Chatting Sim & Real Season with Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus

Finally we are going to have some real games! Just think, in 30 straight days it will be like this silly little lockout never happened and NBA basketball will be dancing in front of our eyes. OK, maybe it will not be exactly the same. But it is better than nothing.

The fact the lockout claimed 16 games feels depressing in itself and the season is starting nearly two months after it is supposed to. I mean, we are supposed to be gearing up for a critical rematch with the Heat tomorrow right about now.

What helped us pass the time during the last few weeks when we were supposed to get NBA basketball was a great project from Basketball Prospectus and Strat-O-Matic to simulate the entire season. Basketball Prospectus’ Bradford Doolittle was running the simulations, keeping stats and writing quick recaps for each game so we coudl see what we were missing. The Magic did not disappoint going 9-2 in the 11 games simulated before the league reached a tentative agreement.

I reached out to Bradford to ask how the simulation works, whether the Magic can copy those results in real life and his thoughts on the Magic entering the 2011-12 season.

Getty Images/DayLifeOrlando Magic Daily: Magic fans had to be pretty excited to see the Magic start the sim season off 9-2. We know it was all just a fantasy, but reality kind of sucks for us right now. Explain to those who may not be familiar how Strat-O-Matic works and how you came up with the results.

Bradford Doolittle: We fed Strat the projections from Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE system to create player cards for the league’s newcomers, which is something Strat had never done for basketball before. Then we juggled up the rosters to reflect all player movement to date. Unfortunately, we had to make the decision to leave free agents on their old teams. Take Jason Richardson — from what I understand, there is little chance that he’s going to return to Orlando. But we know he’s going to be in the league somewhere, so there was no other choice but to do it that way. So Vince Carter stayed with Phoenix, Caron Butler in Dallas, etc.

From there, Strat ran the simulations and sent me the raw data with the results. Like most sports sims, Strat is a probability-based game. Using statistical baselines, it determines how likely a guy is to make a three-pointer, draw a foul, get an assist, etc., in any given situation. Various factors affect the probability on various plays — defensive positioning, type of shot, relative rebounding strength of players vying for a missed shot. Once the probability for a situation is established, there is a virtual dice roll to determine the result. (Or a literal dice roll if you’re playing the board-game version.) It’s a great way to do it because you get realistic results, especially as your sample sizes increase, but you still have the same element of randomness that makes sports so compelling.

Coaching decisions, team playing styles and player rotations are set according to team profiles you set up. Obviously if you’re a human playing a human opponent, you make all these decisions yourself. But in a sim like this, all of these things are automated. The games play out in about two seconds in auto-sim mode, but you get a text file with complete play-by-play of the action and the box score, which is how I was able to write game summaries. I didn’t make that stuff up. I also dumped the box scores into my database the same way I do with real boxes during the NBA season. That allowed me to generate the custom metrics we use at Basketball Prospectus.

OMD: Pretty neat stuff. I am sure lots of fans would love the opportunity to play a game like this (which you can by visiting Strat-O-Matic’s Web site).

Obviously Strat-O-Matic is based on last year’s stats, but what do you think the results from the sim season might mean, if anything, to the future of the team? Is the team that was dominating everyone on paper (literally) a team this Magic could actually become?

BD: As I mentioned, existing players were based on last year’s stats, but newcomers were based on projections. For Orlando, that really only meant Justin Harper was added to the mix. However, Gilbert Arenas was still gimpy and the Richardsons were still around. In effect, it was largely last year’s Magic playoff roster introduced into a slightly-altered NBA universe.

So you put that team into this year’s schedule, at least the schedule as it was originally intended. The 9-2 start included seven home games and the 18th-ranked schedule in the league. It’s a playoff-caliber squad going against a soft slate. I wouldn’t read too much into it.

OMD: Now that our hopes of a strong, confident start have been dashed… let’s move to real life. Now that the lockout is over, what do you think the Magic have to do to get back into title contention?

Getty Images/DayLifeBD: Otis Smith really changed the dymanic of the Magic with his in-season moves last year, and not in a good way. Some of it was understandable — Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter got old fast — but the Magic clearly weren’t as good after the deals.

Unfortunately, even if you hang an amnesty sign around Gilbert Arenas‘ neck you don’t create any real financial flexbility. It’s an awful lot of money to swallow. However, Arenas is a shadow of what he used to be and you hate to have a guy like that occupying that much cap space. We don’t know exactly what the amnesty clause is going to look like, but if you can get out from under that contract, you have to. But there aren’t a lot of options at this point. To me, you can’t anoint Arenas the starting two and hope he regains his explosiveness. It’s just too much cap space to gamble. If you end up losing Howard, at least you’re starting with a mostly clean slate if Arenas is gone.

The picture changes obviously if teams are actually given a multiyear window to exercise the amnesty clause. Then the Magic could gamble on Arenas bouncing back, if they want. I’m not sure he’d be worth the headache even if his performance recovers to some degree.

One thing that Stan Van Gundy can do is make Ryan Anderson a 30-35 minute starter at the four. When    Orlando   has been at its best during the five years since Dwight Howard became an elite player, it’s been because of its ability to spread the floor at four positions. It’s not a great defensive configuration, but I think the Magic’s best option is to max out on offensive efficiency.


But you still have to find a starter at two with the MLE and then hope you can get a decent backup for Howard with a minimum salary–I thought the Magic really missed Marcin Gortat after he was traded. Re-signing Jason Richardson, while less than exciting, might be the best option and I don’t think the market for him is going to be as lucrative as people think. It’s a tough road, but as long as you’re starting down it with Howard, you have a chance.

OMD: Not a lot of the new agreement has been released, but what aspects of the new agreement helps a team like the Magic? What aspects hurt a team like the Magic?

BD: The key thing is the ability to escape Arenas’ deal. As I mentioned, that’s not going to help this year, but it’s essential for the long-term outlook. With the owners apparently allowing an MLE similar to the last CBA, at least that gives the Magic an avenue towards finding a starting two, though I really have no idea whom that might turn out to be. The downside of the deal seems pretty clear. I was already concerned about the ability of the Magic to pay so much luxury tax and now that is apparently going to be more severe. I don’t see Orlando being able to go nuts on payroll the way it has the last couple of years in the long term. The market is just too small.

OMD: I guess that leaves us with the inevitable question: Dwight Howard.

Most Magic fans want to know what anyone/everyone thinks will happen with him this offseason or this season before the trade deadline. What do you see happening in the Howard saga? How can the Magic keep him? How can the Magic lose him? Does the new CBA help at all? At what point would the Magic give up convincing him to stay and try to get something for him? Let us down easy, please.

BD: I feel for you guys. Honestly, I do. It’s a different sport, but I’m a lifelong Kansas City Royals fan and have had to endure the indignity of knowing that even in the unlikely event they develop a star player, his potential was almost certainly to grow into fruition with another franchise. (I actually think that landscape has changed in baseball, but that’s another story.)

Look, the day Howard starting floating words like “brand” it was pretty obvious that he was gone. Smith knows Howard and his representation far better than I do, so maybe he has a different perception. But if it appears to Smith that Howard already has one foot out of town, you have to do the same thing Denver did with Carmelo Anthony. The best mega-package deal that comes along for Howard, you have to take it. The new CBA shouldn’t inhibit the Magic from doing an extend-and-trade deal, so it was fortunate for them that an Anthony Clause didn’t make it into the final agreement.

I’m in Chicago and I can tell you that if I was running the Bulls, I would give up any combination of players and draft picks the team posseses for Howard, except of course for Derrick Rose.

Many thanks to Bradford for taking the time during the holiday weekend to talk a little Strat-O-Matic and Magic basketball with us. Be sure to check his very solid pieces at Basketball Prospectus throughout the year.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily