Notes from the 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference


BOSTON — For as odd as it is to walk around a massive convention center, wading through a sea of over-eager students, journalists, Type-A millionaires, and certified numbers wizards, there are unique experiences to be had at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that more than make up for the strangeness. You could share a Zen-filled escalator ride with Phil Jackson. You might fight over the last peanut butter cookie with Nate Silver. Or maybe you’ll have a deep conversation about ornithology with George Karl while waiting in the world’s longest bathroom line. If you can stand wearing a suit and fighting the ever-creeping jet lag, Sloan is one of the most interesting and innovative experiences in sports. Here are some notes from Day 1 of the 2014 Conference.

In-Game Innovations: Genius or Gimmick

This was by far my favorite panel of the day. Moderated by TrueHoop’s own Kevin Arnovitz, the panel of 2013 NBA Coach of the Year George Karl, baseball stat god Bill James, Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey, and football coaching pioneer Kevin Kelley were candid and entertaining about how analytics has shaped the way games are coached and played. George Karl was the standout star. He gave great insight into his coaching philosophy, acknowledged that his propensity for speaking his mind has cost him jobs, and put forth some pretty awesome suggestions on innovations the NBA could implement right now. These included a four-point shot, 40 minute games, and a mid-season single-elimination tournament for all 30 NBA teams. I also really enjoyed Kevin Kelley, better known as the high school football coach who never punts, discuss the numbers, logic, and research that goes into his seemingly-cowboy style of coaching.

The Science of the Deal: Negotiation Workshop

Daryl Morey, who is one of the co-founders of this event, had a very busy day as he was on nearly every panel. This particular session was a more intimate affair. He shared the stage with renowned Harvard Business Professor Deepak Malhotra and Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers. The topic was negotiation and to the crowd’s delight, both GM’s went into great detail on some of their most high-profile deals. Morey discussed the tactics involved in the Jeremy Lin contract, how the Rockets used a loophole in the CBA to make resigning Lin financially impossible for the Knicks, but easy-to-bear for themselves. Bob Myers detailed the process though which the Warriors signed Andre Iguodala. Myers explained that Golden State had originally begun clearing space in an attempt to get Dwight Howard. They were actually the only team Howard agreed to meet with who didn’t have the cap space to sign him (at the time). In the process of that pursuit, the front office realized they could potentially add Iguodala instead. To their surprise, Andre was excited at the prospect of joining the Warriors and was happy to negotiate a contract with them. Once that was worked out, all it took was Myers and his staff pulling off the miraculous task of shedding $24 million in salary before the deadline Iguodala’s agent had imposed. Most every team the Warriors negotiated with was under the impression they were clearing space for Dwight Howard, and as such, tried to extract a king’s ransom from Golden State. It wasn’t until Myers offered to toss the maximum allowable amount of cash Utah’s way that they closed the deal with almost no time to spare. This panel was essentially “Storytime with Daryl and Bob” and that’s exactly what people come to Sloan to see and hear.

Basketball Analytics

If there’s one truth to be learned from this conference, it’s that we all need more Stan Van Gundy in our lives. For the second year in a row, Stan Van brought the house down with his candor, wit, and delirious smile. If the pro and con sides of the sports analytics argument were political parties, then Stan Van is decidedly a moderate. On the one hand, his Orlando teams were an analytical dream with the amount of threes, layups, and free throws they took. But on the other, Stan will be the first guy to admit that the Magic’s analytics-based strategy would have been worthless without guys who could shoot. Stan later went on a rant about “useless analytics” commenting that it’s interesting that Paul George has run 130 miles on the court this season, but how is he as a coach supposed to do anything with it. He also rightly cautioned all the analytics-obsessed members of the audience to consider the source when looking at stats created by services like Synergy, because they are based on some anonymous person’s judgment of a particular play. As a coach, Stan only trusted the stats his own in-house guys generated. Celtics coach Brad Stevens was also very candid about the limitations of implementing analytics based input when the NBA season is so jam packed and teams have little or no time to practice.

This panel was further proof that the NBA is way ahead of other leagues in its use of analytics, big data, and technological innovation. But it also seemed to indicate that basketball may be experiencing diminishing returns on its analytics investment from this point on.

Check back later in the day for more from Sloan.