Ideas — Sloan 2018

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

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These notes will be an overview of some ideas from the 2018 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

Intellectual honesty.

“We took pride in building a culture where we loved each other enough to tell each other what we needed to hear. If you can do that and hold each other accountable to something, you’re going to progress in the right direction.” – David Griffin

Good organizations Argue Well. Good organizations prize intellectual integrity. Good organizations focus on truth and dampen ego.

That means being curious and asking questions. When asked about the next advance in basketball, Daryl Morey said:

“If we knew we’d be halfway down it. If we could properly forecast three things it would be a huge advance; what will they do when they get a lot of money, do they have the self-awareness to understand there’s a gap between them and, say, Chris Paul, and what are their habits to improve that gap?”

Morey believes that the best players are like the best organizations. Each improves by fixing their faults.

A pendulum swings toward de-specialization.

“When I came in the league you needed a power forward who was at least 6’9″, 250lbs, who can get his butt down by the basket and beat someone up. Nowadays he can’t cover anyone and with the rules, he’s really not making any money in the post.” – Steve Nash

“I think it’s the single skill guys (who are falling out of the league). You used to be able to be an absolute rebounder or defender but not do much else and make it in the league. The evolution of the league has made you too easy to guard or have a hole on the defensive side of the ball. That’s a good thing, you want more skill on the floor.”  – Daryl Morey

One framework for understanding this is to ask Clayton Christensen’s question, what job are you hiring for? “Understanding the job is the critical unit of analysis,” Christensen explained. Each NBA team needs to score points. Sometimes you can hire that out to a few individuals, sometimes many. The old model was, we need someone who looks like this so they can do that. The new model is, we need someone who does that.

This takes a nuanced approach. Morey said that Shane Battier “was a quality shooter in the role he had.” But don’t expect him to be like Steve Nash, who attempted more difficult shots. This level of understanding brings us to the next point; analytics.

Data is a tool.

“When the analytics wave came it swung the pendulum so far it went over a lot of people’s heads initially…now I think it’s found its way back into a happy medium. I don’t look at analytics as the only tool to measure a player but I do think it’s a helpful tool to measure a player…Test scores are your skill, GPA is your will.” – Jalen Rose

David Griffin, former General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers said:

“This is when things might be most valuable. If you’re watching something and it disagrees with some other process you have (e.g. analytics), that told you something about what you’re watching, one of them is probably wrong. So you gotta go look into the black box and ask questions or ask, is the way you’re watching not capturing something?”

But even if you figure something out it doesn’t necessarily lead to wins. Battier, Morey said, “Is still the only player we ever had who could take all the information and put it on the floor directly. Most of the time it’s the coaching staff coming up with the scheme and indirectly into the game plan.”

The same is true in the NFL. John Urschel said that his teammates with the Baltimore Ravens were overwhelmed by the information. John and other coaches would help players and tell them ‘this is what’s important, these are the five or ten takeaways.’ Tedy Bruschi added, “and five or ten is sometimes too much.”

Organizations need to get buy-in from their stakeholders; players, fans, staff, and ownership. That includes explaining the unintuitive, like analytics. Jeff Luhnow talked about this in the preseason before the Astros won the World Series. Good organizations also need to know what extrapolates and what doesn’t.

“The per thirty-six-minute stuff is the low-hanging fruit of finding undervalued players. Patient zero of the modern era was Paul Milsap, whose per thirty-six numbers carried over.” – Zach Lowe

Unlike Scotty Williams, said Michael Lombardi. “Scotty Williams looks great when he plays twenty-eight minutes for the Bulls, but when he plays thirty-eight minutes he sucks.”

Even though the SSAC is twelve-years-old, there’s still a lot of work to do.

No bad days.

“One of the great things about sports is that you get to go out there and compete. Championships are the pinnacle but there’s also the joy, having the joy of playing at a high level, you might not win a championship but you might have a hell of a run in the playoffs.” – Chris Bosh

“We have a saying, ‘There is no bad day in the NBA’ and that’s the way it felt every single day. I thought I had fooled people for twenty years and my biggest fear was that one day they would find out that I really can’t play and I don’t belong here.” – Shane Battier

Use track records.

“A good place to start is what’s worked over time…when I worked at Bane Capital everyone talked about the two or three levers and to pull like hell on those. In Philadelphia that was a lot of what we were trying to do, how do you save your resources so that someday if two players want to team up and join a guy you’ve got in-house, you’ve got enough resources to do it? How do you have enough young players and picks to make a blockbuster trade?” – Sam Hinkie

“Everyone was like, he (Mike D’Antoni) can’t coach. Everyone on our staff and our owner Leslie Alexander studied it and we thought ‘he has a way that works and he did not have teams that fit that’.” – Daryl Morey

The opinionated nature (and lack of skin in the game) makes tawking heads on television insufferable. This Dan Rasmussen quote about sums it up:

“In some ways, it’s like someone tells you they can run an Olympic level spring. You’d say, ‘well that’s interesting, what was your last time?’ They’d say, ‘well I don’t keep track of time but I guarantee I can run it.'”



Thanks for reading.

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