Nylon Calculus: 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Recap, Day 2

Credit: Julia Zhogina
Credit: Julia Zhogina /

The 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is being held in Boston Friday and Saturday. Several Nylon Calculus contributors are there covering the event and we’ll be sharing our thoughts and reactions to panels and research papers. Check back throughout the day for updates and catch up on everything from Day 1.

Trust The Process? Team Building and Rebuilding in the NBA

The bombshells came early in this panel. After Sam Hinkie was treated to applause and some mild cheers at his introduction, he admitted that he never actually said “Trust The Process.”

I know, I was crushed too.

The panel, moderated by Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck and featuring Chris Bosh, Celtics part-owner Steve Pagliuca, Lawrence Frank, David Griffin and Sam Hinkie. Considering the panelists and the title of the discussion, this clearly going to focus on Hinkie’s tenure with the 76ers and the group did, indeed, spend quite a bit of time dissecting the merits and problems with his approach to rebuilding.

For the most part, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that Hinkie’s approach had significant merits and has been misjudged.

“In defense of Sam, I think the media took what you did and pushed out to the extreme of what it was. You were doing more than just deciding to lose every game,” said Pagliuca.

The group also seemed to agree that this approach doesn’t necessarily work for every franchise and acknowledging the context and goals of each organization have to be considered. Frank talked about how the Clippers evaluated their situation this season and decided that bottoming-out wasn’t right for them, and in addition, how hard it would be to make sure there was understanding and buy-in throughout the franchise.

“What Sam did in Philly makes a lot of sense. When I was coach, it would have been hard to grasp until I moved into this,” said Frank, alluding to his move into the Clippers’ front office. “Your market dictates some of the levers you can pull,” he added. Noting that they felt confident about their ability to attract free agents, which changes the dynamics of what’s possible for them.

The panel wasn’t all Hinkie. There was discussion of the benefits of building a strong team, even if it didn’t have a championship ceiling. David Griffin talked about building a culture of respect and collaboration.

And Chris Bosh talked about the benefits of staying competitive, even if you lose your last game of the season.

“Having joy of going out there and playing at a high level, getting on the platform. You might not win a championship but we had a hell of a run in the playoffs. You see the city is excited because you’re out there competing for something.”

And what’s a good panel without some absurdly visceral analogy?

And with that, the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was finished for Nylon Calculus. #TalkDataToMe

— Ian Levy, @HickoryHigh

Inventing Modern Basketball

One of the best features of basketball panels at the Sloan Conference is when players or executives with a shared history get a chance to dip into nostalgia and tell stories from their time together. Such was the focus of Inventing Modern Basketball, with Daryl Morey, Steve Nash and Shane Battier, moderated by Jack McCallum.

The panel began with a focus on Nash and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and the spark of innovation they brought to the NBA.

“It was a different animal,” said Battier about preparing to play before the Suns came along. “Every practice started with, ‘how are we going to double-team the post.’ That was the biggest concern of the defense.” He then talked how about how irrelevant Phoenix made all those preparations and strategies. Defense in that era was about strength and physicality but that didn’t work with the Suns.

As Battier pointed out, Nash, Amare Stoudemire and their perimeter shooters forced defenders into a series of impossible decisions.

“They played on the psychology of the defense, as much as the physical nature of the defense.”

Battier also talked about how his personal role changed against the Suns. Instead of crashing the offensive glass he had to adjust to focusing on getting back in transition defense. This was a large-scale strategic shift and, as Battier pointed out, “That was a really difficult idea for players to process.”

From there, the panel moved into the perception of those Suns teams and their lasting impact on the game.

Morey was quick to throw out the ridiculous idea that the Suns’ style didn’t work simply because they didn’t win a title, or because his Rockets’ teams haven’t yet won one with their adapted version of the system.

“There were 29 teams that weren’t playing like the Suns and 28 of them didn’t win the title. No one was looking at those teams and saying, ‘see you can’t play like this, it doesn’t work.'”

Nash talked a bit about how his own style of play was shaped by a traditional understanding of what a point guard was and how they were supposed to play. “I wasn’t smart enough to see that maybe I should shoot 20 times a game, and if I played in this era I would probably have shot a whole lot more,” he said, something that most Suns fans probably would have been totally fine with.

Morey then talked about how about vertical spacing and lob threats in the middle have helped push what the Suns started to a more efficient extreme. Obviously the Rockets have incredible perimeter talents on their team but it doesn’t work without a man in the middle to help hold and pull the interior defense.

“We can’t really survive without James or Chris, but we’ve actually struggled the most when Clint [Capela] is out. Because he adds that last element where people can’t just switch and hug the point of attack.”

The game we watch now is different than the basketball that was played a decade ago. As was evident from earlier panels, no one here at this conference seems to think we’re in a worse place. We have more skill, more speed and more versatility.

“Defenses have had to evolve to be quick and active without being physical. It’s a different defense than what we played in the early 2000s,” said Battier. “And it’s led to a lot of versatile defenders,” added Nash.

More complexity. More fun?

— Ian Levy, @HickoryHigh

Bringing Basketball Analytics to the Women’s Game

“This work is not glamorous, we’re not reinventing analytics,” said Aaron Barzilai. “The challenges we’re focused on are an execution challenge. How can we deliver women’s [basketball] analytics reliably.”

Barzilai is the former Director of Basketball Analytics for the Philadelphia 76ers and the founder of HerHoopStats.com, a new website offering a thorough slate of basic and advanced women’s college basketball stats. There have been a few centralized locations for women’s stats before but they haven’t always been easy to use and notoriously fragile.

As Barzilai explained, building a voracious market for these women’s stats has been a chicken-or-the-egg situation. There isn’t much noisy clamoring for advanced women’s basketball statistics because they have never really been widely available before. If usage rate suddenly disappeared from all public men’s basketball databases, there would be an outcry. Because it’s never been ubiquitous in the women’s game, many fans simply aren’t aware what else is out there. You can’t miss what you’ve never been introduced too.

“Right now it’s a public service, but we’re hoping that as more people learn about us, more and more people will sign up,” said Barzilai (full access to the site is just $20 a year). Early adopters of the site include the America East conference, the women’s programs at Tennessee, Louisville, Stanford, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and the Washington Mystics of the WNBA.

One of the reinforcing takeaways from this conference is how increasing complexity of data and previous research, limits the amount of meaningful analytics work that can be done on men’s basketball in the public sphere. No such issues exists in the women’s game and hopefully this resource is the first step towards increasing attention, research and resources and around understanding women’s basketball.

— Ian Levy, @HickoryHigh

Take That For Data: Basketball Analytics

At this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the basketball content has been nicely separated out with specific focuses like the Draft Day Analytics Panel or the championship-focused panel earlier this morning. Take That For Data was a stand-in for the general NBA panel that has been a staple of the conference the past few years.

Nick Wright of Fox Sports 1 moderated the panel with Zach Lowe, Daryl Morey, Mike Zarren and Jalen Rose. The panel bounced around to many of basketball analytics’ greatest hits — the prevalence of the 3-pointer, competitive balance, effective communication of analytic insights and the reasonable and appropriate use of different metrics.

To the issue of the modern style of basketball, pace-and-space, the panel seemed unanimous in the opinion that this evolution was adding complexity to the game, not simplifying it.

“The evolution of the league is that there is more skill on the floor,” said Morey. “You are your skill set,” added Jalen Rose. While we may be losing a certain player archetype by the league, they are generally being replaced by versatility as opposed to some other similarly limited archetype.

When the conversation shifted to ideas and rule changes to protect and promote competitive balance, it was highlighted that you need to account for the different timelines and objectives of each franchise.

“You see trades like the one between Sacramento, Utah and Cleveland at the trade deadline. Those teams just have different objectives right now,” said Zarren. In that deal, the teams shifted assets around in ways that helped each team move closer to their dramatically different goals.

The group also spent a few minutes discussing the idea of measuring things like effort and intensity. Lowe talked about measuring things that are presently possible with tracking data, like how quickly players get back on defense, as well as things that could be measured in the future, like how low and how long players spend in a defensive stance. Morey pushed back a bit on the idea of linking effort with movement, pointing out that some of the best players improve their impact by being efficient with their movement.

It was also nice to hear the panel validate the flexibility of analytics, that it does not deliver a single recipe for winning. The group talked about how the Rockets have changed their approach this season, allowing for more isolations and mid-range jumpers because it plays to the strengths of James Harden and Chris Paul. Morey even pushed all his chips to the center of the table.

— Ian Levy, @HickoryHigh

Put a Ring on It: Building a Champion

How do you build and sustain a modern sports dynasty? ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan posed this question to a distinguished panel representing multiple sports and received a variety of different responses.

First, Mitch Kupchak, former Los Angeles Lakers player and general manager, provided some historical perspective. He said that, in the past, the only data that the Lakers had at their disposal were box scores. Although he claimed that Pat Riley had developed a “plus-minus system” for internal purposes, he noted that there’s now more information than ever, suggesting that successful franchises had to figure out and navigate a potentially overloaded environment.

Sabermetrics legend Bill James described a difficult dichotomy for dynasties. He noted that there’s often a tremendous amount of pressure on teams to pay the very players who won the championships for them. Yet such contracts may not necessarily be the best investments in pursuit of future rings. Dynasties are therefore often at risk of crumbling because they can become too tethered to their past successes.

Chris Bosh offered a different view from the trenches. The former Miami Heat forward said that there were times when he wished the team had shared more data with the players. Why? He explained that the numbers “justify the hard work.” They help validate the sacrifices that players are continually asked to make.

For example, he continued, the Heat put a lot of emphasis on player wingspans. On defense, coaches wanted Bosh and his teammates to use this weapon to clog up passing lanes and disrupt offensive flow. Deflections were among the key metrics that Miami valued, as these “hustle stats” suggested energy and effort. By having conversations that are grounded in the numbers, Bosh hinted, players can feel that their hard work is appreciated.

This is a fascinating point. On the one hand, front offices and coaches often filter the flow of data to players for their own good — to prevent them from feeling inundated, which might cause them to overthink things on the court. On the other hand, players thirst for meaningful feedback. Not only do they want to know how they might be able to improve in specific ways, but they also want to see how their individual contributions affect the bottom line — and that direct link to wins builds a sense of pride and raises morale when communicated effectively.

First thing in the morning after every game, according to Bosh, head coach Erik Spoelstra would write down every player’s plus-minus on the board. He said, with a dose of some humor, that he hated it. Perhaps such results-based metrics resonate less with players, who might find it too steeped in raw accountability, but practical, actionable data that can lead to immediate adjustments and improvements are welcomed.

— Positive Residual, @presidual

Just the Facts: A Conversation with Steve Ballmer and Nate Silver

“I think bottoming out is a dangerous game,” Steve Ballmer said when asked by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols about tanking. The Los Angeles Clippers owner noted that this strategy is certainly a viable option for teams, but he argued that many factors have to work in your favor first. For example, you need to have multiple high-level draft picks, and you need to have patience to see some hits on at least some of those selections. On the flip side, tanking makes it difficult to attract top free agents, and it’s an affront to fans in the near term.

You can understand why Ballmer would prefer to “retool” instead right now in light of how he approached his $2 billion Clippers purchase. He considers Los Angeles teams to be “beachfront properties” when it comes to sports franchises. If he plays his cards right, his investment has great potential to increase in long-term valuation, so he has the luxury of exploring many different approaches to team building.

Ballmer asserted that winning a championship sets your franchise on a favorable course for a very long time. For this reason and simply general competitiveness, he declared himself to be in ardent pursuit of a ring. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight observed some nuances, saying that “the NBA has become a culture where it’s all about rings, but it doesn’t have to be about that.” Deep playoff runs, for example, have business value for some teams. Different organizations have different priorities.

Ballmer offered some insights into the recent Blake Griffin trade. Reflecting on the Lob City Clippers, he said that “one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points, one guy got all the rebounds.” Yet the modern NBA, he claimed, necessitated a broader distribution of responsibilities. He spoke proudly of his current roster’s depth and how multiple players can make contributions on any given night.

In terms of analytics usage, Ballmer cited the growing importance of “health data,” especially in light of the Clippers’ injuries this year. He also mentioned Second Spectrum and other such sources. But he dedicated most of his time explaining the importance of employing rigorous, quantitatively informed strategic thinking on salary cap planning. Understanding how the chess board needs to be aligned across multiple seasons was, in his mind, a valuable “numeric exercise.”

— Positive Residual, @presidual