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Hollinger estimates that basketball research is at least 20 years behind baseball research, which is understandable. The two have evolved in entirely different ways. Baseball statheads found the sport's holy grail -- on-base percentage, the determining factor in how many runs a team will score -- and much of the research spun off from there. It's a measure of how far baseball research has come that it has its own common noun: sabermetrics, derived from the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research. Now even Bill James, supreme objectivist, is apparently confident enough in his stature as a baseball thinker that he has added a subjective element to his new player ratings.
But basketball has no holy grail. In his recent book, Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver writes: "[T]he ideal player rating statistic is just not possible." Unless, he goes on, "you can simulate a player with all possible combinations of coaches, and all possible combinations of strategies against all possible combinations of opposing teams ...."
For a brief moment, in the mid-'90s, the sport actually moved forward in the field of statistical analysis, with a data-mining program called Advanced Scout, developed by Inderpal Bhandari at IBM, then an NBA sponsor. "I wanted to develop a data-mining program that exemplified the use of data mining as a mechanism to enable ordinary people, average decision-makers, to deal with this tremendous glut of data," says Bhandari, now CEO of a New York-based data-mining company called Virtual Gold. "Basketball coaches fit that mold very well."
Working with Tom Sterner, then an Orlando Magic assistant coach and now the Warriors' top assistant, Bhandari created a program that could dig through reams of statistics and unearth patterns that stray from the norm. Soon much of the league was using, and trusting, Advanced Scout. Both Sterner and Bhandari tell the story of the Miami-Orlando series in the 1997 playoffs. The Magic trailed 2-0 in the five-game series, having lost the two games by a combined 52 points. Desperate, the coaches turned to Advanced Scout, which found that Orlando actually outscored the Heat when backup point guard Darrell Armstrong was on the floor. Armstrong was given a more central role -- 21 points and eight assists in Game 3; 12 points and nine rebounds in Game 4 -- and the Magic fell just short of winning the series.
But IBM pulled the plug on its NBA sponsorship deal a few years ago; now teams have to pay Virtual Gold $10,000 for the program, according to Sterner. Not many do. (Bhandari acknowledges the drop-off, but declines to say how many teams currently use Advanced Scout.) "The hardest thing in the world is trying to convince somebody to spend 10 grand on a stat package," Sterner says. "It's hard for people to conceive that that's an important element. And to the people who utilize this information and see the value in it, it's mind-boggling to them to think we'll spend $40 million on a player, but we won't pay 10 grand to decide whether we got the right guy."
Several games into the season, with the team playing surprisingly well, the Warriors staff began sniffing around for a free copy of Advanced Scout. Golden State's roster had been overhauled in the off-season -- the Warriors lost Gilbert Arenas, a point guard thought to be a budding star, to free agency and traded away their leading scorer, Antawn Jamison, in a nine-player deal that brought them a moody, explosive point guard in Nick Van Exel -- and again the franchise found itself in what has become its standard predicament, stuck somewhere between a renovation and a playoff run. When the Warriors went 8-7 to open the season, their best start in 10 years, there was even some cautious optimism. Still, the new-look Warriors were just getting used to each other. Around Thanksgiving, the coaches, struggling to get a feel for the Warriors' rotation, wanted to see how their different lineups were doing. Which groups were scoring well? Which were defending? Which were rebounding? All things Advanced Scout could provide.
The Warriors never found a free copy. ("I would spend the 10 grand," Sterner says, "but I'm not the person making the decision." In the NBA, it should be noted, a general manager can find $10,000 between the cushions of his couch.) Instead, someone tipped off head coach Eric Musselman to Beech's site, which is now bookmarked in Sterner's browser. "Muss said, 'Check this out,'" the Warriors assistant recalls. "We all went on, started looking, and said, 'Aw, shit, this is nice.' It's the closest thing to Advanced Scout that's out there." What the coaches quickly noticed was the impact of backup forward Brian Cardinal, the last player invited to Golden State's training camp this season. Cardinal's plus-minus was off the chart, which wasn't entirely a surprise; anyone watching the Warriors during the first month of the season could sense Cardinal was doing something right, stat lines aside.
But for the coaches, Beech -- who hasn't actually met any of the Warriors staff -- had put a number on what, to that point, had been merely a gut feeling. "It really stood out," Sterner says one afternoon in his office, which overlooks the Warriors' practice gym. "Big time. It was so glaring it was an easy decision to make: Yeah, we've got to play this guy."
There is an egalitarian element to the stathead approach: The fat kids get to play, so to speak; the game is stripped of all distracting aesthetics, and the players are judged solely on their numbers. On the court, Cardinal doesn't look anything like an effective NBA forward. He's pale, balding, slow, decidedly earthbound, often clumsy. As a little-used reserve in Detroit, he spent so much time sliding across the floor for loose balls -- doing the dirty work and keeping the floors dust-free -- that a teammate took to calling him "The Custodian." But this year he has proved he belongs in the league; his numbers say so. "Brian Cardinal's season has been huge," Beech says. "You look at his stats -- yeah, he's shooting well and all that, but why would he make such a difference? I think it's because he's filling those kinds of areas you need -- setting good screens, hustling, energizing his own teammates, things like that."