Thursday, March 11, 2010

Boston Hoops Road Trip: Sloan, Celtics and More

I had the pleasure of attending the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past weekend. The Painted Area was afforded the opportunity to meet several of our colleagues in the TrueHoop Network - including The Blogfather himself, Mr. Henry Abbott - in person for the first time, and also to enjoy a surprisingly glorious weekend of late-winter weather.

With a Celtics game on Sunday night following the conference on Saturday, I turned it into a long hoops weekend. In the spirit of other Painted Area hoops-themed road trips to Portland, Dallas, and Eugene, here's an illustrated report on a basketball weekend in The Hub.


There's been lots of coverage of the events at the Sloan Conference by this point. I like to think that we at the TrueHoop Network did a thorough job of covering what was discussed at various panels, and I thought Dan Shanoff did an excellent job of capturing the feel of the atmosphere at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Saturday.

Many have noted that the marked increase in attendance at this year's conference - both in general and in terms of team personnel - is a signal that the basketball advanced statistics movement has gone irreversibly mainstream. The Sloan Conference was famously labelled "Dorkapalooza" by Bill Simmons, and is broadly considered (sometimes derisively) to be a collection of stat geeks, but I think that that characterization undervalues what this event has become.

After attending on Saturday, I believe Sloan is more than a conference on advanced statistics - a more precise definition would be that it's a conference on New Ideas in Sports.

Certainly, advanced statistics accounts for a significant chunk of the new ideas currently in the basketball vanguard. But I was fascinated by how often the conference was about more than stats, such as when Mark Cuban talked about how advances in psychological testing, and personalized medicine - tailored to the individual athlete - were things that he was anticipating in the next 20 years. The Sloan Conference was really about what's next in sports, about what potential innovations which might give players and franchises and leagues an edge.

It all reminded me about how the godfather of objective analysis in sports, Bill James, bristled at being pigeon-holed as a "stats guy". I have an eclectically brilliant old friend named Tris McCall, who writes on all manner of things (you won't find a better writer on modern music, imo) - a few years ago Tris wrote this about Bill James:
    As a kid in the Eighties, Bill James was good writing: irascible, contrarian, blunt, funny, riled up but logical, freewheeling, exciting. James was a writer to follow places -- if he wanted to go on a tear about presidential politics in the middle of an essay about Chuck Tanner, well, you buckled your seatbelt and went with it. James prefigured Internet writing, and I hear his voice all over the web. Considering the type of guys who've gravitated toward Internet discourse, this isn't surprising -- I'll bet half the webmasters in America had a copy of the Baseball Abstract on their bookshelves as teenagers.

    One of the many great things about James was that he was always writing against dogma. He was (and is) such an irreducibly contrary bastard that he was prone to disagree with you until you agreed with him, and then reverse his position and argue against his original stance. For James, the argument was the process -- kicking against anything set in stone was what he did. It didn't matter whose idea it was (least of all if it was his own), he'd fashion a challenge, and go at it with all the rhetorical fireworks at his disposal. Everything commonly accepted was there to be proved wrong.

    And for years, that's what he did. He took all the stupid-ass sportscasting cliches, all of the conventional baseball wisdom held sacred by the old guard, and he tore it down. Sometimes he tore it down with a statistical challenge. More usually, he tore it down with bluster, wit, and discursive force. James's language was so much funnier and more compelling than that of the old guard that you wanted to believe him. You didn't go check the stats, you didn't wade through his charts and tables. You took his word for it.
As I sat there at Sloan on Saturday, I realized that this was the point. It wasn't about statistics taking over the NBA world, it was about challenging conventional wisdom, challenging basketball dogma.

Now, Tris used the above as an intro (not currently available on his site) for a withering attack on how some baseball execs such as Billy Beane had become too attached to their sabermetric dogma. Maybe we'll get to that point in basketball someday, I don't think we're anywhere close at the moment. There was a nice moment in the Basketball Analytics panel when Celtic executive Mike Zarren, who heads up their statistical analysis, reminded a questioner that a Doc Rivers observation was a piece of data just as much as an advanced statistic was.

Advanced statistics should not trump all other factors dogmatically. But nor should they be denied a seat at the table next to traditional scouting methods.

Zarren also noted at one point that the advanced video tools offered by Synergy Sports were a transformative technology, so thorough that the C's were down to two full-time college scouts.

On a somewhat related note, if I may be self-referential, I'd point to a scouting report of Brandon Jennings that I posted prior to the draft last June.

I feel like that post was entirely in the spirit of the Sloan Conference, yet if you look back, my convictions in favor of Jennings were based almost entirely on old-school scouting observations. In fact, I believed in what I saw so much that I overruled the normally reliable translations of Jennings's Euroleague stats, which projected him to be much worse as a rookie than he's actually performed.

The point was that I was open to the new idea of a player taking the path of going from high school to Europe, and curious to work through the challenge of trying to evaluate a player in a new context. Whereas many NBA execs seemed to be dismissing Jennings out of hand, seemingly without even bothering to determine if he could actually play. The reasoning often cited by execs was that they hadn't had a sufficient chance to see Jennings play.

Any executive who used such reasoning was underestimating how transformative Synergy Sports is, both in terms of how it makes scouting individual players exponentially more efficient (by allowing users to call up a player's possessions, broken down in myriad ways, with just a couple clicks), and in that it reduces the need to see players in person (seeing players live is preferrable, for sure, but not necessary).

Learning and understanding that Synergy Sports is a transformative technology is, to me, an example of exactly what the Sloan Conference is about, as much as any new statistical analysis. If you don't believe it, that's fine, but maybe you'll miss out on a useful player because you feel like you haven't seen a player from, say, Lithuania, enough, when in fact all the data is there to be analyzed.

I guess, in general, I echo what John Schuhmann wrote on this week:
    In his Monday column, David Aldridge quoted a Western Conference executive, who referred to the Sloan conference as "people who haven't won anything, who think they have something to teach us."

    First, it's amazing that the person who said that -- someone who may have a say in investing tens of millions of dollars on players every year -- doesn't want to know everything possible about players.

    Second, it's unclear why anyone in any field would resist an opportunity to learn more, or at least hear a different perspective.

    Third, the NBA analytics community has at least one championship ring in its pocket. Mike Zarren, who was on the basketball analytics panel Saturday, has been with the Celtics for six years and is considered to be one of the leaders in the field.
How can you not be curious about new ideas? That's what mystifies me.

I'm fascinated to learn about topics I'd never even considered before, such as the paper presented at Sloan on The Value of a Blocked Shot in the NBA or Tom Haberstroh's post on Hardwood Paroxysm just yesterday, which ponders whether the concept of a "weighted assist" is a more accurate value of passing production.

Do these concepts definitively change how we evaluate shot blockers and passers? Not necessarily, maybe not at all. But they might. Now it's time to tear down these concepts like Bill James would, and see what's really there - not to dismiss them out of hand because they are new.

How can you not be excited to potentially learn something new which might help give you a better understanding of the game?

Let's leave the last word on the topic to the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, Theo Epstein, who hired James to contribute objective analysis to the Sox, and has won a couple World Series rings along the way. Epstein said this in an interview with WBRU Sports last month:
    WBRU Sports: What do you say to that new generation now? What advice do you give them?

    Epstein: Just to be... not to be dogmatic and to be open-minded, to always question oneself and others about what seems to be right, what seems to be the answer, what seems to be the number might not be. And always to really respect tradition and to think deeply about anything new that seems to be insightful and challenge yourself to find a way to actually apply that in a game, but to be open-minded to the other side. The best answers tend to come through some sort of discourse and not through absolutes or ultimatums.
That, folks, is what the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is all about. It's not about stat geeks, it's about being open-minded to new ideas, and always questioning dogma and conventional wisdom in the name of seeking a better way.


On Sunday night, I headed over to the "Garden" for the Celtics-Wizards game which aired nationally on ESPN. Boston won a somewhat bizarre game 86-83, coming back from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit behind Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen for a late win, after playing listlessly for much of the game.

As has happened too frequently in recent days, the Celtics were overwhelmed by the athleticism of the opponent. In this case, it was the Wizards frontline - Andray Blatche (23-9), Al Thornton (24-11) and JaVale McGee (13-5 blocks) - who did the damage before melting down with turnovers and bad decisions at the end.

Couple that edge in athleticism with the most notable stat of the night - Kevin Garnett going without a field goal for the first time since his rookie year - and the question I, sadly, came away asking was: how much does KG have left?

It hurts me to even broach the topic. KG's not only been one of my favorite players in recent years, but he was obviously one of the lions of the 2000s - one of the four players (Duncan, Shaq, Kobe, KG) who stood head and shoulders above the others.

But aging, of course, afflicts every athlete. Yes, Garnett still has the smarts and heart (his headlong dive to gather a loose ball was a key play late) to be a contributor - especially on defense - and yes, his 19.7 PER is still All-Star quality (though he is down to 30 mpg).

That said, his numbers are in deep decline over the last couple years - across the board, his '09-10 production is the worst since his rookie year. And at age 33 with a knee that appears to be gone for good, it's hard to see how the decline gets reversed from here. I dare say that, unless he gets voted in, Garnett's days as an All-Star are over, after playing in 13 ASGs in 14 years.

I'm not here to write KG's career obituary, it's way too early for that. I'm just lamenting that I don't think I'll ever again see the Kevin Garnett I've known and loved - the guy who was seemingly everywhere, doing everything, inside and outside, offense and defense - especially on defense. I freaking loved watching that crazy Hall of Famer play at his peak, no matter the antics. I hope I'm wrong, but I just don't see it.

A few other thoughts and notes on a night at the "Garden":
• The Nate Robinson vs. Earl Boykins matchup, pictured above, was a fan favorite at the end of the second quarter. A guy seated behind me called for Nate to post up Earl.

• In the aftermath of the Sloan Conference, wouldn't you know that there would be all sorts of aberrant numbers. Beyond KG going without an FG, Blatche (5-7) and Thornton (4-6) were deadly from 10-15 feet, hitting 9-13 (.691) combined. The players normally combine for 42% from that range (about 1-2.5 combined), and both players set season highs for makes from that range, as well. (Thank you, Hoopdata, of course.)

Also, after 95%+ of Sloan attendees raised their hands to say they supported giving a foul when up 3 late in a game, Boston chose not to, and Thornton ended up with a tough but decent long look to tie which bounced away at the end.

JaVale McGee, who really dominated the interior on defense with his shot-blocking presence, somehow managed to garner 5 blocks and 0 defensive rebounds.

• As far as the general "Garden" experience, I understand that there's a baseline for what's expected in the modern era, I just wish the Celtics could weave a classic touch here or there, such as an organ during game play, as the Lakers have retained.

The crowd was loudest at the T-shirt cannons for much of the night, as the home side was giving them absolutely nothing to cheer for the most part, but then they blew the roof off the joint as the late comeback crested with Allen's decisive threes.

I was amazed at how most of the time-outs consisted of just showing people dancing on the videoboard, and the fans couldn't seem to get enough of it, in general. Sadly, because the Celtics didn't wrap up the game until the final seconds, we didn't get any of the 21st-century victory cigar, Gino.

Also, after attending an Olympic hockey game in Vancouver, I hypothesized that there is essentially no overlap between music played at NBA and NHL games. After a trip to the "Garden", I stand corrected. They RAWK the house, and I'll take you down to Paradise City to prove it.

• Finally, if I may shamelessly rip off Ball Don't Lie's Phenomenal Swag, I just want to point out the man who was the clear merchandising star at the knock-off souvenir stands outside the "Garden":


I should also note that I visited what's called the New England Sports Museum, which was essentially a rip-off of $10. The "museum" consisted mainly of going up to the suite levels of the "Garden" and looking at the photos on the wall. Here's a general look:

Yes, there were occasional artifacts such as the old Boston Garden hockey penalty box, or a piece of the old parquet floor, or a model of the old (i.e. real) Garden:

But for the most part, there were no exhibits, per se, and it was a far cry from, for example, the exhibits in the concourses around Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

All told, you'll be better off just sticking to the main public landmark of Boston basketball, available 24 hours a day in Quincy Market, the Red Auerbach statue:

Also of note, right next to Red, is a plaque honoring Larry Bird, featuring a pair of his Converse All-Stars. They really should be Weapons, I know:

And, with that, this kid bids The Hub adieu after a memorable and varied hoops weekend.


At 9:35 PM, Blogger john marzan said...

Mhaubs, are you good in math? why don't you develop your own bball stats?

At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Arjun Chandrasekhar said...

nice take on the sloan conference and advanced statistics in general. i'm glad you called out the statheads for possibly becoming dogmatic about the value of statistics (ironic considering advanced stats were originally meant to bust misconceptions) - stats can challenge conventional knowledge and raise the right questions in situations in which our subconscious desires lead us to shady conclusions by means of falty logic (i.e. lakers fans concluding that kobe > lebron). perhaps baseball can be reduced to pure stats, but not basketball.

I definitely agree with you that the exec who talked with david aldridge represents the dogma that still permeats front offices. obviously no pure stathead has won a title - you always need some combination of objective and subjective evaluation methods. however many teams have been successful adopting statistical-based methods, including the red sox, yankees, A's, spurs. rockets, thunder, etc. to simply dismiss the value of the sloan conference is absurd.

by the way everyone, when you're done here make sure to check out for candid and insightful analysis

At 1:07 AM, Blogger M. Haubs said...

Hey John: I definitely don't have the numbers background to develop my own stats, though I am keenly interested in learning about and applying new metrics which further an understanding of the game.

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