TrueHoop: MIT Sloan 2014
Victory in hand, the dominant equation for both became: Big mouth + bigger ego = the verbal victory lap. Any quote book is loaded with Churchill’s high-testosterone patter. Jackson’s latest book, ostensibly about teamwork, has a title that has only to do with Jackson. Michael Jordan didn't win "Eleven Rings." Neither did Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal or Scottie Pippen. Only Phil did.
Jackson is expected to return to the NBA, as a New York Knicks executive, packing not just a lot of the NBA’s gravitas, but the majority of it. Add up all your other coaches, players and experts. If Phil says they’re full of it ... his voice is even money to carry the day.
That has to be a big part of why Jackson could mean so much to a team like the Knicks. The common denominator of their dominant commonness has been bad front-office decision-making, specifically one high-profile overspend after another. There's no arguing James Dolan is an owner without a clue, determined to bludgeon the competition not with his insight, but with his wallet -- a method that, for a bundle of league-wide cap reasons, always makes teams difficult to improve and almost never ends in titles.
The Knicks might already be the world’s most over-loved team. New York hoops fans, those hopeless romantics, have been dashing their hearts on the rocks of false optimism since the days of Patrick Ewing. Remember when Zach Randolph was the revolution? Amar’e Stoudemire? Carmelo Anthony?
Time and again, Dolan has gotten his man. Time and again, like Charlie Brown, the fans have believed. Time and again, the only thing needed to prove Dolan got the wrong man has been time.
Will this time be different?
I’m convinced the answer is no, and not because Jackson’s the wrong guy, but because this is the wrong time.
It’s too late. The league is changing too fast, learning too much, and Jackson, for all the open-mindedness that once led him to the novel and wonderful triangle offense, has been telegraphing his incuriousness for more than a decade.
This is not just basketball’s boom time for analytics, it’s also, as Nate Silver wrote recently in ESPN The Magazine, when analytics become basketball necessities, as opposed to niceties. From the stew of SportVu, Catapult and Vantage comes things that really matter: which pick-and-roll defenses stops which ball handlers, which offenses generate the best-quality looks, who plays good defense, the right number of hours to sleep before a big game and, increasingly, which players need to come out of the game right now before their fatigue-induced injury risk skyrockets.
It’s not that any one person knows ALL the right answers. It’s that no ONE person knows all the right answers. Much of this new stuff will prove to science bunk, but the best of it is exponentially better by the day. The only right answer is to be curious.
And at that, the league has passed Jackson by. All his books, all those interviews, all that insight into his thinking, and has he ever even once told of finding value in insight from a younger generation? Or, indeed, from anyone beyond his chosen short list of apostles?
Jackson spoke at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. As he did, I took notes, but I soon stopped. There was no point. Other than a rude joke about needing a “grain elevator” to weigh Shaq, these were all things told previously. The oft-recited Gospel According to St. Phil. His conversation was a museum piece, the recurring soup of the words “Michael Jordan,” “Kobe Bryant” and “Scottie Pippen” that Jackson has been ladling out forever.
More importantly, Jackson was not at Sloan to learn. Never has been. Tuning people out, and discrediting them even, is also a mainstay of Jackson’s game -- just ask Jerry West, or Jerry Krause.
Jackson’s Lakers never bothered to attend the stat-geek confab, and the Lakers were famously the only NBA team not to have a representative there last year. Jackson’s generic public take on basketball innovation has long been, essentially, that Red Holzman and Tex Winter knew all that stuff.
At Sloan, Jackson bragged of once playing O’Neal 48 minutes per game -- on the same day sport scientist Michael Regan, of Catapult Sports, explained how resting after stints of just eight minutes dramatically improved performance in Australian Rules Football, a league that’s enjoying massive injury reductions league-wide thanks to science-based things we've learned only in the past decade.
It’s not that Jackson can’t make the Knicks winners. He might. Indeed, as the argument goes, at least he has won, unlike everyone else in the building. But he’s sending all the wrong signals if the task is to outclass 29 other teams in a race starting in 2014. That prize will, almost certainly, go to whoever best masters new ideas, about which Phil says, basically: Who needs ‘em?
The cautionary tale here of course is in Charlotte. Michael Jordan also filled the staff with like-minded friends. But, of course, a great executive is far more than a great player who lost his spring or a great coach who tired of travel. Without piling one good decision on top of another, the team is lost. The Bobcats did everything Jordan’s way for a while, until the competitive forces humbled even Jordan, who now listens not just to his gut and his friends, but also to people such as new executive Rich Cho, who is effectively the team’s ambassador from the post-Jordan, Sloan-infused world of hoops insight.
Jackson and the Knicks aren't playing the exact same tune as MJ and the Bobcats -- they have deeper pockets and more intricate team-building experience -- but they’re sounding a lot of the same notes.
First up: In a weird case of seat-switching, David Thorpe interviews Henry Abbott about what NBA teams are doing to prevent injuries.
Next: Sports Scientist Michael Regan of Catapult Sports explains how overseas leagues have achieved boosts in performance, and reduced injuries, with more strategic breaks.
A counterpoint, also from Sloan, comes from admitted former doper Tyler Hamilton. He nearly died from complications of a banned blood transfusion, and tells Henry Abbott that the stress of his double life made returning his Olympic medal more satisfying than winning it. He is an outspoken opponent of doping.
The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference isn’t about stats anymore. Not coincidentally, it’s much-improved.
Stats really never stood a chance at Dorkapalooza. As Danny Nowell demonstrated, a belief in information as currency quickly begets a reluctance to share information. If you think stats are the future, you’re hoarding the future a la Biff and his Grays Sports Almanac in "Back to the Future Part II."
Yes, there are still academic papers at the conference up for discussion. But the stars of the show are the stars -- the nationally famous owners, general managers and coaches.
So don’t attack this conference as a bunch of geeks trading slide rule war stories. The convention is no longer proliferating the academic advancement it symbolizes. They moved this thing away from MIT, remember.
Instead, SSAC 2014 offered us an enticing look at the future of sports entertainment. Paradoxically, that future has all to do with messy, imperfect humanity, and little to do with statistics.
Malcolm Gladwell grilling newly minted NBA commissioner Adam Silver on James Dolan’s tax benefits? Yes please. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and Kings owner Vivek Ranadive getting into it over which of their teams is tanking? Don’t mind if I do. Stan Van Gundy mocking the Sixers in extreme language? Pass the popcorn already.
After so much focus on the rather dehumanizing process of commodifying athlete performance, the Sloan Conference somehow managed to commodify the humanity of its speakers. Nearly everyone at Sloan believes in the competitive power of data, but Sloan, like sports, is a personality-driven business. Selling tickets to Phil Jackson talking extemporaneously is easier than selling tickets to a guy you’ve never heard of expounding on rebounding.
It’s hard to beat live, reality TV. Adam Silver seemed a bit nervous and it was riveting. Stan Van Gundy waxed angry and it was hilarious. In their panel on negotiations, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers appeared vulnerable and it was cathartic.
The latter event was the least contentious, which is funny when you consider how these men are supposedly tasked with swindling each other up until trade deadlines. Morey and Myers both vented about the travails of dealing with GMs who try to lecture you on what’s best for your team. They expressed frustration with peers who seek to win the trade as opposed to finding common ground. The normally opaque general managers dropped the veil and conveyed the exhaustion of working in a world so steeped in secrecy and paranoia.
Most memorably, Morey dished on his fear in response to Golden State’s deal for Andre Iguodala. Morey revealed how he thought the trade might put Houston’s Dwight Howard venture in jeopardy: “This is where my emotion takes over. I go into a complete panic. I really did. I thought it was down to us, Dallas, L.A." What followed was an anecdote about how a frantic Morey called Mark Cuban to inquire about Dirk Nowitzki (Cuban assumed that Morey was sarcastically taunting him).
Morey is among the most media-friendly GMs -- he invited the media to this conference that he co-founded, after all. “Friendly” doesn’t necessarily mean “open,” though. But alongside Myers, Morey was startlingly open.
That’s the secret for turning a suit into a storyteller. He needs some company up there on stage, people who hail from his cloistered world and can validate the statements. This is how many of these panels evoked the loose, conversational, and at times, contentious comedy of shows like HBO’s "Real Time" and ESPN’s "Pardon the Interruption."
The Parade of Loosened Ties has yet to reach the mainstream in the way many advanced statistics have. The Sloan conference is more entertaining than ever before, but it still (intentionally) plays to an exclusive audience. In Boston, we can see the future of how sports leagues will feed the fan’s increasingly voracious appetite: Get the most powerful people in sports together and get them talking.
Might you enjoy a panel of GMs discussing team needs a week before the trade deadline? Would you listen to two famous coaches razz each other for your amusement?
Suit-based sports entertainment would be the natural outgrowth of the statistical revolution that turned Billy Beane into someone Brad Pitt plays in a movie. And even though “suit-based sports entertainment” sounds terrifyingly corporate, the results at the Sloan petri dish were captivating.
Information is currency, so owners, GMs, and coaches won’t spend it on us. But celebrity is the rare currency that earns as you spend it. If the analytics movement pulled "the geeks" into the spotlight, it’s only a matter of time before those geeks grab the mike and make use of their newfound fame.
Special to ESPN.com
Take it from Kiki Vandeweghe. An NBA player for 13 seasons, Vandeweghe, now the league’s senior vice president of basketball operations, recalls that sleep was a precious commodity, always in short supply. “You made up for it by sleeping basically whenever you stopped moving. On the bus, waiting to drive to the airport, waiting for the plane, you slept.”
The NBA schedule has throttled back some since then. Back-to-back-to-backs are no longer common, but it’s still rough. At the Sloan Conference, it became clear that people around the NBA are getting wise to the crippling effect that sleep deprivation has on player performance.
“The benefits of a good night’s sleep are so fundamental to team success that many franchises now employ sleep consultants to encourage healthier nocturnal habits. Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Charles Czeisler, who spoke at Sloan, is one such consultant. He began working with the Trail Blazers and Celtics in 2008 and made a believer out of Doc Rivers by predicting a bad loss, months in advance, just by looking at the schedule.
You made up for it by sleeping basically whenever you stopped moving. On the bus, waiting to drive to the airport, waiting for the plane, you slept.”
-- Kiki Vandeweghe
When Rivers originally briefed Czeisler on his team’s schedule, Czeisler couldn’t believe it. A rigorous travel schedule and late nights couldn’t help but deplete the best athletes in the world -- a blow to the teams who pay them and fans who pay to see the best at their best.
Losing even one night of sleep significantly impairs reaction time and the ability to quickly spot visual signals. In a sport where tenths of a second are the difference between a timely defensive rotation and a dunk that ends up on SportsCenter, this stuff really matters. Lack of sleep also diminishes testosterone levels -- a week of sleeping four hours a night can reduce a 25-year-old’s testosterone level to that of a 36-year-old -- and increases the body’s inflammatory response.
Speaking before a room dotted with league and team executives, Czeisler did not mince words: “It’s a disservice to the fans to have one of the teams so degraded, because there’s no way structurally to ensure the players get enough sleep when they’re on a back-to-back road trip like that from Portland to Phoenix.”
In the NBA, sometimes the schedule is a team’s toughest competition. It’s not how much or how hard they play that wears players down, it’s how rarely they can get a great night’s sleep to replenish their mental, physical and emotional reserves.
Road-weary players don’t need a doctor to tell them something’s wrong. “We just heard so many complaints from the players about how tired they were when we went to the east coast,” says former Blazers general manager Tom Penn. So, after some research, the Portland Trail Blazers hired Czeisler to consult.
The conventional wisdom for handling road trips was to get on local time as quickly as possible. On Czeisler’s advice, Nate McMillan’s coaching staff moved everything back three hours to mimic the players’ schedule back in the Pacific time zone. Remembers Penn: “The doctor convinced everyone that the circadian athlete rhythm peaks right in that 4 to 5 p.m. time and that’s when our players would be playing. Four to five o’clock on their bodies, 7 or 8 o’clock local time. It was great.”
Many teams are doing the best they can to at least mitigate the demands of the NBA schedule. For the Washington Wizards, getting sleep starts in training camp, when their sleep doctor baselines everyone on the team so they can accurately assess the players midseason.
“If they tell me the more sleep you get, the more chance you have to reduce your risk of injury -- c’mon, that’s the most important thing you can be looking at,” says Wizards senior VP of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard. “For us, if you have a choice to have a two-hour meeting or let guys go get sleep right away, cancel the meeting. We can have the meeting some other time. The sleep is by far more important, and we’re all learning that.”
The Memphis Grizzlies are the most eastern team in the Western Conference, which presents some unique challenges, especially during the playoffs. They’ve tried making their commute a few different ways, but, says John Hollinger, “I just don’t think there’s a perfect answer.”
As it currently stands, the NBA schedule itself robs fans and teams of the best possible basketball. It’s impossible to enforce sleeping habits, especially in a business chock full of owners, scouts, coaches and players who are high-achieving types, many of whom are famous for performing on four hours or less a night. But when the best players in the world are begging new commissioner Adam Silver for another break in addition to All-Star Weekend, it’s hard to argue that the Jordan model is one to follow.
The league says it is studying a wide range of health issues, including player sleep, that impact player performance, which ultimately determines the quality of the league’s product.
On Saturday, Silver said he was open to reconsidering the schedule. “I think to the extent that there’s data that says we can improve performance by changing the schedule, I’m all ears.”
The data exists. Does the will to react to what it tells us?
Maybe Silver will be up for it, if he can just get some rest himself.
Admitted the new commissioner, “I’m genuinely sleep-deprived.”
Special to ESPN.com
By this point, it is a trope of the conference that nobody with any real skin in the analytics game can talk about what they’re doing. For as much as the executives, scouts and analysts here have convened to share knowledge and to celebrate that sharing, the obvious competition between them prevents any real honesty. Broadly speaking, everybody here is engaged in “analytics,” but when it comes time to discuss specifics, no teams will step forward and detail their nutrition programs, the ways they use optical-tracking data, their psychological assessments, their training regiments and so on. Most smiles here are pleasant poker faces.
Conversely, the people after the jobs and money come to Sloan to tell as many people as possible as much as they can. John Ball is one such one person. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton described yesterday, Ball is at Sloan with a business -— backed by a research paper presented at the conference —- that sells referee analytics to NBA teams. The idea, more or less, is to let teams see the tendencies that various referees have so that the teams can capitalize on, or at least prepare for, those tendencies.
As Ball tells it, he’s not the first to have this idea: “Mark Cuban has gone on the record about how he’s tracked the referees, and NFL teams and scouts have made adjustments and game plans based on referee crews. It’s prevalent in many sports, and some forward-thinking teams have already done it.” To Ball’s mind, he’s tracking an observable phenomenon, and some teams have already gotten hip to the benefits. Unlike the teams, though, he stands to benefit from talking about his work as much as possible, and so his information raises the questions of how, and whether, information can really move between organizations anymore.
A certain strain of idealism floats in the air at the Sloan Conference, an idealism that is probably the biggest reason the conference has picked up an increasing number of critics. It’s kin to the idealism of TED talks, South by Southwest and other increasingly derided conclaves of pop intellectualism. There is an idea here that the gathering of knowledge -— surely a virtue -— can only make sports better, and why choose not to make something better?
What critics of Sloan perceive, correctly, is that the ideology masks an essential reality: men (it has become mandatory to note that the conference is almost entirely male) have gathered here to apply the rigor and technology of derivatives trading to winning sports games. My suspicion is that the critics of Sloan are so vitriolic because sports fans get enough of this margineering in the real world -— these guys are doing just fine with their tech ventures and capital firms. Why are they polluting our games?
This tension may not be resolvable, because the ideal of opening sports up to new ways of thinking is directly at odds with the competitive marketplace. In the age of Big Data -— a phrase directly incorporated into the titles of two panels, both specially marked with sponsorship from tech companies —- information has become as valuable as oil. Sharing extraction techniques is, in the judgment of the market, foolish.
There is skepticism among NBA executives whether Ball’s information about referees could be an advantage to teams. The league, after all, charts every call made by every referee in every game. And if they have charted all of the referee behaviors there are to chart, how could Ball have proprietary information? Of course, the NBA won’t release its data, and Ball, while he can release more than the league, can’t chart and tell, either. For fans, there’s no way to tell who’s bluffing, or even whether somebody is intentionally bluffing.
So Sloan is the hybrid trade show-conference that serves as the ostensible hub of sports information sharing, and nobody here knows whether anybody else knows anything. If there is a way to resolve this paradox, it seems as though the various leagues in attendance are the likeliest source. Sports have always functioned as a social laboratory, and the rulebook serves as the controls. On the field, on the court, we are trying to achieve the optimal conditions for objective evaluation -— if you subscribe to this theory, then the best-designed sport is the sport in which the better team wins most often. But when you can’t even tell what assumptions teams make about officials, how does the framework of competition hold up?
The question Sloan asks, then, is what responsibility leagues have to regulate information? Should the NBA allow information to move at the speed of the market, to be collected and even hoarded by the most forward-thinking (or cynical, depending on your vantage) teams? Or should it put its thumb on the scale and standardize information-gathering practices? To put it another way: If one team has gathered information about the very fabric of the sport that another team doesn't have, are they even playing the same game?
As always, off-court life is bleeding into the sport, and the league will have a chance to shape the response. Sports have been a theater and a treatment for our dramas of race, sexuality and every other social issue. The extent to which we are defined by our data, and who has the rights to that data, and who governs the trading of that data are central issues that sports now have a chance to help us make sense of. We, like general managers and everybody else at Sloan, are locked in a cycle of paranoia and fascination with our data -— look at all the things we can do now, but stop at nothing to avoid leaks!
Talking about the conference with Paul Flannery, Celtics Assistant GM Mike Zarren said, “The big-data revolution was happening whether this conference happened or not. The world was already changing.” He’s right. But the precepts of that revolution —- that information is currency, and that it should be guarded and allowed to behave like currency —- can be tested here. We can literally play with how we will treat data, and find out how many points certain information is worth. But before we can do that, we have to learn who knows what, and perhaps the most enduring lesson of Sloan this year is how far away we are.
Special to ESPN.com
MG: "All right, moving on. First serious question is about the draft. Lots and lots and lots of buzz about the draft, ideas of what might and might not be wrong about it. Let’s start at a high level. Satisfy my curiosity as a relative outsider about how weird it is that in the context of sports, we reward favor. We know the famous quotation by Marx about how communism was “from each according to ability, to each according to his need.” This precisely describes the draft and the luxury tax. The parallels of having a group of billionaire Republicans who get together to behave like Marxists is just … overwhelming!"
AS: "So … it’s a great point, and every cycle of collective bargaining we end up hiring economists to help us bargain as I said, as economists as well. I always get a kick out of hiring the economists. They first come in, we have a general meeting where they take our current CBA, our bylaws, our constitution, our guidelines, how we operate … they go away, they’re academic. They say, 'We’ll study this and we’ll come back, we’ll present ideas for you.' It always happens. They go in, they come back, they’re always really excited, they want to play something … and they say 'You have it all wrong! You've created an incentive for teams to be bad!' And that’s of course what the draft is, and why we created a draft lottery. And I always say, it’s the same issue. It’s the reason why historically, so many commissioners have been seen as untrustworthy for sports leagues. And that is that the case we present is that we aren't true economic competitors. If we were true economic competitors, our teams would be trying to put each other out of business. In fact, they agreed to give to the worst performing team arguably the best player coming in. They agree to share all kinds of revenue – not just the direct revenue sharing transfers where the Lakers write a check for $50 million to their partners and say, 'Hey, it’s important for us that you operate in a way that you can afford a competitive payroll.' We share enormous amounts of collective revenue. So much so that the way our TV deal is set up, the more popular your team is, the greater number of local broadcasts we take away. And that’s a DIRECT cost to the team, especially as local deals go up. I’d say … if you want to call it a form of socialism, as some do, in terms of how sports leagues operate, I would say from an economic standpoint, we’re a single enterprise. We’re trying to create competition among teams. And that’s what makes our system. The lottery in particular, and our draft, we continue to tinker with it. By definition that’s why we have the draft lottery, we’re concerned about the disincentives to win that are built in the system."
MG: "Do you think at the present time the disincentives towards excellence are too great in our lottery system?"
AS: "You know, I’m not sure. As we become more sophisticated, as conferences like this exist ... I mean, even in the short time I've been here, I've been handed a lot of business cards already from people saying, 'I have a better idea for how you do it.' I've read in the last few days here, Mike Zarren's wheel proposal from the Celtics … also an interesting idea. I’m open to taking a fresh look at it. We've experimented to changing things. One of the fundamental mistakes we made years ago when we were less sophisticated about analytics, where the worst-performing team would historically have a lottery of type. If you had the worst record, you’d have a 1-for-1 chance of getting the first pick. So what we did, we fixed that with the draft lottery to dramatically reduce the odds that they’d get the first pick. We kept building it over the years. But let’s say now that it’s a 25 percent chance that you get the first pick if you have the worst record. But the analytical people with the team are saying that even a 20 percent chance is better than a random chance, so I’m not really sure we’re at the optimal point. At the same time –- and I know there was some discussion yesterday about so-called tanking –- these are to the extent that teams believe they may have an incentive to perform poorly. I’m not sure analytics bear out that being the optimal way to operate in that situation. In terms of the word tanking, I think it’s used differently by different people. To me, tanking means a team goes out to intentionally lose the game. I think there’s genuine rebuilding in our system. Especially when you have a cap-type system and you have to plan for the future. Just like any business, there’s short-term and long-term results. I think given their desire to win, they make the decision that this player will not optimize our chance to win a championship, because this player will lead to two or three more wins this year. But our goal is to win a championship, and that player just isn't going to help us meet that long-term goal."
MG: "Let’s talk about this. You mentioned about the wheel. For those of you who aren't familiar, this is the notion where you assign draft positions in a fixed order so that each team would have the first pick once every 30 years. Suppose you wave a wand and that’s in place tomorrow in the NBA. Can you tell me about the impact you think that would have on the NBA?"
AS: "So, my point here came up with this proposal. Over the course of 30 years, you move throughout mathematically in terms of your draft pick. This goes to show some issues. When Mike first showed it to me, I thought, 'Wow, that solves our problems.' Teams can plan for the future, they have absolutely no incentive to do anything but win the maximum number of games per season, they know where the draft pick is coming from. And I said, 'Let’s socialize this a little bit, let’s send it out to other GMs and get other team reactions.' And what came back … maybe it’s an obvious issue, but it’s one that surprised me was when teams said, 'Hold on a second.' There’s a belief that certain markets have advantages. That players may choose to be on the coast, be in a larger market as opposed to a smaller market. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but that’s the perspective. The concern by some of the teams was that if a player going into college or coming out of high school … Say that he knows the hometown team here, the Celtics, has the No. 1 pick in two years. I’m going to wait those two years to come out, because I can game the system as a player. I can choose to be a Celtic. Maybe another player wants to be in Orlando and he waits till he’s a junior to come out. Because if I’m in Orlando … In return, appropriately so." [MG interruption]
MG: [laughing] "I've heard that objection. And that objection strikes me as really lame. I mean, it proposes that the player can actively predict where they’re going to be taken in the draft, that’s No. 1. And two, that the teams themselves wouldn't react to this very thing simply by trading their draft picks. If the Celtics really want to take Joe Blow, and he’s No. 1, they can simply swap their picks."
AS: "That’s what we heard about from the teams. As I said, I liked the idea initially. We’ll still study it. Basketball is so unique. It’s both a team and an individual sport. In terms of you and I, or a group of basketball experts here, and if we put the cards on the table. 'There are 450 players in the league. We want NFL-style parity.' I think the issue here is that if you don’t have one of the 12 or 15 players in the league, maybe it’s a smaller number, you have a very small chance of winning a championship. Because an individual player can be so dominant in this league. And then there are these players that come around once every few years, once in a generation … But I think, I remember reading about LeBron in ninth grade. We saw him coming along. Could we predict how many championships he’d win? I don’t know. But there was no question that he was a game-changer for any team that could get him. So I think then there’s that sense among teams. It’s once every 30 years, guys come across, and suddenly the player says, 'Don’t bother, I’m not gonna play for you. I’ll wait a year or two and choose my team.' Look, it’s definitely not the perfect system we have right now. And based on the discussion we had about it, it’s one of those topics …"
MG: "I’d like to talk about the fact that when you first heard that idea, you were quite taken to it. So there’s some element of dissatisfaction in your own mind with the current system?"
AS: "Yeah. In part, and again … Because I’m not sure the analytics support this notion that you can game the system and lose this many games to have this specific record, it requires a lot of precision. In terms of how good someone’s going to be, where he’ll come out in the lottery. But I’d say in terms of the business of the NBA, the fact that there’s so much chatter about the notion of tanking … Of course that concerns me from a business standpoint."
Transcription provided by Aaron McGuire.
Special to ESPN.com
Enter the hot-hand theory, a tiny assumption and a crack team of Harvard researchers.
Beckley Mason has already covered their findings admirably, and the main takeaway is some heady stuff: The hot hand might really exist. The original research regarding the hot-hand theory was well-researched and statistically sound, but the findings were predicated on a tiny, footnote-esque assumption in the introduction of the original paper. It’s an assumption that’s a bit more troublesome than it seems at first glance.
"Each player has an ensemble of shots that vary in difficulty [depending, for example, on the distance from the basket and on defensive pressure], and each shot is randomly selected from this ensemble."
-- Gilovich, Vallone, and Tversky, 1985
As it turns out, this assumption of random selection isn’t quite true. If you think hard on all the times you’ve watched a player "get hot," you might realize the inherent flaw here. Think back -- how many times have you watched Stephen Curry make two open 3s before trying a double-teamed 26-footer? How many times have you watched LeBron James make two midrange jumpers before an unnecessary isolation at the top of the key with two men draped on him?
These aren’t the exceptions -- they’re the rule. The researchers sifted through SportVU tracking data from the 2013 season, creating a model for shot difficulty they could use to measure how players react to "hot streaks." The answer is elegant (though perhaps unsurprising): When players heat up, as a rule, they take much worse shots.
Without the information of shot difficulty, the data lends itself to a clear conclusion. "Players shoot as well or worse after hot streaks than they did before." But that data only makes sense without the context of shot difficulty -- when you add measures of difficulty to the equation, the answer changes.
Think of it this way: Players shoot a negligible percentage from the field on full-court shots, no matter how open they are. But what if every single NBA player took a full-court shot after he got hot? Furthermore, what if these "hot" players made 20 percent on heated-up, well-guarded, full-court shots? That would be a massive improvement over the average, even though 20 percent is a terrible shooting percentage overall. But it would still be less than their overall shooting percentage, which means that traditional hot-hand studies would average that out as a proof that the hot hand doesn’t exist. "They don’t shoot any better after they heat up. Ergo, the hot hand doesn’t exist." But it would, in that situation! It would just be obfuscated if you didn’t have the shot-difficulty data to check against.
The Harvard study isn’t quite that stark – players take significantly more difficult shots when they get hot, and they shoot a tiny bit better than they’d be expected to on those more difficult shots. It doesn’t necessarily prove that the hot hand exists, but it provides much-needed evidence to support the theory. It’s a great first step to properly understand the hot hand, and it exposes the inherent assumption in the previous hot-hand research, ensuring that future research doesn’t make the same mistake.
And let’s not overstate it -- it wasn’t a big mistake, at least not on the part of the researchers who wrote the original paper. They presented their findings and properly stated their assumptions. The big mistake lies in the mass proselytization of their hot-hand disproof. Scores of intelligent people shared their findings as gospel without properly understanding the limits of their finding. It’s a mistake that’s far too common among the statistically minded.
There's a certain humility necessary to admit to your readers the flaws and limitations in your own analysis. Without understanding those flaws and limitations, one's statistical certainty within assumed parameters misses the context and misses the big picture. The researchers who construct their own theory tend to have a long view of their work’s limitations and applicability. It’s when their papers and theories become public domain that the context gets lost in translation.
The hot hand is a really fantastic example of this. Here we have a place at which incomplete data led stat-minded folks to an oversold certainty. The original paper stated the assumptions, but most everyone who held up the disproof accepted those assumptions without really questioning them.
There was a great moment when the presenter noted that statisticians and data analysts of all stripes have a bad habit of outright ignoring the consensus view when they dig up interesting statistical evidence that cuts against the grain. Often, that's a place where statistical thinking can unearth really cool findings. It's where statistics shines. But it's not always that way -- sometimes, the statistical counterpoint is just a reflection of a place where the necessary context is rooted in data we can't gather.
Shot-difficulty data simply didn’t exist as a serious discipline before the availability of motion-tracking data that could measure defensive pressure, shot angle and other important metrics for estimating how difficult a shot could be. Now it does, and the assumptions they properly expressed turned out to be bunk. C’est la vie.
Once again, none of this is to say that the original hot-hand papers and work was poorly done. It wasn't. The hot-hand theory has a lot of strong work behind it. A light disproof in the NBA doesn't immediately invalidate any of the research within its stated context. The original analysis itself is still apt -- assuming that players don’t make their shots more difficult as they heat up, the existing data still strongly indicates that the hot hand doesn’t exist.
But we don’t need to rely on incomplete data, at least not for this theory. Not anymore. This is where the NBA’s new data shines. It lets us reevaluate the theories we once thought were gospel. It lets us discover that our once statistically confident assertions might be a bit more complicated than we’ve let on. It lets us unearth brand-new theories that upend conventional wisdom.
But as we sift through this new data, this stirring revision to popular thought should give us all a moment of pause. There are always latent variables in our data sets to which we don’t have access. There is always a risk that our assumptions aren't quite as rock-solid as we thought they were, and there’s always a chance that later data is going to step to the plate and invalidate our well-worn wisdom.
Before you proseltyze, understand your limits, both in theory and in data.
Special to ESPN.com
For former NBA coach George Karl, being a masterful play-calling tactician is the tip of the iceberg for good coaching. Below the surface is an insistent faith in chaos. This doesn’t mean teams are bumbling around the court. Instead, it signifies reflexive, furious play opponents can’t predict.
A coach should do more than drill memorized plays into the collective brain of a roster. Great coaching goes a step further and creates a cohesive unit that operates seamlessly without thought. Karl particularly emphasized the end of third quarters and beginning of the fourth quarters as times when he wanted his team to unleash pure anarchy. By playing a helter-skelter brand of basketball, his squads could whip themselves into an unstoppable fury while demoralizing the opponent.
The knock on this chaos theory, though, is that it doesn’t lead to championship-caliber basketball. In the playoffs, you have to know how to grind out a tough seven-game series. Strengthening this thought is Karl’s 2012-13 Denver Nuggets. They reeled off 57 wins. At home, feeding off the supportive crowd, they were an impressive 38-3. After all that, though, they were bounced in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Other masters of mayhem seem to have suffered this same fate. Mike D’Antoni, Doug Moe, Don Nelson and Karl have a combined 4,605 regular-season wins, 20 division titles, five NBA Coach of the Year Awards, and even 14 conference finals appearances. But they have zero NBA titles. Depending on chaos appears a dead end road for winning titles.
Despite the lack of titles, those four coaches are some of the best the NBA has ever seen. D’Antoni reinvigorated the league a decade ago with his Seven Seconds or Less Offense. Moe created offensive juggernauts in Denver in the 1980s. Nelson abstracted positions at all his coaching stops and made it easier for future coaches to reimagine what skills could be harnessed at different positions.
Let’s not forget as well that some of the most successful, title-winning coaches in NBA history have also embraced the up-tempo chaos Karl championed.
The Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra are at their most dangerous and scintillating when they get into the open court and transform into the Flying Death Machine of Dwyane Wade dunks and LeBron James tomahawk slams. Sounds like harnessed chaos. Spoelstra’s mentor, Pat Riley, did similar things 30 years earlier with the Showtime Lakers. They absolutely thrived on Magic Johnson dishing to James Worthy and Byron Scott on the break for high-flying finishes. Definitely a championship dynasty hitched to havoc.
And the most successful team in NBA history -- the 1960s Boston Celtics -- was predicated on the chaos theory. Their coach was so confident in his, and his teams’, abilities that he had no more than 10 plays, plays that in actuality were no more than abstract concepts. Instead of X's and O's, what Boston coach Red Auerbach hammered home to his players was confidence in their chaotic philosophy.
That commitment to chaos didn’t mean abandoning common mathematical sense. When defensive powerhouse Bill Russell was forcing shots on offense early in his rookie season, Auerbach rebuked his star center. Russell wasn’t out there to put up 25 points a game -- which could happen only on terrible efficiency. The Celtics coach reminded him that his greatest asset was defense and rebounding. If Russell could dominate those things, it’d allow Boston to enforce offensive chaos the opposition could not control.
The array of analytics has multiplied dramatically since Karl began coaching -- and certainly since Auerbach’s days. These increasingly sophisticated numbers herald new avenues to control the action on the hardwood. Some things haven’t changed that much, though. The relationship a coach takes with his players still commands the success they will ultimately achieve. If Auerbach and Russell had an abysmal working relationship, the earlier reprimand could have ruined Boston’s season. Instead, they won 11 titles in 13 seasons.
A similar discussion on someone’s advanced metrics today brings the same hazards. It also can bring similar rewards. The direction it goes depends on a coach able to effectively communicate a philosophy to his players. Dictating plays from the sideline night and day isn’t the peak of great coaching. It’s an illusion of cohesive control. Elevating your team’s play to chaos is the pinnacle of a team in control of itself and sure of its mission.
Special to ESPN.com
Did they really say that?
“We doctored the numbers all the time.”
-- Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers, on his time as an agent. He and his agents would selectively present info to make their free agent look most appealing to NBA suitors.
“When [Shaquille O’Neal] came off the court after four games, I stood him up and asked him ‘What’s the greatest thing Wilt Chamberlain did?’ … He liked stats, so he said ‘He averaged 50 points per game.’ I said ‘Pretty good, but not quite. He played 48 minutes a game. Could you do that?’ … Tried it for six games, he didn’t like it so much. Then, he got in shape.”
-- Former NBA head coach Phil Jackson, on getting Shaq into shape
“Statisticians can be very convinced they’re right. Occasionally, they can be so convinced that they argue for their own quirky position without listening to the people who represent the consensus they’re railing against.”
-- Researchers of “The Hot Hand: A New Approach to an Old ‘Fallacy’”
“American sports are socialist.”
-- FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver
Daryl Morey Explains It all
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey spoke at a few panels today and had a lot to say:
“Every single NBA team has someone working on analytics right now.”
“Hardest innovation to sell to the coaching staff is the loss of control -- Europe/college have a lot of set plays, control, instrumenting the game. For a lot of coaches, giving up that control is difficult.“
On what he told Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after mistakenly thinking Dwight Howard would sign with the Golden State Warriors:
"I was like, 'Well, you're not getting Dwight Howard. Can you trade us Dirk Nowitzki?' It was a bad moment for me." -
Before realizing Howard had already told the Mavericks, but not yet the Rockets, that he’d sign with Houston:
“Mark [Cuban] thought I was taunting him!”
On the eureka moment he and the Rockets figured out to how to create the Poison Pill contract for Jeremy Lin:
“Whoa! Five Minute Abs!”
On instituting retreats and having ‘trust falls’ for NBA general managers to build confidence in one another:
“I’ll catch Jerry West!”
“Coaches tend to be control freaks. They overuse strategies that give them the illusion of control. But chaos is very useful. If you’re on offense and you can create chaos, it’ll lead to a breakdown and you can score. … Great coaches have tolerance for creating chaos.”
-- Bill James, sabermetrics pioneer
“Having Dennis Rodman ended up being one of the best things of my career, because of his incredible athleticism. Also, his incredible weirdness.”
-- Former NBA head coach Phil Jackson
“I don't think my team can beat anyone playing a run-down grind-it-out basketball game, whether it's in the playoffs or the regular season. Playing fast takes out concepts and philosophies of the defence -- it becomes a reactionary game. There are a lot of great coaches in the NBA, [and] when the game speeds up, coaching becomes less important."
-- Former NBA head coach George Karl
"The only numbers I trust are the numbers my people keep."
-- Former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy
“Rajon Rondo is really into statistics and analytics. If he knew this was going on, he might show up. Heck, he might be in the audience.”
-- Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens
“Memphis grew up last year, [and] I think they threw it all out by firing their coach -- … hey, is John Hollinger out there?”
“Derrick Rose might be too explosive for his own good.”
-- Van Gundy
“The most important thing we can do tonight is smile.”