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But for the coaches, Beech -- who hasn't actually met any of the Warriors staff -- had put a number on what, to that point, had been merely a gut feeling. "It really stood out," Sterner says one afternoon in his office, which overlooks the Warriors' practice gym. "Big time. It was so glaring it was an easy decision to make: Yeah, we've got to play this guy."
There is an egalitarian element to the stathead approach: The fat kids get to play, so to speak; the game is stripped of all distracting aesthetics, and the players are judged solely on their numbers. On the court, Cardinal doesn't look anything like an effective NBA forward. He's pale, balding, slow, decidedly earthbound, often clumsy. As a little-used reserve in Detroit, he spent so much time sliding across the floor for loose balls -- doing the dirty work and keeping the floors dust-free -- that a teammate took to calling him "The Custodian." But this year he has proved he belongs in the league; his numbers say so. "Brian Cardinal's season has been huge," Beech says. "You look at his stats -- yeah, he's shooting well and all that, but why would he make such a difference? I think it's because he's filling those kinds of areas you need -- setting good screens, hustling, energizing his own teammates, things like that."
At the very least, Beech's numbers say much more about Cardinal's play than his per game averages of 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. At the start of February, for instance, Cardinal ranked fifth in the league with a "Roland Rating" of +14.2 -- meaning the team was about seven points better than its opponents over 48 minutes when Cardinal was on the floor, and about seven points worse per 48 minutes when he was off the court -- which constitutes a remarkable impact for a backup forward on a so-so team. With Cardinal, the Warriors are better scorers, shooters, defenders, and rebounders: View PDF data (147kb)
"It frustrates me when they don't play Cardinal," Beech says. "He should be playing more. They should give him a chance in the starting lineup to see what happens. Maybe he's only good in his reserve role off the bench. Maybe that's his limitation. But why not toss him in there and start him?" Observation, hypothesis, experiment -- it's Beech's scientific method.
That probably won't happen, Sterner says. Musselman is known for keeping his lineups intact, and in the current climate for NBA coaches -- 14 of 15 Eastern Conference teams have changed coaches since the end of last season -- few would venture any kind of bold experiment. "It would be a big change," Sterner says. "I don't know if you do that right now. I think each coach has a philosophy that he believes in, and there's no right or wrong."
Unless you're losing a lot, it's suggested.
"Unless you're losing a lot," he says. That day, the Warriors were seven games under .500.
The Warriors play the Utah Jazz one Monday evening in Oakland, and it's possible that the most interesting thing to transpire over the course of the game is the conversation in Section 111, Row 28. There, and continuing into the parking lot afterward, Beech and Basketball on Paper author Dean Oliver touch on: why Beech thinks the time will come when he can disregard "the notion of the assist"; the most effective way to razz a free-throw shooter (according to one study at Duke University); the proper trajectory of a jump shot (according to another study); and the fact that Beech's favorite player is Joe Barry Carroll. It's a retro night at the Arena, in fact, with the teams and some of the fans in throwback jerseys, and Beech jokes that he should've worn his Joe Barry Carroll shirt. Once or twice, we get an arched eyebrow from a guy in the row ahead of us.
The Warriors wind up winning, 101-85, a rare blowout, and Dampier plays one of his best games yet, scoring 18 points, grabbing a career-high 24 rebounds, and finishing with a plus-minus of +20. Still, Beech isn't impressed with these Warriors. As he sees it, the team on the floor tonight was built old and creaky, in the hope that an experienced group would capture a low playoff seed this season and thus "breed good will in the fan base" -- essentially mortgaging the younger players' development on a long shot.
If Beech ran the Warriors, this is what he'd do: He'd start by trading the veterans, some if not all, even the productive ones -- point guard Van Exel (plus-minus, as of Feb. 6: -8.3), forward Clifford Robinson (-0.1), backup Calbert Cheaney (+7.5), and, especially, Erick Dampier (-6.2), whose value around the league is likely as high as it'll ever be and probably more than a little inflated. On Beech's team, second-year forward Mike Dunleavy and rookie Mickael Pietrus would both play 36 minutes a game to "find out what the Warriors actually have in these two guys." Beech would play backup point guard Speedy Claxton 36 minutes, too. He would play Cardinal "big minutes." He would hand the reins to acrobatic shooting guard Jason Richardson and see how he responded. He would find out just what he had to work with. He would, to put it another way, probably be fired after a week.