Let me start by saying that the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is awesome. Kicking it with writers from TrueHoop and Fangraphs while listening to experts from every corner of the sports landscape drop knowledge is about as much as any sports fan or aspiring writer could ask for. In it’s fifth year, the conference expanded to two days, which was to the benefit of the 1,500 people in attendance. As Ferris Bueller might say, “if you have the means, I highly suggest you try it.” For those who couldn’t be there, I feel obligated to pass along at least a portion of what I had the privilege of experiencing over the last few days.
-The theme of the first panel was: “Birth to Stardom, Developing the Modern Athlete in 10,000 Hours?” Malcolm Gladwell moderated a group that consisted of Rockets G.M. and conference organizer, Daryl Morey, New York Giants defensive end, Justin Tuck, Athlete’s Performance Institute CEO, Mark Verstegen, and Jeff Van Gundy, the former NBA coach and current analyst who made an early play for Sloan 2011 M.V.P. with his performance. Gladwell took a central theme from his book, Outliers, Anders Ericsson’s premise that to become an expert it takes 10,000 hours of practice (or four hours a day for roughly 10 years), and asked the panelists to relate it to their experience. It is an idea that is particularly interesting when it comes to sports because of the unique physical demands that are generally absent from other fields.
The general consensus of the panelists was that there is a baseline of athletic qualification necessary to play professional sports, but that talent incorporates the desire to practice, and that can lead to a significant variation of outcomes for athletes in their careers. Wayne Gretzky, for example, was known to cry after Hockey Night in Canada ended when he was a kid, so upset that he had to stop watching his favorite sport. You can’t teach that.
-On the subject of development, most agreed that we still tend to fall in love with players “from the neck down,” but need to continue to work towards understanding what contributes to success psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. Verstegen, not surprisingly as someone who trains elite athletes, said he favors nurture over nature.
Van Gundy and Morey both spoke about Tracy McGrady as an example of someone whose talent got in the way of improvement. Morey acknowledged that it takes someone of McGrady’s talent level to build a true championship contender, but as Van Gundy joked, he put in closer to 1,000 hours of practice than 10,000. Along the same lines, Van Gundy acknowledged the need to tolerate more from stars. He said that there are three qualities he hates in a player (“soft, selfish and stupid”), and a star can be one, but not two.
Tuck provided an interesting anecdote from his own experience having gone to high school with Jamario Moon and Gerald Wallace in Alabama. Moon was older and the best player on the team, and because of that, he believes Wallace worked harder, while Moon may not have reached his potential.
-On “intangibles and coachablity.” As the conversation began to shift towards “raw talent” having a negative impact on some players, Gladwell, half-jokingly, asked if freakish talent should actually be a reason NOT to draft certain players. The crowd laughed, but it led to an interesting discussion about the factors that contribute to players developing (or not) throughout their careers. Van Gundy pointed to Yao Ming and Shane Battier as utterly coachable. Both, he said, had the unique ability to concentrate on every possession in practice and games, as well as genuinely enjoying others’ success. He also noted that he preferred his star player(s) to be coachable, but also stubborn enough to push back when they feel the need to.
-Bigs vs. Guards/Wings. When Gladwell asked about the importance of IQ, Morey responded that it shows on the defense end, but is less important for bigs than the others. His “see shot, block shot” comment got a big laugh from the crowd, but spoke to the perception that big men are able to essentially “fake it ‘till they make it,” while guards struggle to adjust. He did mention one wing player (although not by name), who was successful because he just shot and attacked the basket, but “was bad on defense because he was dumb.” He also mentioned that big guys often get pulled into basketball because of their size – or “because their next best job is at Walmart” – but can lack the passion for the game that will ultimately determine how hard they work to get better.
Van Gundy killed it on this topic. He cited the difference between two former players, one from Yale (Chris Dudley) and another from Virginia Union (Charles Oakley), saying Oakley – now an assistant with the Bobcats — was the smarter player on the court, while Dudley’s interests outside the game have led him to pursue politics. Van Gundy said he wants a player to be interested in two things: “chasing women and basketball.” When he put a USA Today in front of a player, he hoped the player would go straight to the sports section, and that only special players like Battier could manage to be fully dedicated to the game with such varied interests elsewhere.
-Free Throws. This issue kept coming up over the weekend, and while there are plenty of obvious explanations, I do understand why the statistically-inclined community would be so interested in it. The question is, how is it possible that many of the best players in the world only shoot 70% (or less) from the line? A few frequently cited answers are pressure, hand size, increased heart rate, and the fact that it simply isn’t an efficient use of many players’ time to practice this unique and infrequently used skill.
-Analytics vs. Psychology. Morey spoke about the difficulty in forecasting how players would continue to work in the NBA, and more specifically their love of the game. When asked which player fell shortest of expectations based on physical attributes, he said Marcus Banks, who told Morey that his goal in life was “to be a male fashion model.” When Gladwell asked about players like Cam Newton, who made a comment about wanting to be an icon, Morey said that he encounters players who want to be Michael Jordan, a red flag for most players that have no chance of reaching that level.
-Possibly the highlight of the Conference was TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott’s presentation on how “Bad Decisions in Sports Skew Macho.” His premise was that teams are always looking for inefficiencies (a la Moneyball), but generally have to pay market value for stereotypically “manly things” like size and strength, but it is possible that those values get in the way of winning. He wondered, might there be value in things that don’t look “tough,” and gave seven examples:
1) Shooting like a grandma: Rick Barry always said that he could help Shaq shoot free throws better underhanded. This, of course, would buck tradition but also, perhaps, be perceived as not manly. Shaq always contended that he “made free throws when it mattered,” but Abbott showed evidence to the contrary, that eight of the 12 playoff series that Shaq’s teams lost may have swung the other way had he shot free throws at an average clip.
2) Meditation: Phil Jackson is the only known NBA coach to preach spiritual forms of preparation like meditation, but what if more coaches did this? Wouldn’t it make sense to consider the advantages of having calm minds in big games?
3) Crunch Time: The truest measure of testosterone in basketball is the ability, real or perceived, to make shots in “the clutch.” Kobe Bryant is widely considered to be the best in the league in this regard. Chris Paul, on the other hand, is a superstar because of his ability to create opportunities for his teammates, and generally passes in such situations. As it turns out, it’s actually Paul’s Hornets who lead the league in “clutch” scoring, while Kobe’s Lakers are in the middle of the pack.
4) Selflessness: Certain players are wired differently, he contends, with the ability to play and act selflessly on the court. The 2001 76ers, for example, were able to overcome an inefficient star in Allen Iverson and make it to he NBA Finals because of guys like Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, Theo Ratliff, George Lynch and Dikembe Mutombo. Despite Iverson’s tendency to shoot (only 42%) and not pass (only 4.6 assists per game that year), while playing a brand of gambling defense that put his teammates in bad position, they were able to put aside individual needs and contribute to an Eastern Conference champion.
5) Physical Contact: Possibly the most interesting finding, to me, was that the best teams feature players who touch each other the most (high fives, hugs, etc). Guys like Keving Garnett, Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh are all extremely touchy with their teammates, and as a player myself, I can understand how such overt positive reinforcement can go a long way towards building team morale.
6) Skinny Players: There is a well-documented tendency for NBA teams to undervalue players who are skinny. Players like Tayshaun Prince and Rajon Rondo fell in the draft because of concerns over their builds, and as recently as last week, Knicks G.M., Donnie Walsh, mentioned his slight frame as a reason he waived Corey Brewer. Abbott believes that this may be the result of teams’ overestimating big/burly opponents and responding by going after players who they believe can compete. But not only can players compete despite lack of bulk, Abbott suggests they may even be at an advantage because added weight is a frequent cause of injury.
7) Female Leaders: One of the primary responsibilities of coaches is to preach selflessness and motivate a team to play as a cooperative unit, but are we really to believe that 100% of the people best suited to do this are men? No NBA coaches – head or assistant – are women, and that ratio has to be questioned. Another factor to consider is that many of today’s NBA players grow up with strong female presences in their life.
-In the “Gut vs. Data: How do Coaches Make Decisions” panel, I came away with a real appreciation for Del Harris. Partially because I found out he was an early proponent of the statistical movement (he used to have his assistant coaches chart points per possession and he made adjustments accordingly), but also because he is hilarious. He went on a few tangents that had the crowd rolling with laughter.
-The Basketball Analytics panel was the most attended event and a real party for the TrueHoop crowd. We watched as Marc Stein moderated a panel of former Blazers G.M., Kevin Pritchard, ESPN stats guru, John Hollinger, Celtics Assistant Executive Director of Basketball Operations, Mike Zarren and Mavs owner, Mark Cuban that covered a variety of fascinating topics.
The topic that dominated the conversation, though, was trades. Cuban pointed out that the NBA is not an efficient market in this regard, that teams have varying relationships and trust factors, so some teams don’t even attempt to deal with each other. He and Pritchard discussed an interesting distinction between teams that are “going for it,” and those looking to build with young players and draft picks. Pritchard, who spent most of his time with Portland collecting assets, said he preferred to make trades during the draft or in the offseason, whereas Cuban’s Mavs generally found themselves looking for a piece to put them over the top, and thus were using advanced stat to help them make trade deadline deals. In doing so, Cuban, who is a big fan of using adjusted +/- to evaluate lineups, said the challenge was to account for how acquired players would fit into the rotation.
-Pritchard had the crowd laughing when he said that his decision making process on trades consisted of going to ESPN’s trade machine and seeing if it had them as the winner. He also mentioned that rebuilding teams, or those without stars, need to take more risks when making trades, because the ultimate goal is winning a championship, and to do so you need to acquire stars. Cuban agreed, and said that he told his fans that the Mavs were likely to be really bad for a time after Dirk Nowitzki retires, because toiling in mediocrity is the worst case scenario for any team.
-Cuban also mentioned that he had one trade (his first after he bought the team) nixed because he let it out in the press. He told the story of playing hoops with a friend and, excited about his first trade as an owner, he told the friend, who then went to the paper and told them. When the opposing owner read it, he called Cuban and told him the deal was off.
-Free throws came up again during this panel. Hollinger really struggled to get a word in, but he did make the point about it generally not being a smart investment of time for NBA players’ time to practice this skill rather than getting stronger or working on more frequently used aspects of the game. Pritchard, who played on the 1988 NCAA Championship Kansas Jayhawks, spoke about the impact of pressure, and that his knees were actually shaking at the line.
-For many in the crowd, the highlight of this panel came when an audience member asked Cuban about the future of referee analytics. He responded by saying that he hoped one day there would be a site similar to NBAPlaybook.com, a site that he loves, to track referee patterns. I happened to be sitting with the founder of that site, Sebastian Pruiti, which was pretty cool, and it was a special experience to see the crowd and Twitter buzzing after such a high profile shoutout. His response, “Well, that was awesome,” really said it all. It was a special weekend, and while literally every moment was worth conveying, hopefully this gives some idea. For detailed breakdowns of every basketball-related panel, be sure to check out TrueHoop.com.
Charlie Widdoes contributes to ClipperBlog as well as Stacheketball. Follow him on twitter: @charliewiddoes.