Fifty NBA notes, quotes and anecdotes from the 2014 Sloan conference
BOSTON -- If you're a mere simpleton like me, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference can be a bit of an overwhelming knowledge dump. It's like CrossFit for your brain. A two-day binge of information.
It's also an incredibly enjoyable experience and one I'm fortunate enough to have experienced for the second consecutive year. Where else can you shift seamlessly from the latest NBA analytics to old war stories from Phil Jackson to an ex-GM admitting to tanking to Adam Silver being interrogated by Malcolm Gladwell?
Since the geniuses at Sloan have yet to introduce any analytics on how to write the perfect blog post (I'm looking at you, 2015!), here are 50 basketball-related highlights from the 2014 conference, comprised of notes, quotes and anecdotes gleaned from the entertaining -- and educational -- weekend.
1. The most newsworthy revelation to come out of the 2014 Sloan conference had nothing to do with analytics. Instead, it was a bit of candor. Say what you want about former Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo (yes, he traded for Rudy Gay and signed Landry Fields. OK, better yet, don't say what you want), but the two-time NBA Executive of the Year was willing to go on the record and admit something that no other modern GM in any sport has yet to confess.
"I tried to tank a couple of years ago," Colangelo said during Friday's basketball analytics panel. "And I didn't come out and say, 'Coach you have to lose games.' I want him to establish a winning tradition and culture, but I wanted him to do it in the framework of playing and developing young players."
Colangelo said the team's win in the regular-season finale cost them "a coin-flip for Damian Lillard," which could have altered Toronto's history (and Colangelo's, who was fired in 2013). Instead, they were out-tanked that night by the Nets, who scored a sheepish 67 points.
And to Colangelo's credit, he realized that tanking in the NBA has to go.
"There really is some ugly basketball being played," he said.
2. Feeling liberated by Colangelo's candor, Stan Van Gundy went for the kill against the 76ers: "If you're putting that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can to lose. It's embarrassing." Also in attendance at Sloan, 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie!
More from SVG later.
3. One of the biggest themes echoed throughout the two-day conference was, "We now have the data we've always wanted. Now how do we use it?" Whether it's how to apply information or discerning relevant material from background noise, that answer seems to be keeping stats gurus up at night.
4. Should we be taking advanced statistics with a grain of salt? For what it's worth, Van Gundy takes them with a boulder. "I don't trust most of it," he said of analytics. "I read some of the stuff that people write on ESPN.com and stats on pick-and-roll defense and stuff that came off Synergy.com or somewhere else. I don't know who is recording that information. … A lot of pick-and-rolls are designed to score and then there's pick-and-rolls you're running to get into something else. If you're recording it and treating those two things the same then you don't know what you're doing."
5. Further fanning the flames: "There's no substitute for watching film over and over and over again," Van Gundy said. "The only numbers I trust are the ones my people keep."
6. Upon reading Paul George has run a league-leading 130 miles this season, Van Gundy said, "Of what possible use is this information?" Tough to argue with that.
7. Brad Stevens has the strangest Dirk Nowitzki obsession. With his coaching staff preparing for their first-ever game against the Mavericks earlier this season, Stevens said he "became amazed by how enthusiastic Dirk was" at 35 years old. Stevens was genuinely blown away by how much Nowitzki talked during the game and how much fun he was having. "We're in the middle of this long, arduous season and here's a guy who has done it all over and over and he was having more fun than anyone else on the court."
8. Why does Tom Thibodeau play his starters so much? It doesn't have anything to do with algorithms or advanced metrics. "He keeps his best players on the court," explained Steve Kerr. "That helps you win." Genius.
9. Van Gundy floated a theory that was so intriguing it terrified me. When discussing why we've seen so many knee injuries in recent years to some of the NBA's most athletic players (Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin), SVG theorized, "It's all the pick-and-roll. A lot of the guys who are getting hurt are the guys who are attacking." With players bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic than ever, Van Gundy said players might be putting too much of a "load" on their knees to handle when they jump to change direction.
"Derrick Rose might be too explosive for his own good," he said, putting a frown on everyone within earshot.
10. The NBA Draft Wheel is picking up steam. The innovative replacement for the current lottery system was first relayed to the public via Grantland back in December, but was further discussed in an open forum during Friday's basketball analytics panel. The creator of the idea, Celtics GM Mike Zarren, broke down the idea, which essentially boils down to each of the 30 NBA teams getting each of the 30 first-round picks once every 30 years.
Rather than reward teams for tanking (the worst team in the NBA currently has the best shot at getting the draft's best asset), the Draft Wheel (which is not random, but rather strategically organized to perfectly even out everyone's selections) would seek to eliminate "the perception that teams should be losing," Zarren said. Draft picks would not be related to record and the system would ensure that every team gets a top-6 pick every five years and a top-3 pick every 10.
With Adam Silver, the NBA's new commissioner known for his embracement of innovation, we could be hearing more about the Draft Wheel -- or other spin-offs -- soon.
"We've continued to tinker with (the lottery) because we are, by definition (concerned). That's why we have a draft lottery. Because we're concerned about those disincentives to win."
11. The only thing Phil Jackson has more of than championship rings is zingers.
- "Having Dennis Rodman ended up being one of the joys of my coaching career due to his incredible athleticism and incredible weirdness."
- "(Rodman) had an engine that never stopped. Unfortunately, he carried it into the bars a lot of the time."
- "John Salley is more of a media personality than a player, even in those days."
- "Hey Fatso" -- Jackson's old nickname for Shaq
- "He had to take him to a grain elevator." -- Jackson upon learning Pat Riley once weighed Shaq
12. The Zen Master also weighed in with his prediction on where sports statistics will go next: Learning how to build and quantify chemistry.
13. The biggest difference between advanced stats in college and pro basketball? "Mountains of information," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
14. Nate Silver on why sports are better than politics: "You can be full of s--- for a long time and there are no corrections."
15. George Karl said the biggest difference between the NBA game and international basketball boils down to eight minutes. The NBA plays 48, almost everywhere else plays 40. Karl said those eight minutes make upsets that much harder, leading to less parity in the NBA and more predictability.
16. The seven-game series has plenty of critics. Karl said the NBA would be better off going to a single elimination tournament like the NCAA. Rockets GM Daryl Morey said the seven-game series really hurts the NBA." How? The series stretches fans' patience and makes upsets nearly impossible.
17. Sometimes a chaotic strategy is the most effective one. Morey recalled a story of when Jeff Van Gundy was the coach of the Rockets and the two were reviewing statistics of the team's most effective plays. Morey pointed to the top one and asked, "What's that one?" Van Gundy replied, "Random." It was the category for when the team's offense broke down or decided not to run a play all together.
18. You're not the only one who hates the end of NBA games. There's been discussion of how the league can speed up the foul fests. Morey said one of the suggestions includes shooting one free throw for two points instead of two for one each.
19. But not everyone loves the idea. Karl argued that those free throws provide entertainment value. "The choke factor," he said.
20. Rockets GM Daryl Morey was absolutely convinced he wasn't getting Dwight Howard last summer. Upon learning the Warriors were looking to clear cap space (they were pursuing Andre Iguodala, not Howard), Morey, in a moment of hilarious panic, called Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about a possible trade for … Dirk Nowitzki.
24. History says there's no such thing as being "on fire," but a paper presented at Sloan argued otherwise. According to the research from the Harvard presenters, there is a slight correlation between hitting several shots in a row and making your next. It's not exactly NBA Jam, but J.R. Smith heat checks aren't completely unwarranted, according to the study.
25. Rest up!
A 25 year old who only gets 4 hours of sleep a night per 1 week is playing at the level of a 36 year old #SSAC14
— Jordan White (@JordanSWhite) March 1, 2014
26. Joe Dumars shouldn't be allowed to have cap space.
2 worst NBA players in EPV (points added/subtracted based on decision making): Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings. Poor Pistons. #SSAC14
— Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) March 1, 2014
27. Adam Silver and Malcolm Gladwell had a friendly feud over Gladwell's notion that the NBA had convinced players to take a pay cut in the most recent collective bargaining. Silver said that the players did not accept a pay cut, but rather a lower percentage of the revenue split. Gladwell responded with astonishment: "You got players to accept a lower percentage of revenue AND agree it's not a pay cut."
28. Silver doesn't appreciate the word "tanking. "'Tanking' to me suggests a team goes out to intentionally lose a game," he said. I think there's genuine rebuilding in our system, especially when you have a cap-type system and have to plan for the future."
29. Gladwell granted Silver the opportunity to wave a magic wand and fix one problem with the NBA. His choice? Raise the age minimum.
30. Silver's open-mindedness continued with the reveal that he's intrigued by the idea of a play-in tournament. The premise would loosely be the top seven teams in each conference make the playoffs, while the rest of the non-qualifying teams compete in a single elimination tournament for the eighth and final spot.
The NBA's new commissioner said he appreciates the epic showdowns and narratives that come with a seven-game series, but admitted that the length of the playoff matchups reduces the amounts of upsets and randomness. Of course, TV ratings could help alleviate some of that pain.
32. Silver doesn't believe performance-enhancing drugs are a problem in the NBA. Unlike in cycling or baseball, Silver said he hasn't seen the warning signs of drug use in his sport, nor has there been any chatter or rumormongering around the league suspecting as much.
Silver said he isn't naive, but believes if PEDs were a problem in the NBA a journalist "would be out there and would have found someone willing to talk about it."
But that isn't to say Silver is against more drug testing in the NBA -- nor is the players' union, according to the commissioner.
32. Back to the age limit. Silver said it's something he's been "very focused on, even in my first few weeks" as commissioner. Silver strongly believes that raising the minimum age to 20 will better the league. He also said that the NCAA "should have a seat at the table as well and be a part of the discussion."
33. The NBA could help the NCAA pay its athletes. During the discussion on whether NCAA athletes should be compensated or not, Silver repeated a popular notion (or non-popular, depending on who you ask) that college athletes are already being paid via tuition.
Snarked Gladwell, "If they are being subsidized, they aren't being subsidized as much as the Dolans."
Interestingly, Silver added that if NCAA athletes were to ever be paid (you know, with money) that he would consider the possibility of having the NBA contribute in some form. "We're willing to be part of the conversation. (But) I don't think in terms of direct compensation to the athletes."
34. Silver noted that for the first time in history, this generation is watching less TV than the last. Let that sink in for a second. That's a pretty incredible milestone. Silver explained that this generation consumes huge amounts of NBA coverage via social media, but is no longer as basketball-crazed about the actual games.
Comparing it to a website, Silver said the NBA has essentially increased unique visitors, but the average minutes spent consuming their product has gone down. Drastically, in fact. Silver estimated that the NBA viewer used to watch 50 minutes of a game -- but now watches only 30.
35. In one of the more interesting cases of,"We've Always Known You Know This But You've Never Finally Said It," the NBA's commissioner admitted gambling is a big draw for fans. "Gambling compensates for discrepancies in the competition floor" and added that point spreads "captivate people." That doesn't come as any surprise, but it's a refreshing breath of candor from Silver, who seems to be making a habit out of that.
Via Harlabob Voulgarius, the renowned NBA gambler:
I think its pretty cool that Adam Silver is open to the idea of gambling. Its wild that US based sports are so behind the rest of world.
— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 1, 2014
37. Gladwell to Silver, after a particularly PR-ish response: "You make your owners sound like struggling mom and pops with their corner NBA franchises, discounting the stale bread from last week."
Further twisting the prop knife: "I can see why you have this job."
38. Don't expect the Celtics to roll over down the stretch: "If we wanted to lose games we hired the wrong coach," said C's owner Wyc Grousbeck.
39. The NBA's next big statistic could be sleep. One of the more interesting presentations at Sloan came from Dr. Charles Cziesler, Professor of Sleep Medicine from the Harvard Medical School. Cziesler's study centered around the sleep patterns of NBA players and how they affect performance. Adam Silver met the doctor briefly at Sloan and said if there were ways for the NBA's schedule to permit better sleep patterns, he's "all ears" (irony noted). But Silver did warn if the NBA were to do such a thing -- like eliminating back-to-back road games -- it would lead to fewer games or a longer season -- neither of which is that appetizing to his 30 bosses.
40. Cziesler said that a person needs 8.2 hours of sleep per 24 hours to perform at an optimal level. Without sleep, people (and NBA players) could see deficiencies in reaction time, injuries, signals to the brain, infection and length of recovery time.
Also, he's a "big proponent of naps." So there's that. Which is nice.
41. Talks of expansion ultimately led to the European question: When will the NBA put a team overseas? As Silver explained on Saturday, the NBA is much more likely to put an entire division in Europe than just a team, due to travel logistics. Silver also relayed an interesting anecdote from Grizzlies owner Robert Pera. The Grizz's owner recently discussed expansion with Silver and hypothesized that the next generation of airplanes -- think the Concord on steroids -- will enable a true international league. If that comes to fruition, Silver said the NBA is "open" to just about anything.
42. The gambling panel was a bit of a disappointment this year, especially in light of it highlighting the 2013 conference. The one takeaway: Jay Kornegay, the President of the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino Superbook, said number of possession is a "hot topic" among oddsmakers and bettors these days. Thank me for your fortunes.
43. Six years ago, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive had never even touched a basketball, much less know much about the game. He told a story of how he was introduced to basketball for the first time when he volunteered to coach his daughter's 7th grade basketball team. "I was a single dad trying to spend more time with my daughter," he explained. "I foolishly volunteered to coach her basketball team. I had already been had." Ranadive said teams were split up and by the time he had realized what was going on they had given him "all the girls no one else wanted."
With a terrible team and not an ounce of basketball knowledge ("I literally didn't even know what a layup was"), Ranadive did the only thing he could think of. "I said, 'Girls, today we're going to run.'
44. Ranadive said the biggest challenge to him becoming the Kings' owner was convincing the NBA he could build a new arena -- and quickly.
"I had a couple of guys stay up all night and create a pretty picture of an arena and paint it purple. Unfortunately, (Commissioner Stern) knew that. He said, 'Vivek, that looks like you put it together last night.' I said, 'David, you are right.'"
45. The best exchange of the conference? Ranadive joked to C's owner Wyc Grousbeck that the Celtics were purposefully tanking.
Grousbeck responded: "Then what are you guys doing?"
"We're trying to win!"
As of Saturday, Boston is 20-40. Sacramento is 20-38.
46. The POINTWISE paper, led by Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry and a team of MIT students, offered some fascinating revelations. Too many to fit into this story. But one thing that stood out to me: Jose Calderon is extremely undervalued.
47. Do you know a 7-footer? Former SI writer and current ProPublica author David Epstein threw out an interesting tidbit: If you live in the United States and know a 7-foot man between the ages of 20-40, there's a 17 percent chance he's in the NBA.
48. Gladwell couldn't resist taking a pot shot at one of the NBA's biggest lightning rods for pot shots over the years. When discussing the work ethic of the top one percent of NBA athletes, Gladwell jabbed: "Tracy McGrady was a slacker in the top 1 percent."
49. Yao Ming was created by China. By China, not in China. Epstein, citing his book The Sports Gene, stated that Yao's parents were brought together by the Chinese Basketball Federation and that the birth of the 7-foot-6 center was the result of "generations" of planning.
50. "From Ripple to Revolution." Daryl Morey revealed the theme of this year's conference during Sloan's opening panel on Friday. "Things start small, and using analytics, eventually become a necessary part of competing."
That statement pretty much encapsulates the Sloan Analytics Conference as a whole. What started as a small get-together eight years ago is now a must-attend event for some of the brightest and most innovative minds in sports and analytics.And, of course, a few overzealous simpletons.