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He’s back from Sport’s Nerd Superbowl 2012 (Thoughts from Sloan)

03/04/2012

Via @KirkGoldsberry , the man behind the most intriguing presentation at SSAC

Yeah I know I promised some other posts, but scripting life often ends in failure, so whatever. Sloan was great, and even though I am pretty sure I awkwardly entered myself in a few conversations, I met some great people. Now then, I could totally brag about how I met certain people, but that would imply they remember who I am, which I doubt in all regards. The main point for this is what I saw and learned, and some other random site news. First of all this is pretty much how I feel about Vanny boy after not posting at all since his intro. NOT EVEN A SHITTY PREVIEW? But all is forgiven for now, as life threw perspective in my face again, as it likes to do. One of our family friends (who is much more family than many a blood relative) is going through a rough situation, so it grounded a slight amount of my rage. The overall highlight of the conference from a comedic standpoint was when Jeff Van Gundy, a man who I often cannot stand on TV, brought down the house in back to back panels with dry humor, and a well timed drop of “Who gives a shit.” Drew Carey (Yeah, I didnt actually know it was THAT Drew Carey until my friend told me he had lost a lot of weight) was easily one of the most impressive speakers, as he was able to show some of the most creative and potentially impact full ideas (My favorite was that GM’s serving a term that is up for re-election, rather than the self perpetuating contracts that many have around of sports) Anyway I could go on and on about random stuff like this, and I will, but I will also narrow down these next diatribes into a semi chronological order.

  • After the welcome ceremony and the evolution of sport primer, the first place I headed towards was the research paper by Oregon student James Tarlow, titled ‘Experience and Winning in the NBA‘ which was a great place to throw myself into sloan. I finally got to meet Canis Hoopus “photoshop” legend Tim Allen after walking past him, and after a few Beasley/Johnson jokes, the presentation started. If you want to know the nitty gritty please read the paper because not only would it be a better source, but I also am not nearly smart enough to properly describe his process. I do know a few things about this presentation though, ranging from the fun facts like how this not only came about because of Tarlow’s annoyance with the traditional “If young team loses its because of youth, if older team losses its because young team had more athleticism and energy, blah blah blah” analysis on TV and he was able to work this and other analysis into his senior thesis, to the interesting pieces like how NBA experiences matters much less than experience as a teammate, coaches don’t learn from success, and how drastic midseason trades can impact a team’s flow, to the impressive “I have researched 804 NBA seasons [BuzzNote: from 1979-09] for this paper” and “[insert formula] we will use as a regression for this question” type quotes he gave which pretty much made everyone in the room feel lazy and dumb at the same time. There were some flaws I saw and the questions people asked him after were awful, but I really liked this topic.
  • After seeing the tail end of the business of sports panel and then having lunch with two college students who had interesting ideas and talking to a few bloggers and a D-League exec, I made my way into a suddenly crowded research paper room to see Robert Ayer’s paper on how big 2’s and 3’s compliment or hinder each-other. While I liked the concept of this topic, I felt that the way he was measuring things like efficiency (relying to much on point per game, basic shooting, etc) and player “archetypes” too narrowly. It was still interesting to hear, but I disagreed with how he analyzed how well these cores gelled. He also attempted to make it talent-agnostic (aka just a measure of player type) while still factoring things that are almost exactly related to talent.
  • I finally went to a full on panel in the large ballroom, the baseball analytics panel, featuring Rob Neyer, Scott Boras, Mark Shapiro, Jeff Luhnow, Rocco Baldelli, and the prophet of SABR himself, Bill James. it was not what I was expecting at all with it instead of talking about current stats, players, and analysis, the panal focused more of the philosophies GM’s (Shaprio, now Luhnow), Players (Baldelli/Boras), Agents (Boras), and analysts (Bill James, Neyer) use to help get points across and try to gain a better understanding. What I found great was that they understood that this was not life or death, and the level of humor and brevity made it a much more engaging discussion to listen too.
  • Staying in the same room but moving much closer to the stage was all I did for about 10 minutes in preparation for the NBA panel, featuring Brent Barry, Mark Zarren, John Hollinger, Jeff Van Gundy, Dean Oliver, and Jackie MacMullen, which was probably the most entertaining and informative panel I saw my entire time at the conference. The flow of the conversation was one that allowed you to feel like you were one of the guys up there, as jokes and wisecracks were rampant, and the minds of guys like Oliver and Zarren, who works for the Celtics, were showcased when they talked about how the use the data after collecting all of it. One of the more hilarious parts of the entire conference was when the talk came to Rondo and everyone ganged up on Zarren to try to make him say something he shouldnt, and nobody able to keep a straight face. Anecdotes about how teams are not only valuing analytics but also making it a point to make sure they have the best people was very interesting, and Zarren offering a job to anyone who can program Seagull well enough to manage a database showed how much they value finding new talent.
  • Directly after this was a panel I originally had no interest in, but ended up loving in the Coaching Analytics, which featured the least amount of actual information of any event I went to, but was still highly entertaining. Featuring Van Gundy, Bill Simmons, Daryl Morey, Eric Mangini, and current NFL player and likely now stat geek hero Lawrence Jackson (who actually stayed for the second day also, which was really cool) talked about how coaches and players both use the numbers to try to help teach or show how they are being misused. Well in theory that is what it was, but it ended up really being about coaching philosophies and showing that Jeff Van Gundy is actually really damn funny. Jackson brought up several good points on what it is like to have an inconsistent coach and Mangini was there for……. Well he works for ESPN now.
  • The last event of the first day was a live BS report with Bill Simmons (duh) and Bill James. It was a great look into not only Bill James the writer, but also how he is actually a human, and has his regrets and things he is proud of. I think more NBA bloggers RT’d James than anyone else at the conference, mostly after he dropped the quote in saying that at their peak, he sees the basketball advanced stats being the best. James also talked about how important he saw not so much changing the culture of the people who were already in the industry when he started writing, but those of the children and their children. I believe it is safe to say he has worked that out really well, as everyone from Bill Simmons to Daryl Morey admitted to reading, and not always agreeing, with the baseball abstracts of yesteryear.
  • Day Two started with two of the more science rooted presentations they had, as I watched the “Impact of belief (no Tebow beliefs mind you, more of a placebo effect belief) on the athlete” and “Building the athletes brain” presentations. The first showed that once athletes are at the top level of competition that the talent gap is so small that how the mind works helps more than anything. A positive belief, even if others are given a “proven” aid, was shown to cause the best performance among similar athletes. The company that presented the nest topic is named Axon Sports, and while they offer their tool as a service to help athletes program their brain better, don’t take it as a get rich quick scheme. It uses detailed position dependent exercises, ranging from pitch recognition from the point of release in baseball to finding the lanes during a running play in football, it allowed for over 1000 reps at any activity over the course of a few hours, instead of a few weeks or even months without it.
  • Transitioning to (wait for the segue) the next time slot, I decided to go to the “Franchises in Transition” (THERE IT IS) panel. Going into it I found it funny that there was a guy there named Drew Carey who looks similar to the picture I had in my head of Whose Line Carey, since I havent seen “The Price is Right” in several years I had no idea he actually had lost weight and grew his hair out. The rest of the panel featured Morey, representatives from the Saints, Niners, Astros, and Tony Reali. (Who impressed the hell out of me) Many of the conversation points dealt with how to get fans invested in the team, and Carey shown through, as he is an owner of one of the most well run MLS teams in the country, the Seattle Sounders, and he showed that innovative ideas (referenced in the opening paragraph) really make the fans feel like you are trying. There was some humblebrags all around, but a solid panel overall.
  • Deconstructing the Rebound and Visual and Spatial Analytics were the next presentations I saw and wow, I still cannot believe how great they were. The rebound presentation shows where all rebounds occur, where offensive rebounds occur more often, and what the success rate of team x or y getting the rebound in situations. They used camera’s and algorithms to prove their data and overlapped it over how every NBA team does this year and in the past also. It ended up getting the award of the best research paper, and while I prefer Spatial more, it was still great. Spatial was almost the same in that it analyzed how well players shot from certain sports, but it also went into much greater detail (specific players and such) and it also had a stat I now love called range%, which is calculated by measuring how much of the shooting area does a player average more than 1PPA. (Point Per Attempt) [BuzzerNote: Tyson Chandler is first in FG% and last in range% WIN] He also was incredibly well spoken and even was able to crack jokes at himself. My favorite hour at the event.
  • I went to predicting the next pitch, while useful to teams and a place like AXON, was so damn boring.
  • Next was “redefining NBA positions” which I thought was quite awful in fact. The whole idea of ranking player skill types was done much better by people with much less resources in the past (I cant find the exact article I had in mind) and just the way he looked at players and measured what made them good was so meh. I mean, really fucking meh.
  • One of the last things I saw was a proposal to change how we psychologically evaluate players. The guy running it used the Wonderlic and other NFL tests as an example of what doesn’t work and provided examples of what really does work. As someone interested in psychology (Which considering how many psychological issues I have had is funny) I really enjoyed it, but I doubt y’all will so let’s move on. After that I hung around until the awards ceremony, which was pretty much we love you Bill James and everyone who contributes hour. The last thing on the agenda was a second live BS report with Mark Cuban. While Cuban can be abrasive and very OCD, he actually did a good job coming off as down to earth and a person who cares about his players, which I really believe he does. Other than those two topics they talked tech and random Mark Cuban stories.

And so ends my time at Sloan. I write this while on a train from Boston to Washington D.C. with BAD internet (but it has it so I cant complain too much) so excuse any errors. I hope to go back to Sloan next year, but in the meantime I will hope to keep all I learned from it and continue to learn about all sorts of analytics. Now then, I should be back on track for the blog, which is to say there is no track.

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