Bill James of Basketball

Freakonomics pointed me to a very nice article about Dean Oliver of the Seattle SuperSonics in Wired. Dean is considered by some to the “the Bill James of Basketball.” Indeed, Dean has written an excellent book on performance analysis in basketball called Basketball on Paper. Now, I’m not as huge a fan of basketball as a once was, but Dean is certainly a really interesting guy. I had the good fortune to meet Dean over the summer at the Western Economic Association meeting in San Francisco. Though I was aware of his book, I had not read it, yet Dean was willing to entertain my silly questions about APBRmetrics. And the great thing about basketball is that there is a lot more room for stat-heads to add something. The science is still young, even though much of the thinking originally came from another famous Dean, Dean Smith. Here is one idea Oliver uses in his analysis.

Oliver thinks possession efficiency is basketball’s version of on-base percentage. “Teams that score a lot of points don’t necessarily win games, and teams that prevent opponents from scoring a lot of points don’t necessarily win, either,” he explains. “But if you convert a greater percentage of possessions into points than your opponent does, you win games.” By tracking a team’s per-possession efficiency whenever a given player is on the court, Oliver thinks he has the truest measure of a player’s value. By comparison, metrics like points per game, rebounds, or assists reveal little.

Check out Dean’s site ( for some excellent info on performance analysis in basketball. With George Shinn totally ruining the Hornets (that lemon hair dye he used must have been absorbed by his brain) I haven’t had an NBA team to cheer for. So, I’ll keep an eye on the SuperSonics this year.

One Response “Bill James of Basketball”

  1. John W says:

    I’m not sure you could have posted anything more interesting to me. I read Basketball On Paper a little over a year ago after I had been searching for sabermetric-type stats for the sport. Harding is a big basketball school (though D-II and without any kind of history), so I had even come up with my own stats before reading Oliver’s work.

    Last year, I implemented all of Oliver’s stats, and this year I’m combining those with some similar ones that John Hollinger uses prominently on (his stuff is only available for Insiders, though). You should check out his book, which is called Pro Basketball Forecast. Also, visit for more interesting stuff. My site for Harding Basketball is here if you want to see what I’m doing with it, too.