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How analytics pioneer and new Wizards assistant Dean Oliver has changed the team's thinking

How analytics pioneer and new Wizards assistant Dean Oliver has changed the team's thinking

WASHINGTON -- Assistant coach Dean Oliver is easy to spot during Wizards timeouts. If you're in the arena with a good view of the bench, just look for the guy hustling back and forth with a stack of papers under his arm.

The walking around, Oliver says, is simply so he can talk to other coaches through stadium noise. But those papers contain the reason why he was hired as an assistant by the Wizards after years working in front offices, as a consultant and researcher. 

Oliver is a first-time NBA coach but has a basketball résumé that speaks for itself. He played Division III college basketball at Cal Tech, although he "wasn't very good," as head coach Scott Brooks likes to joke. Oliver then got a Ph.D. in statistical evaluation at the University of North Carolina.

Over the years he has worked for three NBA teams (the Sonics, Kings and Nuggets) in front office roles. He also published studies on how numbers can drive strategy. Along the way, he became a sort of Bill James-like figure in the basketball world.

Like James in baseball, Oliver has transformed how his sport is evaluated. He helped guide a movement towards efficiency numbers by popularizing per-100 stats like offensive and defensive rating.

That provides some irony for this Wizards season. With the fifth-highest offensive rating in the NBA, the Wizards have been exceptionally good in the very stat he created.

"I'd rather be at the top of the league in terms of wins and losses," Oliver told NBC Sports Washington. "Certainly, efficiency is nice. There's a talent associated with that. Fundamentally, when you're not winning as much as you want to, I use these tools to try to identify where we need to get better."

That's exactly why Oliver was brought to Washington, to make the Wizards better. And it may take time to notice his true impact. It will be seen in how the Wizards develop young players and how they unlock traits other teams may have missed in veterans that come over as free agents or in trades.

In the short-term, Oliver's fingerprints are on advanced scouting and in-game adjustments. The latter has forced the biggest change for Oliver so far in his transition from the front office to the coaching staff. 

He now has far less time to make decisions. Outside of games, Oliver has hours and hours to pore over numbers. In games, he has to process things quickly and convey them clearly to Brooks and the rest of the team.

That's also where the sheets of paper come in. During games, Oliver is taking notes about what he sees on the floor.

"I have a pretty detailed shorthand which is my way of tracking what is going on in the game. Some of it is the same stuff you can get online, but we can't access the internet on there so I'm tracking it the best I can. Some of it goes beyond that, for sure," he explained.

"Usually, I'm trying to digest what I have over the course of the first half. When we have timeouts, one of the other things I do is just write my notes to try to summarize what I'm seeing. Some of it is a check on my own stuff. If I'm seeing a trend, say midway through the second quarter or something, by the end of that second quarter hopefully that trend is still there. Because if it's not, it might have just been random variation. It's to check on my own perceptions."

Halftime is where Oliver can go back in the locker room and really process the data. He tries to find advantages outside of the box score, then reports the information to Brooks and the rest of the staff.

Brooks will also confer with Oliver outside of games with questions answered by data he can't calculate himself.

"I could ask him something and within that same day or an hour or two, he gives me what I ask and he throws other things in it, so he sparks conversation," Brooks said.

What Brooks likes about Oliver, in particular, is that he's more than just numbers. Oliver has playing experience and a lifelong love for the game. 

Because he college basketball, he has an extra level of credibility, at least in Brooks' eyes.

"I think he's much more than analytics and that's what I like about him," Brooks said.

When it comes to relating to players, Oliver will give a theory you often hear from basketball coaches who did not play at the level they coach, that players will like you and appreciate you if they feel you can help them. Wizards players realize Oliver is just trying to make them better and the better they get, the longer their NBA careers will be and the more money they will make.

And Oliver, in part because of his basketball playing experience, can speak a language the players understand.

"I don't try to necessarily frame it in terms of a number. These are answers to basketball questions, right? So you're trying to do that and say why this is a better shot or why this is a better thing to do using basketball language as much as possible. It may come from analysis, but you can tell players 'hey, this is a good shot for you.' You don't need to give them the numbers," Oliver said.

In polling Wizards players around the locker room, two themes emerged about Oliver and his impact. One is his approach of positive reinforcement, as Troy Brown Jr. can attest.

"We talk before the game usually," Brown said. "It's just little stuff. He will say something that is encouraging to me based on the analytics."

Davis Bertans likes the depth Oliver and his numbers can provide. Bertans is known mostly as a shooter, but works hard to be well-rounded enough to affect games in other ways.

"Some guy might not be scoring points or doing much statistically, but he is impacting the team and the team is doing better when he's on the court than off the court," Bertans said.

Oliver says his ability to analyze and evaluate using numbers is innate. He was born to be a critical, thorough analyst of everything, not just basketball. As he describes it, while NBA players were earning accolades in high school and college as McDonald's All-Americans and all-conference selections, he was doing the same in math and science.

"I had a brain for numbers," Oliver said.

And it goes well beyond his profession. For instance, when Oliver makes a major purchase like a house or a car, he does deep statistical research before pulling the trigger. He charts out expected resale value and general depreciation per brand and per model, evaluates the market and its future and tries to peel back enough layers to find something others either can't or aren't even looking for.

"I want to get to the truth. There's a lot of simplistic analysis that you can do and a lot of time that's good enough. What I like to check is, since math is easy for me, can I do it a little bit better and make sure I'm doing it right? If you're just doing what most people are doing, you're doing what the market says. How do you beat the market? It requires going beyond," he said.

This all, of course, brings us to the most obvious and natural question anyone would want to ask a person of Oliver's ilk and stature: what should we think of the midrange shot?

It turns out it's a bit more nuanced than you might expect for a guy who is considered a pioneer of basketball analytics.

"I think obviously the conventional wisdom now [is that] they're not great shots but there's some midrange shots that are completely fine. There are some players for whom that's a pretty good shot to take and I've always been a big believer in take the shots that are best for who you are," he said.

"You've gotta customize what you do to the players you have and vice versa. You have to try to get players that fit you and you try to fit the players you've got. There's some lack of mobility in each... Players have an identity as well. You can modify it, but trying to revolutionize a player, that's hard."

As the smartest and most adaptable basketball minds will tell you, it's not clear-cut one way or the other. The numbers matter, but so do other forms of evaluation.

Oliver has brought a clever mix to the Wizards' coaching staff and his long-term impact could be significant.

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Eliminated from playoffs, Wizards hope to make gains in other ways

Eliminated from playoffs, Wizards hope to make gains in other ways

The Wizards arrived in Orlando with dual goals, to make the play-in tournament and to use the extra games to develop their young players. Now that they are eliminated from playoff contention, the second one has come fully into focus.

Really, it was their most important goal all along. Though they had an opportunity to make the postseason, and publicly stated their hope of qualifying, they had no illusions of their chances, especially with Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans opting not to go. 

Surely they wanted to do better than they have so far. With their loss to the Pelicans on Friday night, the Wizards have lost all eight of their games in the bubble: five regular season games that count and three others during their warm-up exhibition schedule.

It was been an ugly showing in terms of wins and losses, no doubt. But the returns in the player development department have been solid. 

"Coming down here, that was our goal: get involved in the play-in game. We didn’t reach that, but we also had other goals to develop and keeping getting better and keep playing the brand of basketball we want to play," head coach Scott Brooks said. "We’ve done a lot of good things."

Troy Brown Jr. and Thomas Bryant have made the most of the experience. Brown is averaging 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists while handling more ball-handling duties than he usually does. Bryant has been a force on both ends, averaging 20.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 40 percent from three (5.0 3PA).

RELATED: 5 TAKEAWAYS FROM WIZARDS LOSS TO PELICANS

The rest of the team has been a mixed bag. But young players like Jerome Robinson, Isaac Bonga, Moe Wagner and Admiral Schofield are getting more minutes than ever and are being allowed to play through their mistakes.

The mistakes, though, could be less forgivable than they appear. Brooks dropped a reminder of another reason why the Wizards feel their time in Orlando is valuable.

"Our job is to keep evaluating before next season starts who’s going to be with us and who’s not," Brooks said.

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Next year, the Wizards will have some collection of these guys but whomever is kept will be asked to perform under more pressure, for a team with bigger goals. Once Beal reunites with John Wall, it will be playoffs or bust.

The guys who will return need to work the kinks out now because the coaching staff and front office will have no choice but to be less lenient in their decisions. Barring a trade, Bryant should be back and installed as an important piece. He understands what he is preparing for.

"It’s difficult because everyone wants to win," he said. "But sometimes you’ve gotta look at the bigger picture of how things are going to work out."

The Wizards will now get their toughest tests yet with their final three games in Orlando all coming against teams with top-10 records in the NBA. They see the Thunder, Celtics and Bucks to close things out.

There may not be much on the line in terms of the standings, but the Wizards' young prospects will get to try their hand at the league's best. Whether they can leave the bubble with a victory is now a real question.

"This is my rookie season and I want to finish strong. Hopefully we can win a game," Rui Hachimura said.

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5 takeaways from Wizards-Pelicans, including Rui Hachimura's breakout

5 takeaways from Wizards-Pelicans, including Rui Hachimura's breakout

The Washington Wizards lost to the New Orleans Pelicans 118-107 on Friday night in Orlando, officially eliminating them from the playoffs. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

Yet another loss

The playoffs were always going to be a longshot for the Wizards and now those hopes are officially a thing of the past. They were eliminated from postseason contention on Friday night with their loss to the Pelicans, who used a 12-point advantage in the third quarter to coast to victory.

Now it is fair to ask if the Wizards will win a single game in Orlando, as with this loss they fell to 0-5 in the restart games that count and 0-8 if you include their three exhibition games before that. Making matters worse is that their three toughest opponents still await.

Their final three games are against the Thunder, Bucks and Celtics. Unless any of those teams rest star players, it will require a major upset for the Wizards to leave Orlando with a victory.

Sure, it's more about player development than anything. But zero wins would be unexpected.

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Rui bounced back

After three games in which he fell short of double-digit points and shot a total of 8-for-29 (27.5%), Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura finally broke through with a big offensive performance. He wasted no time either, with nine points in the first quarter and 15 by halftime. 

Hachimura finished with 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting with six rebounds. It seemed like the Wizards tried to spread things out a bit more to give him space. It didn't hurt the team was able to knock down some threes.

Head coach Scott Brooks explained recently how the team's lack of 3-point shooting has limited Hachimura's ability to go to work in the midrange. He had more room to operate but also hit some tough shots that just didn't fall for him in previous games.

It was good to see, though, because the Wizards only have three more games in Orlando. If any of their young players are going to get something out of this experience, they better do it sooner than later.

No Zion

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see Hachimura go up against Zion Williamson, as the Pelicans held him out for rest on the second night of a back-to-back. Williamson, who has been treated very carefully all season, played 22 minutes against the Kings on Thursday.

That would have put the No. 1 pick from last summer against the No. 9 pick and it would have been their first meeting since college. The Wizards didn't see Williamson last July in the Summer League because he got hurt. And their other game against the Pelicans this season was canceled due to the league shutting down because of the coronavirus.

Maybe next year.

Bryant keeps producing

Few players on the Wizards have made the most of the restart quite like Thomas Bryant, who has made the most of his extra shot attempts, especially from long range. Bryant posted another strong stat-line of 22 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. He went 9-for-18 from the field and hit two threes.

Much like Troy Brown Jr. (20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists), Bryant is showing enough in Orlando to warrant some respect next year in the Wizards' gameplan. We're seeing that Brown's play-making should be incorporated into the offense, no matter the fact that John Wall and Bradley Beal will be high usage centerpieces. And Bryant's three-point shooting is begging to be utilized.

Maybe it is as simple as Bryant spending more time on the perimeter as they spread the floor with shooters. Or, he could form a deadly pick-and-pop duo with Wall, who has never really had a reliable partner in that regard in his career. Bryant can also be effective at rim-running. The potential between those two in the pick-and-roll is very intriguing.

Wagner and Robinson were off

Something doesn't seem right with Moe Wagner. He has been one of the Wizards' most disappointing performers so far in Orlando and he just doesn't appear to be himself on the floor.

Wagner had another bad game with two points in 10 minutes. He only attempted one shot.

Before the game, Brooks said he had been thinking a lot about how to get Wagner going, that he wasn't playing with the same spirit he is used to seeing. Beyond that, the numbers tell a bleak story. In five games at Disney World, Wagner has 16 total points. He's averaging 3.2 points per game while shooting 30 percent.

Is it the ankle injury he suffered earlier this year? Is something going on we don't know about? Wagner is a good player, but he hasn't looked like it in Orlando. The good news is he has three games left to change that.

Jerome Robinson had been one of the best stories of the restart for the Wizards, but he took a step back in this one. The second-year guard scored only six points on 2-for-8 shooting. Maybe he can get back going on Sunday against the Thunder.

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