Fear the Sword and the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Part I

Ryan Mourton went to SSAC and was typically annoying, but he's got info for you!

By now, you are probably aware of what the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is. If you aren't, it's a pretty wonderful gathering of nerds, basically, hosted by MIT's Sloan School of Business Management.

Accompanying me on the trip was Jacob Rosen, of WaitingForNextYear.com. The trip got off to a wonderful start, with our flight from hometown Akron-Canton airport cancelled for reasons Southwest never gave. We were forced to re-rout to Cleveland, and stripped of our cushy direct flight and put on a 7 hour frustrate-a-thon the included a nice long layover in Chicago. Our return flight was still coming back to Akron, but that didn't stop a pair of geniuses like us from deciding that it was a great idea to take Jacob's car to Cleveland and pay for long term parking.

Wait for it. Let it sink in. Car in Cleveland. Landing in Akron. Seriously. Don't worry, Jacob's super nice mother was nice enough to drive us through the snow storm and enlightened us to the stupidity that we had never considered. More good luck though, the snow prevented our plane from landing, so that we could actually get on it. We were supposed to leave at 12:55, we ended up getting on the plane at about 1:30. Naturally, this didn't stop people from lining up to board at 12:30 and just standing there. Somehow, Southwest's boarding policy of come up when your letter is called and stand next to the corresponding number is more confounding to the general population that the tax code. Two other quick notes from the trip:

- Chicago Midway Airport, why? I go through O'Hare frequently, but what is the deal with Midway, specifically gates A4A and A4B? It's like a 5 mile walk to get to these gates, which are near literally nothing. It's somewhat akin to walking from the center of San Francisco all the way to Alcatraz Island.

- Boston's public transportation is pretty nice. $2.50 and maybe 20 minutes from the airport to the Hotel. Just hop a bus, and two trains. Everything is laid out in a self-explanatory way and the Charlie has stops in pretty much every popular area of Boston.

Skipping Thursday night, all the travel stuff made just going to sleep a priority.

Friday. Sloan time.

Anxiety time. Strangers and large groups of them especially trigger mine something fierce. People are cool, and meeting them is cool, it just takes a ton of exhausting effort to overcome the subconscious mind telling me to be an introvert and meet new people. By Saturday night I was really dragging. Now, there were tons of panels, and I was not at all of them. Each time slot had 4 or 5 things, all of which were pretty interesting. Football, Basketball, Baseball, Soccer, were all represented. There are what I found most interesting: (the full schedule is here. If you have questions about any I don't cover, feel free to ask. If I was in them I will do my best to address them).

- Opening remarks. Nothing to see here. "Welcome to Sloan, enjoy your awesome gift bags (there were pretty awesome), let's talk about Math and Sports and Stuff.

- Genius or Gimmick? Studying In Game Innovations was next. George Karl, Daryl Morey, Kevin Kelley, Bill James, and Nate Silver were the panel. Kevin Arnovitz the moderator. I enjoyed this one a lot. Kelly discussed the numbers that support him never punting (he punted once this year), and instead going for every fourth down. Noted that punting deep in your own territory is worse than punting in between the forties, because they're likely to score anyway. James, a Red Sox exec, bemoaned Major League Baseball's slowness to adopt anything, saying that curators of the game decided in the 50's that it was perfect. Karl and Morey discussed the increasingly positionless nature of the NBA, the growth of two point guard line ups, and the death of slow paced, call a play every time offenses. Morey shared a story from Houston, explaining that when he arrived he was looking over a sheet of plays and outcomes, and noticed the most productive play was called "Random". Upon asking then coach Jeff Van Gundy, he was told that "Random" designated when no play was ran. He also said that Dwight Howard never knows when he is getting the ball, and that their offense incorporates a lot of unpredictability. Both echoed each other on defenses being too good, and too well coached to call a play every time, and give them any chance to set up. Instead, players with high basketball IQ's playing at a fast pace and catching the defenses off guard is most productive option. TL:DR: "Calling plays and taking more than 10 seconds off the shot clock is dumb"

- Dimensions of Rebounding, this one was awesome. (paper here). Understanding and weighting the difficulty of rebounds based on which spots on the floor are most likely to encounter missed shots, where the player is located when the shot goes up, and who is in the players space when he gets the rebound helps add some depth to rebounding statistics. One question I had that I did not get to ask is if they had any team tendency specific data available. The premise there is that Mike Brown run's a system that is reliant on guard rebounding, so numbers that could reflect that more completely would be interesting.

- The Hot Hand: A new approach to an old fallacy (paper here). Also supremely interesting. Basically disproving research from the 80's saying that the hot hand does not exist. Using JR Smith as an example (which sent the room into a huge laugh), they showed that a player is more likely to take the team's next shot when making 3 of 4 shots, and less likely when missing 3 of 4. They also created a system called Complex Heat, which adjusts for expected probability of making the shot, vs shots made, to create a shooting number that credits for making difficult shots in hot streaks. The team was asked and said they did not take into account coaching, or the ball going through the net in any fashion (ex: A made Free Throw) to generate a "hot hand".  A question I thought of was if the numbers vary much based on position. My premise: Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters are primary ball handlers. On a hot streak, they are probably more likely to shoot than say JR Smith or Kevin Love because they already have the ball. Steve Kerr, who I was sitting directly behind, strongly believes in the hot hand.

- Inside the War Room: Building Alignment from the Front Office to the field. This panel was Falcons coach Mike Smith and GM Tom Dimitroff. A look at the scouting and financials of an NFL team was pretty cool. I would've enjoyed an NBA team being represented (I  cover the NBA after all) but interesting none the less. These are two guys that arrived at the same time and have been in sync the whole time, but it reminded me of a question I have asked before: Does the GM have the responsibility of giving the coach the things he wants, or does the coach have the responsibility to make the GM's acquisitions work?

- The Science of the Deal: Negotiation Workshop. Another one I really enjoyed. Daryl Morey and Bob Myers of the Warriors describing the day to day tasks of a GM. Myers, a former agent, described that agents will basically take any stat they can find and use it in any way they can to get more money from teams. Teams do the same to knock down the value of a player. This point was echoed in a later panel by the San Francisco 49ers president. In the 24/7 grind of GMing, there is apparently a lot of waking up in the middle of the night thinking of ways they could get a deal done they are working on. Morey admitted that after the Warriors cleared space for Andrei Iguodala in the offseason, he thought it was for Dwight Howard, and infuriated Mark Cuban by calling him to try and trade for Dirk shortly after Howard had told the Mavericks he was signing in Houston. When asked who they hated dealing with, both GMs described guys that "never want to give anything up and always try to hit home runs". Sound familiar?

- Basketball Analytics, which featured Stan Van Gundy, Steve Kerr, Bryan Colangelo, Mike Zarren, and Brad Stevens. Lots of number discussion here. Stan Van Gundy thinks it's great to build a team that is all about shots at the rim, and three's, but that coaches have to work with what they have. Also thinks people pay too much attention to numbers without actually watching players, which aligned with a lot of talk that was in each basketball panel, surmising that the numbers are an important part of the story, but there is an equally important human element that is not quantifiable. When SVG brought up the not watching the player point, Steve Kerr brought up a potential trade for JJ Hickson that they looked at in Phoenix. Noting that a stats worker approached him to show him that Hickson was outperforming Amare Stoudemire in the 0-5 foot range, shooting 65% to Amare's 62%. Kerr explained that he thinks the stats are a conversation starter, and upon watching found that "Hickson was shooting better 0-5 feet, but because all of his shots were from 1 foot away, he wasn't actually outperforming Amare" he went on to talk about the danger of just blindly trusting what is being handed to you. Van Gundy went on a small rant about not trusting anything his guys didn't give him, and saying that sites that catalog play types and stats do so incorrectly in a lot of cases. He also uncorked this gem about the 76ers "Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing.... I don't care Adam Silver can say there's no tanking or what's going on -- if you're putting that roster on the floor, you're doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose." Sam Hinkie, the 76ers GM was in the room, naturally.

- That capped off Friday's events. Phil Jackson was speaking about Dynasties, but I was feeling sick and skipped it to take a quick nap in a corner of the conference center.

-The cocktail social was next. In our gift bags, we got a ticket for a free drink. I thought it was for a nearby restaurant. After purchasing a $7 bottle of beer, a man in line behind me used said ticket for a free beer. Having to stay for my free beer worked out though, as I was able to locate Amin Vafa, of HP and SBNation, who led me to a whole host of fellow writers. From there, we met Conrad and pretty much every writer there at a bar across the street, where we all watched the Knicks lose and wondered why some Cavs fans are terrible and feel the need to run on the court. Well, we kind of did those two things. Mostly we drank. A lot. A whole lot.

After 6 hours at the bar, I was delighted to find that you can get almost any kind of awesome food delivered in downtown Boston. It was super necessary, but did practically nothing to stave off the struggle face of the following morning. The organizers of the conference are no fools though, the only things scheduled for before 9 that morning were for job seekers, as opposed to Fridays events that began at 7:30.

Day two included a great discussion on doping in sports, the effects of sleep on athletes, football analytics, a discussion with Adam Silver, and a panel of team owners discussing managing transitions and other ownership issues. I'll have thoughts on those later.

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