I spent the weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Last year, the same conference was held in a small academic building on the campus of MIT in Cambridge for 400 attendees. This year, the numbers exploded — one thousand individuals wore name tags, along with 400 people on a wait list. Those in Boston included NBA executives and prominent agents. Organizers moved the conference across the Charles River to the Boston Convention Center in order to accommodate the demand.
The substance of the conference was pretty much what you’d expect. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey (the founder of the conference), Analytics godfather Dean Oliver (who works for the Nuggets), Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Portland Trail Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard, Boston Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and others who apply advanced statistical analytics to better their teams spoke on various panels about the value of this discipline in generating wins. Academics presented papers on everything from the value of a blocked shot to how best to maximize shot distribution among a team’s players.
All in all, 16 of the 30 NBA organizations were represented at the conference by executives or statisticians — that’s about double the number of teams who had paid attendees in 2009. It was heartening to run into smart young thinkers in this area who were free agents last year, but have been hired in the past 12 months by teams. Kevin Pelton, who has worked tirelessly in this field, just signed on with the Indiana Pacers. Ryan Parker, of Basketball Geek, has joined the Portland Trail Blazers. Jon Nichols, a brilliant grad student at Harvard in information technology, has been hired by an undisclosed team. For all the findings and discussions, the most profound takeaway from the conference was the overwhelming evidence that the application of advanced analytics is taking over the NBA. What was once a novelty has become a full-fledged movement. Not every team has embraced these tools, but as Dean Oliver pointed out, the smart ones have. Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Portland, San Antonio have probably been the 10 most aggressive organizations. What do they have in common? Every one of these teams has a record of .500 or better this morning. If I’m a fan of a specific team, I want my team to be on that list and, unless my squad is winning titles on the strength of its personnel decisions (and checkbook), I’d be bothered if they weren’t.
Some teams executives will tell you that the League has gotten smart about furnishing teams with more extensive data (stats like deflections), and that the need to have experts on the payroll isn’t necessary. But there’s a vast difference between data and informed conclusions. The former are easy to come by; the latter requires great expertise. As Zarren said in the session on basketball analytics, “You can do two things: get more data, or use statistical techniques with the data that you have.” As we move forward in the empirical age, it strikes me that if you don’t have the proper personnel who can understand and utilize these techniques, your organization is going to be left behind.
The Clippers aren’t ignorant of advanced metrics. Mike Dunleavy made the wise decision to shift Rasual Butler into the starting lineup in part because basic plus-minus data were telling him that was the smart thing to do. Back in October, team executives said they targeted Craig Smith in the off-season because they loved his efficiency numbers. But these observations barely penetrate the surface of the shale. There is so much to be understood, a fact more and more teams are beginning to grasp.
Teams are very proprietary of what they’re learning and even whom they’re hiring to crunch these numbers. For all we know, the Clippers have an army of credentialed statisticians studying data, making unique discoveries about the team and passing along those findings to the decision makers in Playa Vista. If that’s not the case, Clippers fans should hope it soon becomes a reality. In an age where information is king, NBA teams, global corporations, governments and individuals can’t afford to be playing catch-up.