The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference is an annual gathering aimed at discussing new ventures in the sports industry. Topics range from strategic inferences that can be made by the wave of advanced statistics and data gathering by SportVU, to the importance of long term thinking and asset management with regards to building a professional sports rosters.
The volume of presenters at the conference was massive, ranging from former players and coaches to current team owners, front office executives, league commissioners, graduate students and sports journalists.
Since its debut in 2007, the conference has grown from a small gathering of insiders to a major event, co-signed by sponsors like ESPN and the sports representation juggernaut Wasserman Media Group.
With larger crowds and more media attention it was clear that speakers were guarded when speaking about exactly how they use advanced statistics in terms of player evaluation or strategic scheme evaluation, though this is far from saying that there was no valuable information shared.
The last session of the conference,“The Future of the Game,” was the most thought provoking. San Antonio Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford touched on the competitive advantage of youth athletes shifting abroad.
Buford’s statements focused on basketball but apply to all sports. First he touched on the specialization of youth basketball players. Buford says that children are pigeonholed into positional groups too early and therefore fail to become well rounded players as they progress.
To understand the threat that early specialization poses to youth players one must understand one key aspect of the sport: basketball is, at its heart, positionless. Players are arranged one through five from point guard to center so that the game is easier to follow, not necessarily because of what a given player contributes to the team. To be successful on offense a team needs a combination of players with shooting, passing and dribbling skills. An offensive scheme can incorporate any player, one through five, as the primary ball handler, floor spacer or post presence.
This is where Buford’s comments come into play. In Europe’s top clubs, players are made to work on every skill set from an early age, regardless of their size or position. In the United States, a young player might be on the taller side in their age group so coaches have them work on post moves, ignoring skills like dribbling because the common understanding is that you don’t want those players dribbling the ball anyway. Should that player fail to continue to grow, they will be left without the skills necessary to excel at their new position.
Buford also talked about the lack of injury prevention resources available to players on every level. He said that U.S. sports medicine is geared towards injury treatment instead of prevention and cited that as an issue.
Former Miami Heat forward Shane Battier offered some of his thoughts on getting players to buy into using statistics to gain a leg up on the competition in the first panel of the conference, “Innovators and Adopters.”
“Player to player peer pressure is the greatest force in sports,” Battier said. Battier claimed credit for turning former teammate LeBron James onto advanced statistics by sharing player tendency data on Kevin Durant during the 2012 NBA finals.
Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive was outspoken during the “Business of Sports” panel. He strongly advocated for the addition of advertisements onto the front of jerseys. He talked about the billion dollars top EPL teams receive for jersey advertisements with a fervence that would imply he’s going to do everything he can to make it happen in the NBA.
Ranadive also talked about the potential he sees for expanding basketball to his native India. Ranadive described basketball as a potential “postcolonial sport” and later said that India could look to basketball to “stop playing the sports of our rulers.”
Mike D’Antoni said that the new wave of analytics supporting floor spacing and three point shooting “help him sleep at night.” As the orchestrator of the famed Phoenix Suns “seven seconds or less era,” which featured dizzying pick and rolls and shooting aplenty before it became the way pretty much every team in the league plays. He clearly sees the analytics movement for vindication of his offensive system.
Fans of the Grantland podcast shared a laugh at the start of a panel entitled “The New Blocking and Tackling: Applying Data in Professional Football.” Moderator Robert Mays kicked off the panel with his familiar opening “My name is Robert Mays, I’m a writer at Grantland.com.”
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey spent a decent amount of “Show Me the Money: Agents and Negotiations” giving himself credit for the much discussed James Harden trade during the 2012 offseason. Harden has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate and Morey has no problem letting everyone know he orchestrated the OKC fleecing.
Jeff Van Gundy had no problem calling Vivek Ranadive out for his claims that he coached a youth girls basketball team to a championship despite a lack of talent, merely by employing a full court press. Van Gundy regaled the crowd with his own experience coaching fourth grade girls basketball. It is highly recommended that you watch Van Gundy’s tangent on YouTube.
Nate Silver and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke had a running expletive count in one of their panels. Silver came out on top having used six curse words to Burke’s five.
Battier told a story about getting “Spo’d” when Head Coach Erik Spoelstra told Battier that his offensive role was limited to shooting open threes and passing the ball. Battier said that efficiency statistics helped him embrace his role spacing the floor for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
The size and splendor of the conference lends itself to the legitimacy of the analytics movement. The speakers at the events weren’t just stat geeks, they are decision makers in the sports industry.
Analytics isn’t just statistics; it is a way of thinking about sports holistically, looking at every aspect of the game and trying to see if we can gain some sort of insight from the data collected. Some of the observations will be insignificant, others will change the way we think about sports.
The keys addressed on the use of analytics on the whole include several key points.
Firstly, adoption by players and coaches has little to do with the merit of the data. It has a lot more to do with the person who is providing the data.
Secondly, nothing will replace actually watching the game. Statistics and data will only supplement what we ascertain from watching.
Thirdly, no statistical insight will replace the importance of having good players. It is easy to know who the best 20 players in the NBA are; the key is then to find diamonds in the rough whose contributions are not reflected in traditional statistics.
The best conclusion to this review is found in the panel called “Is Analytics Taking the Joy out of Sports?” The answer might be yes, in the same way that any sort of increased awareness takes the joy and wonder out of lived experience. If you know that the feelings associated with love are chemicals feeding receptors in your brain, and not angels tickling your heart, that might ruin it for you.
The same can be said in looking at offensive and defensive ratings at the mid-season mark in basketball. The more we know the earlier the season ends, so to speak. The more we observe the earlier we know who the true championship contenders are. You can always hope that your team outperforms their statistical ceiling, but that is often a losing battle.
Analytics can tell you that the miracle comeback your team just pulled off was the result of a distinct set of actions and not the grace of God.
If on the other hand you seek understanding, seek a competitive edge, then understanding the greater analytical movement will offer nothing but the “joy” it supposedly takes away.