Wizards

Wizards

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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