Customer Reviews: Basketball on Paper: Rules and Tools for Performance Analysis
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on August 17, 2007
I have been using the formulas and ideas presented in Dean Oliver's book for the past three years. I was never a math fan, but my spreadsheets for calculating basketball statistics are the most complicated I have ever created and it was this book that started my obsession. The book inspired me with a fascination over a new way to look at the game and the players that bring it to life. Mr. Oliver's work was just a starting point and over the past few years I have added other formulas and other mathematical approaches to looking at the game, but I would not have gotten anywhere without this book. It is an essential tool in my toolbox for evaluating and enjoying the game of basketball.
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on July 1, 2012
As a statistician, and someone who also loves sports, I have totally enjoyed the "new" satistical approaches to sports stats, from tversky to moneyball to learning you should never punt. Sports arguments are often a lot more fun these days (e.g., 90 percent of the ESPN analysis on NBA draft night is how well the players scored the ball in college, when that appears statistically to be only a minor indicator of professional success.

The problem I have with much of the literature aimed at the general public though, is that is over simplifies the problems, and all to often takes away the argument by assumption. John Maynard Keynes taught us that the big problem with statistics is not the methods, it's having no way to validate the numbers we put in.

So here we have an assumed method of picking the best offensive and defensive teams in history, no discussion of why most of those teams did not win a championship, no discussion of alternative methods. We get probabilities of winning streaks, but only a couple paragraphs on problems with those stats. (player injuries as the only example.). What about the fact that NBA teams almost always lose the second game of back to back road games? What about teams tanking at the end of the season to improve draft position?

I appreciated large parts of this book, but also found myself deeply frustrated with it at points. There are better books out there for people who want to get started on modern sports statistics.
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on June 24, 2015
If you are interested in advanced basketball statistics or are just a fan looking for ways to be a more discerning viewer, you will probably find this an interesting read. If you are looking for new insights, not so much.

An example of an interesting idea: Comparing a team's points scored, points allowed differential with the league average for a particular year is a pretty good indicator of the teams winning percentage. Of course, if a team has played enough games to have a statistically significant point differential, the teams won/loss record is also a pretty good indicator of how the teams winning percentage will end up. An interesting correlation but not very interesting for making predictions nor for understanding the game.

The author makes a very good point that players should be evaluated not on how much they score, but their value as a scoring asset minus their liability on defense. The author considers shooting percentage, assists, free throws, etc. as contributions to scoring. He also tries to include statistics on blocks, shooting percentages of opposing players, etc. to determine a defensive value. While a step in the right direction, it is a long ways from being useful to determine a players value. A couple of examples:

1. A player is very good at 3 point shooting. The opposing teams denies him the ball and instantly double teams him every time he touches the ball. This allows the remainder of his team to play 4 on 3, get lots of open looks presumably score very efficiently. Since the player in question probably commonly passes out of double teams but not directly to the player ultimately taking a shot, he will probably get few assists. According to the author, this player has very little offensive value.

2. The highest rated defenses (based on opponents shooting percentages) involve a lot of defensive switching, rotating, double teaming, clogging passing lanes, etc. When an opposing player gets a good look, it is often after multiple switches and rotations have been forced and a very good defender gets close enough to be considered to "contest the shot". The author would consider this a minus for the defensive player if the shot went in. If the defensive player were a little slower, it would be considered a defensive failure of the team rather than the player. To maximize a defensive rating, a player should contest shots against poor shooters and not get close to good shooters. Further, teams will try to place their best defender on the best opposing scorer. If the opposing scorer has a good game, the teams best defender will have a bad defensive rating while lesser teammates defending poorer shooters may be rated much higher.

A substantial part of the book is devoted to rating great players such as Bill Russel, Wilt Chamberlin, Michael Jordon, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, etc. Guess what, they end up having great statistics. He also rates some busts and guess what ... they have crappy statistics. The only interesting aspect of the player ratings was a discussion of volume shooters such as Allen Iverson and quantifying how carrying a big percentage of a teams offense results in a lower shooting percentage.

The three biggest failings of the book:

1. A little over half way through the books, the author states that he massaged some of his numbers in ways that statisticians would scream about ... presumably to make his results better fit his prejudices. He never states how he manipulated the numbers. That by itself pretty much makes every number he assigns worthless.

2. The author briefly describes rating methods others have used. In particular, he describes a method that seems to be based in part on +/-. He goes on to give a few examples of players that rated highly under this system. When one of those highly rated players turned out to be someone not generally considered a star, the author indicated the method didn't pass the "roll your eyes test" and that the methods proponents couldn't explain why the player in question rated so highly. Of course, the author of this book offered no evidence why an average player had such a great +/- related rating. I thought this was a great opportunity for the author to have an important/interesting explanation about how an average player could have a great +/-. Instead, he just dismisses it as "obviously wrong".

3. A player cannot get a good defensive rating unless everyone else that plays with him is pretty good defensively. The better the team defense, the better rating the individual players will have. Therefore, the authors methods are useless for rating the defensive abilities of any player that is not on a good defense. It is also the case that the better a team offense is, the higher the individual players will be rated.
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on December 23, 2003
Oliver's work shows a maturity that has been lacking from many basketball evaluation books--John Hollinger's "Basketball Prospectus" being another exception. Not only are players evaluated statistically but their roles on their teams are considered in context in relationship to their numbers. If you want to gain an understanding of basketball as perhaps you've never had before, and are willing to accept the ambiguous nature of numbers themselves, this is the book for you!
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on July 22, 2015
Dean Oliver's Basketball on Paper is a must read for coaches and those interested in statistics. This book provides a significant amount of information leading to the genesis of sports analytics in basketball. A book about statistics I thought might be difficult to read but I found the flow to be quite easy and enjoyable
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on January 9, 2007
I thought it was an excellent book. The author was clearly very knowledgeable both as a basketball player and as a quantitative analyst. Probably this dual identity is also what allowed him to communicate the findings so well to non-analysts while preserving enough of the meat of the analysis for pure analysts to see where it would all lead to.

Best book on sports statistics that I've read.
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on December 7, 2013
This is a must-have for anyone interested in basketball analytics. Mr. Oliver does a great job of taking you through his thought process. That is what I found to be the most important. He describes the inherent challenges in basketball analytics and details how he address those issues.
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on September 16, 2014
Service by Amazon was perfect, on time and brand new condition. The book is interesting as I expected, and I beleive Oliver adds some wit and humor that helps in the drier sections, but the book tends to get a little listy. For example, it will show you the scorer's sheet for an entire game, when maybe only a half is necessary. Or it will give you the top 30 offenses of all-time, when a list of ten might be more managable. There are also some typos in the book that the editor should not have missed. All in all though, it's a great purchase and a very educational and interesting read.
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on November 8, 2014
If you are into a technical, mathematical analysis of basketball teams, then this book is a right fit for you. The author Dean Oliver is a genius with his presentation of various factors and rankings regarding teams and players from not only a current aspect but from also a historical perspective. This book obviously took a tremendous amount of time to produce with all of the ratings and graphs and formulas. Well worth the price and better yet well worth my own time to digest this book in its entirety.
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on August 19, 2005
This is a great book for people who are both numbers geeks and basketball geeks. I wish that there was more of a focus on college basketball, but that's just me. The author even replied to a couple of my questions regarding some of the formulas via email. Highly recommended for a basketball fan intrigued by statistics and indexes.
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