," says Beech, who uses several computer programs to mine statistics from lengthy, play-by-play game logs. It's one of the strengths of his site that he poses, then goes about answering with empirical evidence, simple, almost naive-sounding questions about the sport. From time to time, Beech will post a report, scattered with exclamation points, under a title like "The value of an offensive rebound" or "The value of a blocked shot." He has a very basic curiosity about the game, and when he talks basketball, he seems to generate ideas for studies midconversation, even midsentence, a kind of mental give-and-go.
Beech has been doing this sort of thing all his life. Born in New York state and raised in England and the Bay Area -- his father was a mathematician and later a database architect at Oracle -- Beech was always good with numbers, reading box scores at age 8 and playing stratomatic basketball, a stats-based board game using real teams and players, soon after. He'd play with his friends, who would pick the "showtime" Los Angeles Lakers; he'd take the Warriors. (Even today, he names Joe Barry Carroll -- Golden State's No. 1 draft pick in 1980 and perhaps the all-time most reviled Warrior -- as one of his favorite players. "Most people think he was a huge underachiever," Beech says, "but I liked his game. He was a good scorer, and he rebounded OK. I kind of like the guys who have bad reputations, the guys who are ragged on a little bit. JB was essentially a decent player, but everybody expected so much more from him.") Beech didn't play sports much, but he'd go to the occasional Giants or Warriors game with his family. He remembers reading, and enjoying, one or two of Bill James' Baseball Abstracts in high school, but says he was never entirely taken with James. "I've never been interested in historical analysis," Beech says. "I think it's kind of futile to compare players from different eras, which is a driving force with a lot of baseball research, and certainly basketball, too."
Beech studied English at Berkeley, but he soon turned his knack for numbers into a career. He'd spend much of his time at Golden Gate Fields, sometimes going to the track twice a week. "That's the big numbers game," Beech says. "I was interested in understanding what the numbers were about." He landed a research job with a portfolio manager who wanted to know if horse racing is a beatable game, and later he took a job with a company providing downloadable statistics for the horses, as well as for football, basketball, and baseball.
In 1997, Beech launched an NFL site, TwoMinuteWarning.com, approaching football in much the same way he now approaches basketball: as a team sport with mostly inadequate measures of actual individual contribution to the enterprise. (The research here is more oriented toward gamblers and fantasy football players; last season, Beech charged $299 for a subscription. "Pretty good income there," he says. "It's a very healthy business. Football's a betting sport. I get everybody from the guys with $20 parlays to guys betting five to six figures a week.") He decided to start 82games because, simply, he "saw it could be done."
"That's probably the excitement of basketball," Beech says. "There's so much research that can be done. Whereas something like baseball, it's a much more defined thing; so much has been done there already. But basketball is pretty wide open. You watch a basketball game, you'll see a lot of things and think, 'Well, gee, I've never seen statistics on that.'"
Warriors center Erick Dampier, left off the NBA All-Star team this year, offers a good case study in the Beech method. By most conventional measures he is a valuable component of the Warriors' lineup; by some measures, he should have been an All-Star; by Beech's, though, he is trade bait. Sometimes, Dampier's stat lines miss the story. In the Warriors' recent 97-90 upset of Minnesota, Beech's numbers show, Dampier didn't have anywhere near the kind of impact his personal statistics in the box score -- 21 points and 19 rebounds -- would indicate. In fact, it's possible he even hurt the team in his 41 minutes on the floor, meaning that the game was won in the seven minutes he was toweling off on the bench: His plus-minus for the game was -4 -- Golden State outscored the Timberwolves by 11 when Dampier was on the bench. "He definitely has some kind of negative influence on the other players," says Beech, who wasn't surprised when Dampier's name recently came up in a trade rumor.
Beech says he's found some resistance within the league to this sort of measurement, but thinks his numbers hold up. "There's a sense that it's a little unfair, perhaps, to lump guys in with their teammates -- that you don't want to judge [Orlando star] Tracy McGrady by the rest of his teammates right now, because he doesn't have any good teammates," he says. "But if you actually go to his numbers, yeah, he is a big positive influence on his teammates. The numbers seem to work, to my mind. If they explore them a little bit, they'll find that."
The NBA -- which for years didn't even track things like minutes played, blocked shots, offensive and defensive rebounds, steals, turnovers -- generally has been slow to embrace the work of people like Beech. It's a league still run on gut feeling, and the "brains" feel left out. "I don't think they know we exist," says John Hollinger, who recently published his second Pro Basketball Prospectus, a book of statistical analysis. "They think this stuff is half a notch above witchcraft." Adds a slightly more put-upon colleague: "It's like anybody else who knows something. You know Galileo? Did this guy know what he was doing? And what happened to Galileo? They killed him." Beech has made some inroads into the NBA culture: He speaks with assistants and scouts, not to mention Dallas' maverick owner, Mark Cuban, who complimented Beech's work. Beech also supplies statistics for Hall of Famer Rick Barry's KNBR radio show.