2017 Sloan Sports Conference: 5 questions with Chris Herring

Photo courtesy of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference
Photo courtesy of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference /

The 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is a gathering of some of the smartest and most engaging basketball minds on the planet. While we’re here Nylon Calculus is going to try and pull a few of these brilliant minds aside for some short Q&As. Also, check out our running blog for Day 1 of the conference.

Chris Herring (@Herring_NBA) is a sports writer for 538 and a former Knicks beat writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Nylon Calculus: What have you enjoyed at the conference so far?

Herring: I thought it was cool seeing Nate Silver talk to Adam Silver. Because Nate is my boss now and so Nate was in our slack channel asking me, and four or five other sports writers from our staff, “what should I ask the commissioner?” So seeing him ask those questions, and probably even more interesting for me, seeing the commissioner flip those questions on to my boss was pretty cool.

I think they’re both kind of nerdy, because they’re both into the nitty-gritty details, even down to how you spend every minute of the game in terms of viewership and how does that change the economics of the league in terms of the money they bring in. I know they have even had conversations outside of this about how does the league do more to monetize those minutes without alienating the fanbase because of Hack-a-Shaq and stuff.

I always enjoy watching the commissioner take questions, and he’s really smart. You get the impression that he cares a lot. He’s a really thoughtful and reflective person.

Nylon Calculus: This might have been different at the Wall Street Journal than it is now for your at 538, but there are so many stats out there, so many resources, when you’re writing, how do you pare down, how do you be selective, how do you decide what to leave out?

Herring: I kind of do my best to make use of what 538 allows for, that you couldn’t as easily do at the Wall Street Journal. I try to bake a lot of extra context and numbers into footnotes which we have at the website. I remember thinking at the beginning, “what the hell would you need footnotes for?” But it becomes really valuable so you don’t have to use every single number, or if you do want to use every single number you’ve got, you can use it without clogging everything.

I think sometimes I could have been too numbers-heavy for a place like the Journal. I mean they had sophisticated readers, people who wanted to read about the Knicks and then all of a sudden they’re like, “what the hell does this mean?” The audience is a little different at 538. You can bake the context in with three paragraphs, but you can also put it in a footnote where it’s hidden unless you click on it.

I think 538 is almost more numbers heavy than I am, personally. I’ve turned stuff in before where they’re like, “this is kind of light, is there anything else you’d like to add?” And that’s fine, but in some cases I would rather use reporting, talking to a player and maybe a number or two, use the interview to augment what other numbers I’m not including.

Even this week, I did a piece on Russell Westbrook on why he’s going left so much this year. I spent hours looking at film and looking at numbers, trying to answer that question on my own. And then I reached a point where I honestly don’t know why that’s happening, so let me go ask him. And I think it added a ton to the story. I had a detail about how he reacted when I handed him a sheet showing him what his left vs. right numbers were, and I think that adds so much color to a story.

My editors seem really happy that I’m still in locker rooms and still trying to get answers to stuff instead of just assuming I know. So, I think the numbers are necessary but the interviewing is just as necessary.

Nylon Calculus: You do a really nice job of blending numbers, reporting, and video analysis. Do you find that one of those areas is a natural starting place for you? Do you see something in the stats that you want to explore in the other two areas? Or hear a quote that you want to follow up on? Or see something on tape that takes to you to the reporting and stats?

Herring: It’s a little bit of everything. I think at one point when I first started this, I think the stats drove what I was doing. I would look for an outlier in the statistics that would allow me to look at why is this number so different than everything else? Is it an aberration? Is it because someone is doing something really ridiculous, like DeMar DeRozan taking more mid-range shots than the Houston Rockets? When I first started covering basketball, I remember that is where I started.

I remember the first story I wrote that year was about the Knicks and how much older they were than everybody else, and how on a raw scale they were going to be the oldest team in NBA history, minutes-weighted I think they were like third or fourth. Thinking that was interesting, that was the starting place for that story and then working my way backwards.

Now, what I find myself doing more and more is something like having a conversation with Paul Millsap at the All-Star Game and him telling me how out of place he feels being there, because he’s like, “my game is so different than everyone else’s.” So that story stemmed from the conversation with him, and then I go back and look at which guys scored the least in All-Star Games and how much we focus on scoring to decide who we want to put in the All-Star Game.

So, a story I’m probably going to write in the next week or so, I overheard Richard Jefferson having a conversation with Derrick Williams and just telling him to be quicker about his thinking and what he’s doing with the ball. Because of the way that he plays with LeBron, and the fact that Williams has always thought he needed to do so much with the ball, in part because of the crappy teams he’s played on, and now he doesn’t need to do that.

Stuff like that is so interesting and that’s why I think the locker room element is so important. It’s because you have no way of hearing that stuff. Sometimes it’s watching a game, sometimes it’s someone else’s observation. I included this in a column recently, one of the sideline reporters for the Magic pointed out that a play the Magic ran for Terrence Ross, coming off a double screen, Frank Vogel called that play specifically for Ross because he’s brand new to the team and because Vogel told Ross, “when you used to play against us in Toronto, every time you ran this against me you got a dunk or an 3-pointer. So you’re new to the team, we want to incorporate you, until you know what you’re doing we want to run stuff for you that worked in Toronto against us.”

It can’t be one thing. You can watch a lot of basketball but if you’re not talking to guys, you might not know why unless you hear someone explain it like that sideline reporter did. If you’re at the games but you’re not talking to players you’re not going to know why. And if you’re just looking at the numbers and you’re not watching the film to back that part of it up, it could be off-base for a number of reasons. Or just irrelevant. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s just noise. You have to blend at least two of the three, and ideally all three if it’s really worth investigating.

Nylon Calculus: Obviously the audience at the Wall Street Journal is different than 538, but do you think the audience there evolved with you? As you evolved as a writer, did the audience come along on that journey with you?

Herring: I think so. There’s a lot of people that said, when I left the job, “I’ll go wherever you do in terms of reading your stuff.” I had a lot of people reach out to me and say that, “I don’t even like the Knicks but I’ll read your stuff because you take a different approach to it.” And that’s one of the highest compliments anyone could ever pay me.

I also never viewed myself as a numbers person, so sometimes my stories might have numbers in them but they’re not necessarily high-minded thoughts. Like, why do the Knicks send Carmelo Anthony to the free throw line for technical fouls when Jose Calderon is a 93 percent shooter and Melo is an 84 percent shooter? Stuff like that. And the fact that Melo has missed technicals that Calderon could have taken. It’s a pretty simple story and the idea of it is interesting. I remember taking it to my editors and saying I want to write this story but I’m not sure if readers will care. It might just be a dumb idea. It might be more of a blog post or something, but I want to try it. And then it turned out to be one of the most-read Knicks’ posts I ever wrote in my four or five years on the beat, with people begging me to try and write more stuff like that.

It takes a look a question that’s just kind of perplexing, and asking people why. You know I have access to something that a lot of people don’t. I can talk to players and coaches. I remember at the time asking Derek Fisher that question and he was like, “honestly, the best way to answer that question — some people really like their points.” That said everything you needed to know in one sentence and no one had bothered to ask.

I think sometimes people just like reading about something that it seems like other people don’t ask, or don’t think to ask. It’s a pretty basic question. If it has numbers to it, great. But the concept of the story is larger than that.

I think in some cases I wrote higher-minded stuff that required you understanding an advanced statistic, but I think for the most part, I’d like to think I stayed relatively true to the way I started. Where I’m saying, the Knicks are the oldest team by average age, and people can understand that.

Next: 2017 Sloan Conference: 5 questions with Neil Paine

Nylon Calculus: You wrote a piece recently on Kemba Walker taking contested 3-pointers. It seems like that shot, the contested 3-pointer, off-the-dribble, specifically out of the pick-and-roll, has become kind of a skeleton key this year. It’s unlocking something new as guys are becoming more comfortable making that shot. What did you think about that piece in the larger scheme of the league?

Herring: When you look at guys that are doing well on that — and Stephen Curry is obviously at the top of the list, I want to say Isaiah Thomas has done decently at that too — all they’re doing is turning the corner and finding a new way to make use of their quickness. Especially smaller guys. They can get around a screen and get through small spaces more easily than a bigger guy. And so, it’s one of their only chances to get a totally clean look. It’s not a long amount of time they have to shoot it, but most of those guys don’t need a long time to shoot it.

I remember seeing those numbers and thinking this is so interesting, and then watching the film of it and it made total sense to me. I wasn’t trying to say that Kemba Walker is great when he has a hand in his face, because he’s probably not. It’s probably going to disrupt him a lot more than the average person because he’s a lot shorter than the average person in the NBA. But when I saw the video, I saw that no one is ever getting in his focal point, ever. And that’s exactly why he’s shooting so well on those types of shots. So when I saw him and a few other guys in that list, it didn’t surprise me at all.