Career Insights from Father of Basketball Analytics

Interview with Dean Oliver of Sacramento Kings

man dunking basketball into hoop
Noam Galai/ Images

Dean Oliver, called the "father of basketball analytics" by no less an authority than ESPN's Fran Fraschilla, works for the Sacramento Kings - following a stint as Director of Production Analytics at ESPN.

He recently answered questions about his career, differences in working in media versus working for a team, and doled out career advice for those seeking careers in sports analytics.

What is your current role with the Kings?  What does that entail?

Oliver: My title is Director of Player Personnel and Analytics. My job is to oversee a lot of decisions on personnel, as well as to introduce analytical methods throughout the organization for helping to make decisions.

You worked for the Sonics and the Nuggets before moving to ESPN.  You are now back with an NBA team.  How is working for a media company different than working for a team?

Oliver:  There are several differences:  With media, you work on describing and predicting the game. With a team, you work on changing the game, which comes from knowing how to describe and predict even better.

With media, you don’t get too deep on most things (unless it’s superstars or big stories). With a team, you get as deep as you can on a lot of subjects that would never make news.

With media, you really focus on the best players and teams and try to tell their stories. With a team, you focus on the players you have and can potentially have.

With media, there is a lot of room to talk about things and very little is secret. With a team, you have to be pretty quiet about what you do and there are fewer people to talk to.

There are plenty of similarities, too, but those are some differences.

Your book Basketball On Paper was published before you started working in sports.  How did writing it change your career trajectory?

Oliver: My career trajectory before then was to be in senior management in an environmental engineering firm. So it’s pretty different.

The hunger for data analysis has permeated all levels of business in the last decade.  Where do you think analytics will have the most impact on sports in the next five years?

Oliver: Over the near future, which is the next five years, each of the different sports will be in different phases of evolution. Baseball is seeing changes in how the game is played, for example with defensive shifts based on new data. Basketball is still doing a lot with both personnel and tactics. Football is still developing a full out framework for understanding things below the team level, but things will grow there. Hockey is just evolving, as is soccer.

What advice do you have for a college student who wants to leverage their quantitative skills in pursuit of a career in sports?

Oliver: The five tools/skills for sports analytics:

  •  Data and databases
  • ·Statistics and all its related tools
  • ·Programming to speed all the processes up that you will do over and over again
  • ·Sports Knowledge
  • ·Communication

The more of these that you can do well, the better chance you have. While learning about these, do projects on sports, not just the projects they assign you in classes.

Show that you will actually spend significant time on it. For basketball and baseball, don’t try to build a better player value metric without a thorough understanding of the ones that already exist.


Thank you to Dean Oliver for taking the time to share his experiences and insights. 

You can follow him on Twitter @DeanO_Lytics.