Kevin Pelton joined ESPN Insider as an NBA analyst in January 2013. Along with Tom Haberstroh, he writes the daily “Per Diem” column covering the NBA using advanced statistical analysis. Pelton developed the WARP rating system and SCHOENE projection system for the NBA.
Previously, Pelton served as an author for BasketballProspectus.com since the site’s inception in 2007 through 2012. Along with Bradford Doolittle, he co-authored four editions of the popular Pro Basketball Prospectus annuals. Pelton’s NBA commentary also appeared on Hoopsworld.com, 82games.com, SI.com and in the Wall Street Journal. Pelton co-authored the paper “A Starting Point for Analyzing Basketball Statistics” with Justin Kubatko, Dean Oliver and Dan T. Rosenbaum and contributed to the College Basketball Prospectus series. He also served as a statistical consultant to the Indiana Pacers from 2010-12.
Pelton covered the WNBA’s Seattle Storm for the team’s official site, StormBasketball.com, from 2003-12. He spent four seasons as the beat writer for Supersonics.com. Prior to joining the Sonics & Storm, he founded the fan site SonicsCentral.com.
GSABR: How did you get your first few opportunities in sports? What skills, experience and education did you have that added value early on?
KP: I started writing about the Seattle SuperSonics on the forerunner to Hoopsworld.com on a volunteer basis my freshman year of college, then started my own website about the team (SonicsCentral.com, which is now SonicsRising.com) in an era before anyone knew the term “blog.” That experience helped a lot when I applied for an internship writing for the Sonics and WNBA Seattle Storm websites as a junior.
The biggest skill you’re probably going to bring at that point in your career is eagerness, willingness to work hard and pitch in wherever you’re needed. For writing specifically, the easiest way to improve is simply to write on a regular basis wherever you can. My writing tightened up very quickly with more practice and emulating the great writers I read on a regular basis.
GSABR: Which do you like better? Writing about basketball or working for a team? What are the best parts of each role?
KP: Writing is my passion, and it’s tough for people who really love writing to give it up. My favorite part of writing is the opportunity to learn something from research and share that with others, who can expand and build on it. My experience working with the Pacers was very enjoyable, both because I was able to learn from an experienced front office and try to put some theory into practice, but what really made it a good fit is that the organization was OK with me continuing to write while working with them.
GSABR: How do you adjust your writing style from Basketball Prospectus to ESPN Insider? What are the most important things to communicate to a more mass audience, as opposed to a very specific audience?
KP: No matter where I’m writing, I’ve always tried to keep my writing accessible to people who aren’t experts on statistical analysis. At Basketball Prospectus, we could assume readers were conversant in concepts like replacement level and correlation, which have to be explained a bit more clearly to Insider’s readership. But the gap between those groups grows narrower all the time. I think the biggest difference is in terms of topics — at Prospectus, there was a bit more interest in big-picture questions about how we use statistics, whereas at Insider the focus is on specific applications with players on teams.
GSABR: Where do you think basketball analytics is going in the next 3, 5, 10 years? Which areas need to be explored much more and which areas will have diminishing returns?
KP: Clearly, the future lies in what we can glean from SportVU’s optical-tracking data. When SportVU comes to all 30 NBA arenas, which I’d expect by 2014-15, there will no longer be such a thing as an “intangible.” If it happens on the court, it can be tracked and quantified with sufficient creativity. I expect this to yield a lot of insight into how players interact, and how we value these interactions. The biggest question is how much of that will be available to the general public as opposed to siloed among teams using SportVU. Ultimately, I see a lot more interaction between box-score stats — which are probably close to tapped out — the additional measures provided by SportVU and adjusted plus-minus data. Working together, all three provide a more complete picture of what players provide, good and bad.
GSABR: What would you recommend for students who are interested in basketball, either writing, working on the business side or working on the basketball side?
KP: I’ve offered some specific advice for students who want to work in front offices, but really the important factors are no different than in any other field — know your craft, get to know people and be prepared to work hard without much compensation in the short term. What makes sports unique is the number of people who are interested in the field, which makes it much more competitive. It’s important to know you really want to put in the hard work rather than just enjoying the things that make working in sports so fun.
image from insider.espn.go.com
Interview by Nik Oza
GSABR thanks Kevin Pelton for his time and insight