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VOL. 128 | NO. 5 | Tuesday, January 08, 2013

By the Numbers

Grizzlies’ new data guru ready to roll up his sleeves

By Andy Meek

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John Hollinger is a familiar sight at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the event Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has jokingly described as Geekapalooza.

The Memphis Grizzlies have hired John Hollinger, who will help the team make important roster decisions to continue its success built in part on Rudy Gay, from left, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

(Photo: AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Hollinger was a panelist this past March at the most recent conference, when he was still an ESPN columnist and a few months away from being offered a job in the Memphis Grizzlies front office.

He was questioned at one point about how tough a job it is to make sense of the reams of data available today in the world of professional sports. And about the effect on data gathering of technological advancements, like the cameras high up in some sports arenas that track player locations at 25 frames a second.

“Well, that’s where it gets to be more art than science,” Hollinger replied, about how to wade through everything. “There’s that old statement – if you torture a number badly enough, it will tell you anything.”

He then ticked off a list of factors his fellow mathletes use for everything from predictive analysis to player valuation. In the audience listening to him were members of the sports establishment as well as other analysts and statisticians.

A few years ago, Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien was in that same crowd. The conference was where Levien, an agent at the time, first met Hollinger.

Levien heard him speak on a panel. They had dinner later and discovered they had mutual friends. Levien recalls being impressed right away by Hollinger and how he seemed “very smart about numbers and basketball” and about “how to use numbers to understand what’s happening.”

They became fast friends. And Levien, a key part of the Grizzlies’ new ownership structure along with chairman Robert Pera, used that long history to sell Hollinger on the job in Memphis.

“The job will entail a lot of traditional front office stuff, not that different from what other people are doing,” Hollinger said about his new role as vice president of basketball operations for the Grizzlies. “Scouting, managing salary cap, personnel moves.

“The one thing that’s different is I’ll be focused on the analytics end, really trying to take us to have a first-rate analytics infrastructure to match some of the more advanced teams like Houston and San Antonio that have really kind of taken the lead in this.”

Personnel valuation is where he said one of the biggest impacts will be seen.

“That’s really what the league is about,” Hollinger said. “You have to make those decisions correctly, or they result in very expensive mistakes that aren’t that easy to get out of.

“I think that’s where a majority of the effort will be,” he said. “Same thing with the draft. Not that I don’t think there are ways we can use it on the court as well that haven’t been fully taken advantage of, but I think it’s mainly off the court that will be the biggest role for analytics-type stuff.”

At the moment, he’s still figuring out what next steps need to be taken to build out those capabilities.

Among his current thoughts about the Grizzlies:

“We are an elite defensive team,” Hollinger said. “We’re excellent at forcing turnovers. Not a lot of threes. We need to get better beyond the arc, whether internally or through personnel growth. We can pound you inside, and we have the speed to score in transition with guys like Mike (Conley) and Tony (Allen) and Rudy (Gay).”

Hollinger joined ESPN.com in 2005. The player efficiency rating (PER) he developed is intended to measure a player’s per-minute productivity.

“When I came to Memphis, I said we wanted the smartest guys at the table in each division of the organization,” said Levien, a few hours prior to the Jan. 4 matchup between the Grizzlies and the Portland Trailblazers. “John is a humble, team-first kind of guy. Other teams had tried to get him. I put my agent hat back on, which I hadn’t worn in awhile. We’d been friends for years, so I drew on that.”

Hollinger, he said, can help project the future trajectory of player careers and will be particularly indispensable come draft time. He’ll also work closely with the team on salary cap data analysis.

“In a lot of ways, basketball is where baseball was in 1990 in terms of analytics,” Levien said, adding that with Hollinger, “we’ll be gathering more and different kinds of data.”

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