25 Things I Learned at MIT

March, 13, 2009
3/13/09
5:03
PM ET
Last Saturday I filled most of a notebook with thoughts from the MIT Sloan Sports Business Conference. It's all good fodder for TrueHoop. Pieces have made their way onto TrueHoop. More to come.

But it has been a busy week ever since (there is no rest when you're determined to write about Trevor Ariza every ten minutes!) and I don't want to let those thoughts slip through the cracks.

Some notes:
1. John Huizinga, University of Chicago Business school professor (and Yao Ming agent) says sports businesses need to cater to people's recession feelings. "You want to eat meatloaf in a recession," he says, "and sushi in a boom." The idea is that comforting things will be popular now, and adventerous things might be more appealing when the economy is healthier.
2. Sporting events are comforting! Brightly colored uniforms. Effort. And a forum without financial news. The NBA has been trotting out numbers saying that attendance is not bad, which seemed to defy the broader economy. Who knows how those numbers hold up over time, but Dr. Roger Brinner of the Parthenon Group presented data showing that attending sporting events is a small part of the economy that picks up in a recession. Pretty convincing graphs showed good attendance in bad times.
3. Salary caps are good for owners, duh, but here's an interesting look at how profoundly: Jonathan Kraft, owner of the Patriots, said that he would have put in a serious offer to buy a major European soccer club. He loved the market, and he felt some business practices from the Patriots could make it extremely profitable. You would think that one of savviest businessmen in sports, with very deep pockets, would have made the league stronger. But the lack of a salary cap was a deal-breaker. He says he had no way of knowing how much it would cost to keep competitive with clubs run by Russian oligarchs. Kraft was determined to run the club in a "business-like" manner, and was scared off.
4. Every time I hear about the government needing "shovel ready" projects to invest in as economic stimulus, I can't help but think: Governments pay for stadiums anyway. Surely somebody is going to get some stadium stimulus dollars. Tim Romani from Icon Venue Group addressed that. He said he thought there would be stimulus money for "horizontal" costs associated with new arenas (parking, rail, infrastructure) but not "vertical" (the arena itself).
5. Many people were asked to guess at "the black swan." What's the thing that's coming that no one's expecting? Most said that a terrorist attack at a major sporting event would change everything. Another potential disaster would be corruption along the lines of the Tim Donaghy scandal.
6. Somebody asked Jonathan Kraft what his players felt about being forced to play overseas. He was pretty politic about it, but eventually got around to admitting that three quarters of the Patriots did not even have passports, and the team and the coaching staff were pretty much against it. But Kraft and the NFL thought it made long-term business sense, and "that's why [players and coaches] aren't making strategy decisions for the league." As the NBA gets more and more global, I could see similar things playing out in basketball.
7. There was a funny moment, when John Huizinga was asked to speculate about where LeBron James might end up after free agency. This was the night after James and his Cavaliers had played in Boston. Huizinga made the case that top level players play because they want to win, and if James thought he could win a title in Cleveland, he'd stay. Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman quickly quipped: "We found out last night he can't do that."
8. Huizinga and Sandy Weil were responsible for the hot hand research that I still promise will be on TrueHoop in more detail at some point. It was a huge research project. It shook out a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with hot hands, too. For instance, how you get the ball matters tremendously to how likely you are to score with it. If you get the ball in a liveball turnover (a steal for instance) your shooting percentage is 12% higher than normal. If you get the ball from an offensive rebound, it's 8% higher. Home teams, meanwhile, shoot 1.5% better -- so you can see these advantages are major. This is part of the reason players who force turnovers are more valuable than they might first appear. Another special thing about steals is that (I can't remember who told me this) it may well be a marker for players with great hands, which can have great benefits beyond steals.
9. Researchers on that project and others are desperate for more complete stats from the NBA. Was that jumper contested or uncontested? And if you're fouled in the act of shooting, what kind of shot was it? That's not recorded, and it probaby ought to be, as more and more teams are trying to use the NBA's data to make smart decisions.
10. Huizinga and Weil found that possession is nine tenths of the law, meaning ... If a big man hits a shot, he's slightly more likely to get the ball again next time. If a guard hits a shot, he's very likely take the next shot. Guards, of course, decide who gets the ball, which is probably no coincidence.
11. Mark Cuban talked about a lot of the sophisticated statistics the Mavericks use. And then he was asked what kind of data they share with players. The example he gave was so basic -- they would tell someone if they were hot from a particular spot. Another team stat guy told me that he would keep his advanced insights to himself, unless it was encouragement to keep doing what they're doing, which was always welcomed by players and coaches. Mike Zarren says that on the Celtics, he shares what he believes to be important. "I've never been told: Don't tell me that," he reports. "I have," retorts the Nuggets' Dean Oliver. Oliver's case seems to be the more typical. Which makes me think that there must be a lot of insight that is not being put to use, and therefore there might be a little premium on players and coaches who are savvy in integrating this kind of input.
12. Right now, any team that wants to be very stat savvy has to hire tons of people to chart years of games. (Mark Cuban says the Maverick database, now with eight years of data, is starting to become much more interesting.) Then they can mine all that data (who was guarding whom, passing, where everybody shot from, etc.) to answer questions. But it's very expensive. So the question is: Why don't teams or the league band together to pay people to log all those plays? Then they can dig in at will. And the answer is, teams are way too protective of their processes for stuff like this, and are unwilling to share any element of it, even if it costs them extra. One day, I suspect, the data will be more of a commodity, and how to slice and dice it will be what matters.
13. A recurring theme was that in Houston, Daryl Morey has a big team of analysts. Way bigger than any other teams, it appears. Dean Oliver, for instance, says: "I'm a one man shop. He's sitting over there with ten or eleven guys." John Hollinger adds: "Luckily for Daryl, there's no luxury tax on analysts."
14. Mike Zarren of the Celtics hammered a key point: That being really smart is not nearly enough. He thinks the key skill for a stat person to have is excellent communication skills -- because without it the ideas won't get across to those who need to learn them. Zarren has generally worked alone on Celtic stats stuff, but recently hired David Sparks, who previously wrote for a TrueHoop Network blog, Hardwood Paroxysm.
15. Dean Oliver said he is working with an outside business to help analyze basketball. This sport is so complicated, he says, that if you can figure it out statistically, you can use some of lessons in making models for really complicated kinds of real-world applications -- and that's just what this business plans to do. I'd love to know more about that. Basketball as a model for .. what ... War? Health care? Politics?
16. Mark Cuban talked about maybe one day systematically analyzing players and coaches in how they address the media in post-game video, as insight into their character and nature.
17. Daryl Morey said that basketball is not like many professions. The goal is to be the very best. One team out of thirty goes home happy. On Wall Street, or in most things, it is enough to be really good year in and year out. But in basketball, you have to be the absolute best, or else you have failed. Morey believes that, in that environment, one is justified in taking great risks. Why does it seem like he's talking about Ron Artest?
18. Brian Burke, president and GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said that every team, over 30 years, wins about half their games. It may well be true. But as he said it, I leaned over to David Thorpe and said "I don't think R.C. Buford believes that."
19. Mark Cuban was clear that he thought a key factor in Kevin Garnett ending up in Boston was Danny Ainge's relationship with Minnesota's Kevin McHale. Cuban says the Mavericks were one of several teams that thought they had a deal done to acquire Garnett (he also mentioned Golden State) and had even heard from Garnett's agent who was wondering about an extension. But it didn't happen. "At the end of the day," says Cuban, with a wry smile, "relationships matter in the NBA."
20. Mark Cuban: "Hiring coaches is the hardest job that there is. Period. End of story." Part of his assessment of Rick Carlisle, he explained, involved noticing that Carlisle very often played lineups that Cuban's database deemed to be the most effective from the available roster.
21. Daryl Morey said that one of the things that is most knowable, from the modern use of statistics, is when to go for the two-for-one as the clock is expiring. On this one little thing, there are thousands and thousands of examples, the efficacy of which can be easily sliced and diced. Unfortunately, he didn't share the specific lessons.
22. Morey also said that he really did not consult with his players on personnel moves, because it would be awkward if he consulted them, they said they didn't like the move, and then Morey made the trade or signing anyway. In the aftermath, however, he says he explains the rationale. UPDATE: I originally wrote this note saying he didn't consult coaches, which is how I had it in my notes. Morey assures me he does consult coaches.
23. Mark Cuban says teams and the NBA suffer from "so many self-inflicted wounds." For instance, he couldn't fathom why the NBA would have a scheme where draft prospects could not be worked out in a five-on-five setting.
24. I moderated a panel about team chemistry. One of the key things I learned in preparation was about was that social cohesion -- liking each other off the court -- did not necessarily correlate with task cohesion -- working effectively together. But several of the panelists (NFL Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, Suns Executive David Griffin, Celtic Assistant Coach Armond Hill, and Bulls' team psychologist Dr. Steven Julius) believed the social cohesion was more or less essential.
25. Dr. Julius says that Michael Jordan had a key moment when he came to believe in team chemistry. In the 1991 NBA Finals, there was a moment when Jordan was entirely dominating the ball. According to Julius, Phil Jackson called a timeout to tell him to pass it around. Jordan ignored him. Jackson called another timeout, and said that he would bench Jordan if he didn't start trusting his teammates. Jordan did start to trust his teammates, and the Bulls won six titles.

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