MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Wrapup

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Sloan Sports Conference in Boston (more information can be found at Numerous important people from many areas attended the event. However, the NBA crowd seemed at times to dominate, partly because the conference was co-chaired by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Some of the guests and speakers included Morey, Mark Cuban, Ray Allen, Jeff Van Gundy, John Hollinger, Dean Oliver, Kevin Pelton, Mike Zarren, David Thorpe, Marc Stein, Ric Bucher, Henry Abbott, Dan Rosenbaum, Sam Hinkie, Justin Kubatko, Chris Wallace, Bill Simmons, Adam Silver, and many more.

After a panel discussion on careers in sports and a brief introduction, Van Gundy and Simmons were among the speakers in a panel discussion on the evolution of the fan experience. Although the two ESPN’ers were as entertaining as always and made some interesting points on the way stadiums and technologies are changing, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke stole the show. He offered a candid perspective on how he tries to run his team (focusing on creating entertaining hockey as much as possible) and offered a lot of laughs along the way. Van Gundy showed his true spirit by the end when he complained about the NBA’s lack of fighting. In his opinion, basketball players and the league as a whole have become “soft.” Simmons took advantage of the obvious opportunity and reminded Van Gundy of his fight with the Miami Heat in which he famously held on to Alonzo Mourning’s leg. In his defense, Van Gundy pleaded “temporary insanity.”

Another particularly interesting panel discussion was the one on talent identification, featuring guests from the Chelsea Football Club, Football Outsiders, Octagon Sports, and more. The panel discussed many of the new techniques scouts are using to evaluate players of all ages, including some extraordinary work being done at SPARQ. Much of the discussion centered on the attempts of many to measure the intangibles, and whether or not it is truly possible. From this discussion, I came away with one very clear thought: game intelligence, passion for the game, and dedication are key to any player’s success. The very best athletes in any sport are also usually the ones that work the hardest.

The highlight of the day for me and part of the reason there were so many NBA personnel present was the panel discussion on basketball analytics. Moderated by Stein, the discussion included Hollinger, Zarren, Oliver, Cuban, and Morey. Each tried to shed some light on the work they are doing while at the same time not giving away any trade secrets (Hollinger being the exception). One interesting revelation was the fact that NBA teams really have no clue about what the others are doing. Because the advanced statistics movement is so new and different from person to person, each team is essentially on its own island. There is no cooperation and apparently very little information shared.

Oliver, Morey, and Zarren seemed content to wait their turn and choose their words carefully. Each has obtained an important position with their respective teams. In addition, you could tell that these guys are very smart and are doing a lot of exceptional work that we may never hear about.

An interesting development occurred when Hollinger made a point using the Devin Harris-Jason Kidd trade. Hollinger clearly was not in favor of Dallas’ decision with that move, and Cuban did not hesitate to speak up. Both sides made different points backing up their views, and neither was willing to back down. The back-and-forth debate continued for a few minutes until they essentially agreed to disagree.

During lunch, we witnessed an interesting presentation by John Huizinga about the validity of the common belief that NBA players get “hot.” According to his research, this belief is false. I had some questions about his methodology (which I can’t really go into here unless you attended the presentation yourself), but overall it was some very interesting research.

The conference was quite long and full of information, and I attended a total of eight presentations during the day. Despite the clear value of attending the conference, a surprisingly small amount of NBA teams had representatives present. However, it was no surprise that front office members of many of the league’s top teams attended.

This was the first time I attended the conference and I was certainly not disappointed. I learned a great deal of information and met a lot of interesting people along the way.

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