Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: "What Geeks Don't Get: The Limits of Moneyball" Panel Report
Hello from Boston, where The Painted Area is pitching in to the TrueHoop Network’s coverage of the 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with our thoughts on the show-stopper panel on the day: What Geeks Don’t Get: The Limits of Moneyball. Over 1000 people packed into the main conference room to see this star-studded cast:
• Michael Lewis (Moderator): Author of Moneyball and The Blind Side
• Daryl Morey: General Manager of the Houston Rockets, and the conference’s co-chair
• Mark Cuban: Owner of the Dallas Mavericks
• Bill Simmons: ESPN.com uber-columnist and author of The Book of Basketball
• Jonathan Kraft: President of The Kraft Group (holdings include the New England Patriots and the New England Revolution)
• Bill Polian: President of the Indianapolis Colts
Here's a running report of topics discussed:
-- Lewis started the panel by noting that he was blown away by the fact that the conference was more than a roomful of geeks, and he wanted to go against the grain and gather ideas about the limits of Moneyball, because he couldn’t think of any himself.
-- Lewis began the questioning by asking Simmons what bothers him the most about the statistical revolution. After congratulating the crowd for setting a record for “most dudes in a conference room”, Simmons noted that the biggest issue and advancement he’d like to see in the next decade is for the creators and those in the vanguard of the statistical revolution to make numbers more relatable to the common fan.
Cuban chimed in by joking that what bothered him most was not knowing what Morey and all 30 teams were doing. He noted that he wished NBA tracked stats like deflections, for example, so that things didn’t have to be gathered on the team level, where teams had to spend a lot of time and money to collect data on their own.
-- From a football perspective, Polian noted that there are two distinct areas where numbers analytics are needed: personnel/salary cap management and on-field tactics. He praised Lewis for nailing a key element across sports in Moneyball: finding ways to unearth undervalued assets, but noted that the numbers he's seen on the game management side are worthless because things are so situation-based in football. He claims that a stat person who's played football and had been a military officer might fit the ideal profile for developing such stats.
Kraft later chimed in with some rare Patriots-Colts agreement in noting that football personnel management has an extra layer of complexity because of the variation of scheme and style from team to team. (Note: The Patriots fan in me is uncomfortable with all the praise Kraft lavished upon the evil Polian!)
-- The most interesting exchange of the panel was NFL-based, as the Patriots and Colts execs discussed Bill Belichick's controversial 4th-and-2 decision during the recent NFL season. Kraft said that, knowing Belichick, he predicted on 3rd-and-2 that it was four-down territory, and wondered if Polian thought the same at that time.
Polian said that he did think it was a possibility at the time due to the game situation, with the Patriots defense suffering from injuries and exhaustion. Polian said he thought it was 100% the right decision given the game situation, and that he would have made the same decision.
Polian went on to say that the Pats had had great success in the Tom Brady era running QB sneaks on 4th down, and that New England lined up in their QB sneak formation for the fateful play. The Colts president credited his coach, Jim Caldwell, for having a defense prepared enough to be ready for a pass.
Cuban quipped that difference in the NBA is that the coach yells out the play, and the defense still can't stop it.
-- Lewis started a discussion about whether some NBA teams know more than others. Simmons adamantly said yes, noting, "Some teams are cheap. I have season tickets to one of them." [Ed. Note: that would be the Clippers.] He went on to say, "Do you think [Clippers owner] Donald Sterling even knows what PER is?" Simmons said it was a huge edge for an owner like Cuban, even if the Mavs owner couldn't say so himself.
-- Cuban thought that one of the biggest edges for him was in understanding 5-man lineup performance. He said there are times when certain opposition lineups indicated lineup data wasn't being communicated with coach - and that he gets excited when he sees certain opposition lineups come on the floor.
-- Simmons said he thought that one of the most interesting areas to analyze in the NBA was around chemistry. He noted how the Thunder selected James Harden over Tyreke Evans in the draft, and that, even though Evans was a better player, Harden was a better fit for Oklahoma City. Simmons also conceded that he thought the Kidd-Harris trade was working out better than most expected because Kidd was the right fit for Dallas.
-- Lewis asked Morey if he believed in clutch stats, long a controversial difference between common fans - who worship the art of the clutch - and statheads - who tend to believe that the idea of clutch statistics are not definitive and conclusive.
Morey artfully answered, "We don't make any decisions based on the belief of that." Interestingly, Cuban disagreed, and said that that was one reason he wanted Kidd, whom he believes plays differently in "win time" than he does in the other 45 minutes of the game.
-- Does it help and is it necessary for modern front-office members to have played the game? Simmons noted that in the NBA, some of the top team execs have played on the professional level, some haven't. The Sports Guy went on to say that he thought it was increasingly hard for ex-players to run what are essentially corporations, and negotiate with agents from Harvard Law School. Morey countered by saying, "All else equal, it helps if you've been a professional athlete in a sport," and used Mitch Kupchak as an example of a GM who is a smart guy enhanced by experience as an NBA player.
-- Lewis asked Morey about the risks inherent in the Moneyball movement. Morey noted that plenty of smart economists contributed the collapse of the world economy by believing so strongly in their analysis that they lost the sense of where there was risks and things could break down. He said that sports franchises ran the same risk of applying numbers indiscriminately.
-- Other entertaining quips and quotes:
• Maybe the most entertaining moment of the panel was when Kraft said that he had worked with three coaches - Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick - who have very different intellectual capabilities. Thinking better of making such a statement publicly, Kraft appealed "Please don't tweet that" to the audience, to an uproarious response, and Cuban pulled out his Blackberry for a faux-tweet in jest.
• One of the funnier interactions occurred when Morey said that Cuban winning a championship might bring down the league office. Cuban said "that might explain a lot of things." Simmons joked that "that explains 2006." (Note: Bennett Salvatore is not attending the conference.)
• Polian, a veteran executive, was adamant about the importance of bringing new generations of young people who are current with fresh ideas into organizations.
• As far as non-stat based ideas in the vanguard, Cuban noted how important psychological testing was to him on multiple occasions, and said that he thought personalized medicine, tailored for individual athletes, would take on increased importance in the next 20 years.
• Simmons noted that one problem in the NBA was that coaching staffs may not be receptive to stat-analysis advice from front office. He asked Polian if it was same in NFL, and the Colts president said it was the complete opposite. Use of in-depth analysis by coaching staffs was embedded in NFL culture.
• When Lewis asked if there was one area you don't know that you wished you knew more about, Cuban jumped in with a one-word answer: "Referees."
• In commenting on why owners may make bad hires as GMs, Simmons speculated that star-struck owners may pick guys they'd rather hang out with, and needled his buddy The Dork Elvis as he asked rhetorically, "Would you rather hang out with Michael Jordan or Daryl Morey?"
On that note, we sign off from a fascinating day in Boston.