Thinking outside the box score
February, 28, 2014
By Beckley Mason
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe NBA's next frontier can't be found on a stats sheet. Understanding the human body is the future.When the first Sloan Conference took place eight years ago, it was held in unused classrooms at MIT. But after partnering with big businesses -- and yes, ESPN -- Sloan gained purchase in the broader hoops consciousness for its critiques of traditional box-score statistics. Even outside of the oceanic convention center that now houses the convention, those box-score battles now seem laughably antiquated. Rebel stats like adjusted plus/minus are now fully integrated tools of the establishment. New NBA commissioner Adam Silver, an early supporter of the conference and the advanced-stats movement, has not-so-subtly hinted that some of the numbers once relegated to the fringe will become part of the official box score of every game.
Silver comes into power at a time when many teams around the league are still working to realign their strategy with the tighter spending strictures of the 2012 collective bargaining agreement. The new set of rules is pushing teams to be smarter and more innovative than ever. What qualifies as “advanced” is always changing, and if every team is in an arms race to acquire the latest information and analytic techniques, Sloan is the premier gun show.
Part trade show, part job fair, all schmooze-fest, Sloan’s major draw is not hearing what someone like Daryl Morey has to say; it’s getting to follow up with him in the hallway later on. Sometimes the big questions aren’t answered in a paper available to the public, but in private conversations over a few beers. For all the cold-hard figures and formulas that get bandied about, at its heart, Sloan is a highly personal affair.
Fittingly, the most vital topic of inquiry among NBA executives in attendance will be data that reveal the mysteries of human biology. In the last couple years, it has become clear that the next frontier of sports analytics is the human body. For two reasons: Healthy players play better and unhealthy players cannot play at all.
Just look at the amount of money sitting in street clothes on the average NBA bench. For teams desperate to maximize the value of players, nothing could be more pressing than figuring out how to keep them on the court.
Forward-thinking teams like the Spurs are already investing, sometimes to the point of controversy, of fatigue management, and ESPN’s Henry Abbott has presented strong evidence that tired players won’t win titles. More and more teams are employing heart rate monitors in practices, and SportVu cameras in every NBA arena can log player movement in an effort to find out how much court time a player can handle and remain at close to his peak level.
Maybe the answer to player health is something as simple as sleeping more. In a conversation with ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Harvard professor Charles Czeisler will make that case.
Along with novel answers to old questions, NBA teams will also be looking for fresh talent -- programmers, coders and smart, young people who love sports so much they will forgo more lucrative applications of their talents in tech and finance to help teams find ways to maybe win a couple more games per season. At last year’s conference, dozens of eager applicants swarmed Celtics assistant GM Mark Zarren after he mentioned his team was looking for a programmer during a panel discussion.
The hunger of smart people with new ideas is palpable, and their desire in the presence of so many decision-makers lends the weekend an unmistakable intensity. When a presentation or paper hits the mark, as Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss’s "Dwight Effect" did last year, it can send a ripple of energy throughout the building.
The Sloan Conference is now an established brand. Though it has helped raise the profile of the NBA’s analytics movement, some have cast it as the embodiment of how mystery and beauty are being drained from the basketball conversation. Sloan has a rap for being the domain of number crunchers pushing their own orthodoxy. But in the end, the people and teams who benefit most from Sloan are the ones who maintain an open mind and are willing to question everything, the ones who hold no orthodoxy above the pursuit of novel ideas.
Rather than narrowing the game to something digestible in a spreadsheet, Sloan has dramatically expanded the scope of basketball knowledge. Perhaps the best thing about the conference is that for every mystery it solves, it presents five more. This weekend, the brightest, most serious thinkers in basketball will find out what they don’t know.