After eight years at ESPN, the analytics guru is moving on (PER Diem: Dec. 14, 2012)
The thing about change is that it can creep up so that you barely notice it. Then you wake up one day and realize the world has shifted. Slowly but surely the perception of the entire basketball analytics field changed. What was once the fringe is now mainstream.
I didn't even notice it as I was straining to convert holdouts amid assorted forehead-slap moments. It's only now as I look back that I realize how completely views have shifted about the role of analytics in basketball. So before I run off to tackle items on my to-do list -- pack, move, familiarize myself with the Timberlake oeuvre, etc. -- I want to reflect on how analytics has evolved in the NBA during my time.
Yes, there were some setbacks along the way. Scores of straw men suffered savage beatings in the name of analytics, under the mistaken premise that it was supposed to replace everything that came before it.
Eventually, however, the best information wins. And ultimately, analytics is about providing more and better information to supplement what is already available. Steadily, that realization has taken hold. Not only is it now acceptable to mention things like true shooting percentage in polite conversation, but there's also been a real quantum shift in front offices like the one I'm about to join.
It's hard to believe this is true, but just eight years ago very few teams showed any interest in analytics, and those who did wouldn't admit it publicly. Seriously. Teams employed analytics people they wouldn't even mention in their directory for fear of ridicule.
In less than a decade, teams have reversed course: Now, if anything, many try to promote how much they're doing with analytics. At least two-thirds of the league's teams have invested in this area, and while a few of them are just checking a box, most are seriously committed to it.
Helping this process along were some significant milestones. Houston's hiring of Daryl Morey was a huge one -- not just the fact that it happened, but that he experienced enough success to convince others that this approach had merit. If he had gone 24-58 in his first year, I'm not sure the rest of this story would have turned out the same. At the very least, the Sloan Sports Conference wouldn't have become Dorkapalooza.
Similarly, I'd argue that a few high-profile outcomes placed analytics in a more favorable light and, again, these results were not preordained. San Antonio winning the 2007 championship, for instance, or Dallas losing in the first round in 2010 -- both were cases where the analytics zigged very publicly when most of the world zagged. While the odds were in their favor, these were not guaranteed outcomes.
An equally large part of the story starts right here in late 2004. That's when ESPN.com's secret weapon, also known as Royce Webb, hatched the idea that the world was ready for basketball analytics and that it could serve as a cornerstone of our coverage. He teamed with far-sighted editors like Chris Ramsay and Patrick Stiegman to not just run a few columns, but to invest in developing valuable tools to support it and then promote it. It turned out that if you built things like advanced stats pages and playoff projections, people would come.
The irony is not lost on me: Their commitment and support were so effective in fueling my success that it put me on the Grizzlies' radar. The good news is that you'll still be able to get your analytics fix without me, which is another sign of how things have changed. When I started, there was only a small handful of people in the field. Now we have a steady stream of young writers entering, and a lot of them are really, really good.
If you haven't been reading Tom Haberstroh, his Writer Efficiency Rating has been off the charts, and you should be soaking up all his stuff quickly in case Erik Spoelstra adopts him. Kevin Pelton is one of the veterans now, and he's developed some really sophisticated tools for things like injuries and future projections. Beckley Mason at TrueHoop and Zach Lowe over at Grantland have incorporated the advanced stats into more general missives about the league -- again, a sign of how this field has gone mainstream -- and have become must-reads.
In other words, things really have changed. The movement is in good hands, and once I'm gone these guys can start getting the minutes and touches they deserve.
But most importantly, there are the people who really pushed analytics into the mainstream: you, the readers. Ultimately, the reason my career at ESPN.com flourished, and that analytics in general grew the way it did, was that readers demanded it. To all the people who shelled out for Insider, read my columns, participated in my chats, followed my Tweets and checked out the advanced stats: I am tremendously grateful and can't possibly thank you enough.
And so, after nearly eight amazing years at ESPN.com, I'm seizing an opportunity with the Memphis Grizzlies, and I couldn't be more excited about what lies ahead. I'm moving on, but so is the field of basketball analytics, and it's continuing to head to a better place.
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