Behind The Scenes

How Hollinger crunches the NBA

ESPN.com’s John Hollinger is not afraid to dabble in new territory.

Born and raised on the East Coast, he visited the Pacific Northwest with a college friend and really enjoyed it.  Upon graduating from the University of Virginia, he found employment at a market research company in Portland and relocated.

Hollinger had earned a degree with a double major in economics and environmental science, and his place of employment seemed fitting, but there was one major problem.  Hollinger is a self-described basketball junkie and his curiosity took over.

“I was a 24-year-old kid with a lot of free time,” said Hollinger.  “There was a personal need to answer certain questions I had about the game of basketball and great interest in finding a vehicle to express my opinions.”

Hollinger, therefore, started Alleyoop.com in 1995 and eventually applied certain principles of economics to his development of PER (player efficiency rating), a formula which uses a wide variety of statistics to provide an overall rating for a basketball player’s per-minute production.

For instance, Chicago’s Derrick Rose won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. But according to Hollinger, Rose finished ninth in regular-season PER (23.62). Miami’s LeBron James led all players in PER this season (27.34).

“Geology and hydrology do little for my current career, but the mindset and approach of economics — looking at things like opportunity cost and marginal cost — are useful in many of the problems I attack through statistics,” said Hollinger.

“To me, there were too many contradictions in the statistics which were publicly available,” Hollinger said. “A lot of the things I was most curious about weren’t addressed in traditional stats.

“I read [baseball stats guru] Bill James’ books as a teenager.  They were  really influential because they showed me there a different way to look at the game and provided ideas could apply to basketball, as my favorite sport. It was ripe for exploration.”

Hollinger’s PER sparked national attention and led to his first break with The Oregonian newspaper as an online sports editor in 1998.  He later joined SI.com as a basketball editor and wrote his first book, Pro Basketball Prospectus in 2002.

Hollinger joined ESPN.com in 2005 and currently writes a popular “PER Diem” column (weekdays throughout the season) and continues to tweak and enhance his unique statistical formulas to most accurately assess NBA player and team performance.  Beyond PER, Hollinger has also developed formulas to calculate power rankings and playoff odds, among others.

For Hollinger, there is great deal of satisfaction in his work, but it doesn’t come without a few surreal moments.

“There is a level of pride, because people are actually using my ideas and concepts .

“The only thing that really weirds me out is when I am on the treadmill and my name comes across the SportsCenter bottom line.  That never stops being surprising and exhilarating.”

Surprising and exhilarating.  Sounds like Hollinger’s next formula.

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