Oliver, the Moneyball-style statistician who now works for the Sonics, has earned some credit for Seattle's good season last year. But it has been hard to get a bead on exactly how he affected the team. Ballard has an example:
Last spring, for example, as the Sonics prepared to face the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, Oliver turned up evidence that while San Antonio was a dominant defensive team, particularly in the paint, it was not bulletproof. "When you go at the midrange, there was a big hole," he explains. "Compared to the rest of the league, the Spurs are 30-35 percent less vulnerable than the rest of the league from three-point land but 30 percent more vulnerable from midrange." So, partly on Oliver's advice, the Sonics pulled up for 15- to 18-foot jumper after jumper. In the end Seattle increased its midrange shooting more than any other Spurs opponent and surprised many people by taking a superior San Antonio team to six games. "If you have a good midrange game against us, you have a better chance," confirms Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer. "And with the Sonics, since we wanted to keep them off the three-point line, that left us weaker in the midrange game."
There's also a story about Dallas's statisticians, Jeff Sagarin and Wayne Winston, noticing that for some reason Jerry Stackhouse and Marquis Daniels did not get good results on the floor together. The coaches didn't understand why, but apparently heeded the advice all the same. This is the kind of thing we're going to be seeing more and more through the years. And I bet it will actually make scoring go down--in short because I think this is an incredible teaching tool, and I theorize that we have more to learn about defense than offense.