When I met the Celtics' Mike Zarren at that MIT conference a few months ago (he's the part of Boston's front office that is neither Danny Ainge nor a scout -- they run a lean operation), it was clear the dude had not only uncommon insight into basketball statistics, but also uncommon passion for the game.
Zarren still watches every game from the cheap seats, with his dad, screaming his face off. He worked for the team for free for a long time. He goes around the clock. He knows things most people don't know. He works that Synergy video tool hard.
And he's a great guy to write an article about, which Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt have done for this weekend's New York Times.
Here's some small insight from that article into what Zarren knows about basketball.
As for what the Celtics know about their own and opposing players - well, that information is guarded like the crown jewels. Off the record and under duress, Zarren did reveal some valuable information, but we judged credible his threat to hunt us down and kill us if it were published. He was willing to admit that Ray Allen's worth goes far beyond his perimeter shooting, that Rajon Rondo's rebounding was an undervalued asset, that Leon Powe's surprisingly strong play was not so surprising to the Celtics and that, as transformative a player as Garnett was known to be, he has generated a variety of offensive and defensive pluses that even the Celtics didn't anticipate.
Zarren is also responsible for the Celtics' basketball-related technology and uses a service that delivers video footage tagged with statistical information. With just a few mouse clicks, he can call up every clip in which LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers has touched the ball at the top of the key and see whether he went left or right, was double-teamed or not, passed or shot - and, if the latter, whether he missed, scored or was fouled. So if the Celtics dampen James's scoring the next time they play a high-stakes game against the Cavs, Zarren might be entitled to a smidgen of credit.
Still, there remains a significant universe of basketball statistics that are simply not captured: each pass thrown and caught, each player's position on the floor at a given time, any number of angles and proximities and nuances. Zarren lusts after such data and is quietly pushing for a technological solution that would produce it. One possibility: embed the floor of each N.B.A. arena with electronic sensors and have the players wear microchips in their sneakers.
There's also a Freakonomics blog post about the article, with some more insight.