Commentary

Basketball analytics: More to explore

Thoughts on the MIT conference, the Kings and more (PER Diem: March 2, 2012)

Updated: March 2, 2012, 8:15 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Five years ago, I sat in a classroom at MIT for a panel during the inaugural Sloan Sports Conference. Not a lecture hall, a classroom, with a chalkboard and old-school desks with the cave underneath for your books and a little slot for a pencil. It was a few analytic types getting together for a day in Beantown.

There were nine panels that day, and 175 people showed up, and we got to meet Bill James and one or two other folks who are hugely famous in our little circle, and everyone was very pleased with it. Little did they know then what a monster they created.

The conference, partly the creation of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey (and mostly the product of thousands of hours of work by students at MIT's Sloan School of Management), won't be in any tiny classroom this year -- it's a two-day extravaganza at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, with 2,200 attendees, a speaker list that includes the commissioner of the NHL and several owners, general managers and coaches in each of the major pro sports, and representatives from 73 teams attending.

On the media side it's become huge, too. ESPN2's "Numbers Never* Lie" is taping a show here, and Bill Simmons is having a podcast with Mark Cuban. At the dinner for panelists Thursday night I looked at the next table and saw Drew Carey. Wait, Drew Carey? What? Several companies signed on as sponsors, including my employer, and apparently folks can't get enough because it's already sold out. That's not all -- this year's event has ice sculptures, jugglers, dancing girls and performances by Pitbull and Nicki Minaj.*

(*I made up everything in this sentence. But in another year or two this will totally happen.)

But let's set aside the big names for a second and get back to the core of this -- an academic conference, in which the topic of study isn't flux capacitors or medical procedures but rather sports.

And in that spirit, one of the best features of the conference is the research papers. We have some fantastic papers this year, and better yet most of them deal with the NBA. (While this conference has expanded to all sports, given its roots, a lot of the best geekery still involves the NBA.)

Of particular note are two studies that take advantage of spatial tracking to present a more comprehensive look at shooting and rebounding than has ever been done before. I'm still digging my teeth into these and will have more to report on Monday, but the big takeaway for now is the explosion of data in pro basketball that makes all kinds of new research available. These studies are exciting not only on their own merits, but because they're the tip of the iceberg.

Another provocative study, by Matt Goldman and Justin Rao, argues that foul shooters from the home team are more likely to choke in clutch situations than those on the road, but that home teams are much more likely to gather an offensive rebound in those situations.

Yet the one I found most interesting is this paper by James Tarlow of the University of Oregon called "Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association."

This paper looks at the impact of experience on playoff success and, surprisingly, finds that it's virtually meaningless. Playoff experience makes a team more likely to qualify for the playoffs again, but has zero impact on a team's performance once it gets there.

You know who it does matter for, though? Coaches. The same study found each additional postseason game for coaches to be worth about .014 added postseason wins. It had always seemed to me that guys like Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy and Rick Carlisle became better playoff coaches after they'd been through a couple of rodeos; apparently there's a basis for this. This same study also means there's hope yet for Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni.

Each year of shared postseason experience between two teammates is worth 0.06 wins, and adds about 0.56 wins per year if the team keeps its rotation stable. This certainly will be noteworthy to folks in Oklahoma City, which has gone from two playoff wins to nine playoff wins to being the Western Conference favorite with virtually no change in the roster. Dallas is another interesting case study; the Mavs made just one rotation change from 2010 to 2011 and went from losing in the first round to winning the championship.

I don't mean to overstate this effect, because we have plenty of examples of experience going in the opposite direction. Boston, for instance, couldn't beat a brand-new Miami team despite a huge advantage in experience together; on the other hand, a brand-new Boston team won the title in 2008.

Where it matters more, however, is at the margin, and it presents an interesting case study if you're looking at playoff dark horses. Obviously, this makes the Thunder and Spurs even stronger favorites in the West, but Memphis and the Lakers also stand out as teams whose collective experience could work to their advantage this year. In the East, young teams like Philadelphia and Indiana have already built up a surprising amount of together time, and Atlanta, despite a rebuilt bench, has had five of the same core players (Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia) for more than half a decade.


On to the Harbingers



• Congratulations to the city of Sacramento on retaining the Kings; those fans supported the team as well as any in the league and it would have been a shame if they had lost the team. Meanwhile, we have only two more years, give or take, to put up with the league's most outdated arena before a newer (and better-located) one takes its place. Everybody wins.

With all that said, I have to bring up one point that I haven't seen anybody raise yet: How did a couple of broke guys suddenly come up with $73 million? The Maloofs, by all accounts, didn't have the money for this, which is why they were trying to do the Anaheim deal a year ago that gave them a bunch of up-front cash. Presumably, a bank wasn't going to lend it to them either. Which makes it highly probable that the league is backing this somehow, either via a soft loan or some kind of guarantee. We've yet to hear a peep about this part of the equation, but it's an important one.


• Memphis is 20-15 after beating Dallas on Wednesday night and a game away from a top-four seed in the West, which I haven't seen anybody remark upon but which is noteworthy; the Grizzlies started the season 3-6 and have been playing without Zach Randolph.

Well, Z-Bo is nearly back -- he may return next week against Golden State, according to the Memphis Flyer's intrepid Chris Herrington -- and with seven of their next nine games against bottom-feeders, the Griz have a chance to bank some more wins while getting their meal ticket reincorporated into the offense.

The Playoff Odds, which don't know Randolph has been out nearly the entire season, still see Memphis as a fringe playoff team, but the Grizzlies' ceiling is potentially much higher. It still remains to be seen how well Randolph plays in his return from knee surgery, but from here the Grizzlies remain the one Western team most likely to upset the apple cart in the postseason.


• The Blazers lost to Miami on Thursday night and dropped to .500 at 18-18, which is remarkable because they've outscored opponents by 4.4 points per game. The Blazers are in ninth place in the West and threatening to miss the playoffs entirely; if so, they will shatter the record for scoring margin by a lottery team.

That "honor" is currently held by the 1973-74 Golden State Warriors, who outscored their opponents by 2.6 points per game but went 44-38 and missed the postseason by three games; only four of the nine teams in the West made the playoffs back then, so it was a much tougher environment.

In the current 16-team format, the best scoring margin by a non-playoff team was by the 45-win Houston Rockets in 2000-01; they outscored opponents by 2.3 points per game.

The Blazers this season, however, are nearly double that at plus-4.4. It is shaping up as one of the biggest margin-versus-record anomalies in league history. And if they do manage to push through, we might still see the record set -- the team that's one game ahead of them, Denver, is at plus-2.3 points per game.


• Finally, Boston's win over Milwaukee on Wednesday means we can almost put the Eastern Conference playoff race to bed. The Celtics now lead the Bucks by 3.5 games and are one win away from owning the tiebreaker; Milwaukee would have to beat Boston in each of the two remaining meetings and play well in its other remaining games to have much of a shot of catching the Celtics.

While the Bucks can expect to improve once Andrew Bogut returns, it's hard to see them gaining enough momentum to get back to .500, which would require a 19-12 finishing push from a team that's only 7-5 even when Bogut plays.

Crazier things have happened, I suppose, but with the Linsanity Knicks pulling away and the stumbling Hawks likely too far ahead to be reeled in, Milwaukee's only realistic shot appears to be catching Boston. That shot would have seemed much more plausible if they'd left Beantown with a win this week and cut the margin to a game and a half.