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Late last month, the Golden State Warriors launched an optimistic bid to land Erick Dampier, their gawky 6-foot-11 center, on the NBA All-Star team. Dampier is an odd specimen, with his bluesman's eyes and his headbands and his socks yanked up to his knees. For seven seasons, six of them with the Warriors, he was considered a bust, a chronic underachiever who was happy to collect a paycheck but never a rebound in traffic. Last year, in a huff about playing time, he referred to his coach, Eric Musselman, as "Musselhead." This season, though, Dampier began to produce -- 14 points and 23 rebounds against the Lakers; 23 points and 22 rebounds against Memphis -- and at the end of January he was averaging 11.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, both career highs. "Other than Shaq," Musselman told Sports Illustrated a month into the season, "there's not a better center in the league right now."
To many, Dampier had become the face of the new, starless Warriors: hardworking, unspectacular, overachieving -- "blue collar," as they say in the sports world. On Jan. 28, the day before coaches were to receive their All-Star ballots, and just hours before the Warriors' game against Minnesota, Musselman phoned some of his Western Conference colleagues and lobbied on Dampier's behalf for their All-Star votes. That evening, Dampier made a sort of closing argument: He scored 21 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, and blocked five shots in the Warriors' upset victory over a Timberwolves team that has become one of the NBA's best. "Hopefully," Dampier told reporters after the game, "this was a good impression on the coaches."
The coaches may have been impressed, but not Roland Beech, a skinny 35-year-old who spends his days staring at arcane basketball statistics in Excel spreadsheets. Beech, born to English parents, is a small, unassuming guy with a narrow face, a poof of light brown hair, and a hint of a British accent. He works on the second floor of a roomy house in unincorporated Aptos, near Santa Cruz. His office is bare -- a futon, a TV, a desk, a gurgling aquarium -- but it's likely there is as much quantified information about the National Basketball Association here, on a small computer humming beneath a kid's crayon drawing, as anywhere outside the league itself. This is the home of Beech's NBA Web site, 82games.com, which tracks the season in obsessive statistical detail, down to the kind of abstruse metrics that pro basketball has thus far overlooked, underused, or entirely ignored.
Right now, Beech's spreadsheets tell him that Dampier, touted all year as one of the NBA's most improved players, has actually been a liability. "Basically," Beech says one afternoon in January, clicking around on his computer and bringing up a page of Dampier's numbers, "the team is worse offensively when he's on the floor. It's pretty dramatic. They're about a tenth of a point per possession worse. Field goal percentage is down a bit. Rebounding is a wash.
"It's just strange. He's one of these guys -- and you find them sprinkled around -- who would seemingly be positive players, but for some reason aren't."
Just how Beech perceives this hidden impact could change the way basketball is watched, coached, and even played.
Beech's site went online last fall, an auspicious time to set out on a project of this sort. It was, after all, the year that geeks and jocks finally shook hands, and the sports world tiptoed into a kind of age of reason. In 2003, statheads saw their patron saint, Bill James, baseball's ultimate outsider, working as a senior adviser to the Boston Red Sox, conceiving studies on things like the effectiveness of tall left-handed pitchers at Fenway Park. And they found all their shibboleths between the covers of a best seller -- Moneyball, about the Oakland A's, a team built on the spreadsheets of Harvard grads.
The geeks have yet to find the same kind of foothold in basketball, a relatively young professional sport that hasn't generated a century's worth of statistics. Nor have they established the kind of large community that sustained baseball research for years on the margin of the sport; the Association for Professional Basketball Research wasn't even created until 1997. Twenty years ago, Bill James famously wrote that "baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the powers of language," a verdict that still holds. Partly, that's due to the nature of the game. In baseball, the most important interaction, pitcher versus hitter, is one-on-one, with solid statistics to express the outcome. In basketball, though, a jump shot from 15 feet could be the result of a pick-and-roll, a kick-out from the post, a crisp pass from the perimeter -- a complex interaction among teammates, in other words, reduced to two points and an assist in the next day's box score. "The players are so tied together," Beech says, "that there are a lot of statistics not reflected in the personal stats."
82games.com sprang from that idea -- that a player's performance is intimately connected with the team context. When he began work on the site, Beech was drawn to two key measures of a basketball player's effectiveness: plus-minus and on-court/off-court. The first stat tracks the team's performance when a player is on the court. That's to say, if Erick Dampier were to enter the game with the Warriors trailing by four and go to the bench with the Warriors trailing by 10, the team would have ceded six points to its opponent and thus Dampier's plus-minus for that time would be -6. Similarly, on-court/off-court breaks down a team's statistics -- how it shoots, defends, rebounds, and so on -- with and without a certain player in the lineup. Both stats have their flaws, which Beech readily acknowledges (and would like to correct). A good point guard with a strong backup might look worse than an average point guard who's playing ahead of a developmental-league call-up from Fayetteville. But as rough indexes of a player's effectiveness, plus-minus and on-court/off-court are often illuminating.