A Phoenix Suns Q and A with Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton


I’ve written about hoping to develop a forum in which smart basketball talk takes place, but before venturing over to the forum I would recommend purchasing the 2010-11 edition of Basketball Prospectus by Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle.

The book features in-depth team previews that include statistical projections and comparisons to similar players for every guy in the league. There’s also team level statistical analysis as well as other fun features like fantasy projections and busts/sleepers. You can purchase it on Amazon for $12.95 or better yet for immediate digital download for $9.98.

In the following Q and A on the Suns section of the book, Pelton discusses where the advanced stats movement is at today, why the Suns’ offense took a hit in SCHOENE’s projection and one thing that surprised him about an individual player projection by SCHOENE.

Michael Schwartz: For my readers who may be unfamiliar, briefly describe your SCHOENE projection system and WARP.

Kevin Pelton: The SCHOENE projection system is a unique effort to project both team and player statistics in context. Player projection makes use of the development of the most similar past players at the same age to give an estimate of how aging will affect a player’s statistics, which are based on their weighted performance over the past three seasons. We then subjectively project playing time and use a handful of team statistics (pace, team defense not captured by individual stats, etc.) to create team statistics totals that we use to project records.

WARP is our primary individual metric. It uses a player’s individual stats to create an imaginary “team” of the player and four average teammates. We use these statistics to create a winning percentage for this imaginary team that is a per-minute rating a la PER. Then we introduce the concept of replacement level, which is borrowed from our baseball counterparts, to capture how valuable a player is to their team in terms of wins added above a replacement-level player (a D-League callup or training-camp invitee). That’s Wins Above Replacement Player, or WARP.

Schwartz: Where do you see the advanced stats movement being at today? Do you think there will be a time in a decade or so when SCHOENE, WARP and PER will be a regular part of a common fan’s basketball vocabulary?

Pelton: When I compare interest in advanced statistics now to five years ago, the growth is staggering. Having people like John Hollinger in prominent positions has helped people become familiar with the general concepts. It’s not necessarily about the ratings so much as simple things like the importance of pace (the Suns have helped us explain that one) and considering how efficiently a player scores points. In all sports, there is a generational aspect to the statistical revolution, and I think as we see the younger voices of the blogsosphere growing into bigger roles, they are going to expect to inject some statistics into the discussion. So yeah, I think a good percentage of fans are going to have at least some interest in advanced statistics by the end of the decade.

Schwartz: I was certainly a little surprised to see a Suns team that has led the NBA in Offensive Rating the past five years drop out of the top 10 in SCHOENE’s projection. Why do you suppose this is the case?

Pelton: It’s worth noting that the last two years Phoenix was projected to finish sixth in Offensive Rating before ultimately leading the league, so there is a history of underrating the Suns’ offense. This has a lot to do with Steve Nash’s superhuman aging. Because it is based on an average aging pattern, SCHOENE keeps expecting Nash to drop off only to see him exceed his projection. That explains a lot of the projection. I would say the rest can be explained by the loss of efficiency with Hedo Turkoglu essentially replacing Amar’e Stoudemire as the second option on offense.

Schwartz: The Suns are projected to finish 37-45 by SCHOENE. What must happen in Phoenix for the Suns to outplay that projection?

Pelton: The first thing would be finding out how to fill in the production lost with Stoudemire’s departure, I would imagine. That means a consistent pick-and-roll option like Stoudemire has been for the last half-decade or so as well as figuring out who is going to grab defensive rebounds. If Nash and Grant Hill can continue to defy age, that will help. A last key factor would be Channing Frye maintaining last year’s newfound three-point range. Because it uses three years’ worth of statistics, SCHOENE is still suspicious of Frye as a three-point threat.

Schwartz: The Suns’ riskiest move this offseason involved the acquisition of Hedo Turkoglu and his long-term contract. What’s the projected risk factor in this deal a couple years down the road?

Pelton: It’s significant. The three most similar players to Turkoglu are Reggie Theus, Jalen Rose and Steve Smith. By age 34, Theus was out of the league, Rose was in his last season as a bit player for the Suns and Smith had become a 20-minute reserve. Phoenix will be paying Turkoglu nearly $12 million that season. Not even the Suns’ training staff will be able to get value out of that salary.

Schwartz: What surprised you most about an individual Sun’s player projection?

Pelton: I was really surprised that SCHOENE did not project much improvement for Goran Dragic. Last year, the projection system saw him improving rapidly, which came to fruition. Young point guards tend to develop much more than players at other positions, so I would not be surprised at all to see Dragic outperform his projection.