We have games. That’s all. We play games. ‘What if?’ ‘How many men?’ ‘What would it take?’ ‘Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a regime?’ That’s what we’re paid to do.
-- Mr. Higgins, Three Days of the Condor
I am in the Belly of the Beast, where the NBA brain comes to re-imagine itself year after year.
Friday marked my first visit to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, where the latest in advanced statistics ideas and technologies continue to set the cutting edge for where all sports will be heading. The revolution is over; analytics won. Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ GM who started Sloan a dozen years ago with Jessica Gelman, now the CEO of Kraft Analytics Group, is the high priest of the modern NBA game.
This year’s A-listers included at Sloan Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts, Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver, assorted NBA and NFL owners, and a certain former federal government executive whose presence filled the convention hall’s huge main building, but whose remarks cannot be detailed here at any length, lest the Sloan Cops come and wrest away my laptop and smack about the head and shoulders with mallets.
But I’m a newbie, and this is the 12th Sloan. I feel so far behind. Which is how I often feel about today’s NBA.
So many of these people are so much smarter than I am or ever will be. It’s intimidating. Sam Hinkie, he of the The Process, is here, very much a rock star as he amiably chats with fans and compatriots in the hallway, after getting a thunderous ovation when sitting on a panel with former Miami Heat star Chris Bosh. Hinkie has been coming to Sloan since its initial iteration with about 75 people in a couple of conference rooms. Now, every room in the ginormous Boston Convention Center is filled -- with paper proposals and panel discussions, wearables and ghosting and Esports.
You enter a room. An earnest young woman is discussing high resolution shot capture and an improved method for shooter evaluation. I know she has an algorithm for her idea. The rest of it is Sanskrit to me, but not to the equally earnest young people nodding in agreement as she breaks down her methods. You don’t get to the paper presentation that promises “a deep reinforcement learning approach to studying the double team in the NBA.” You walk … past the Data Visualization Room, past the Catapault wearables display (“Play Smart. Defy Limits.”) These are smart people -- really smart people -- talking to each other, in a world that does not include or need you.
But the problem, of course, is you.
These people want to share their ideas about sports, and the NBA, with anyone who’ll listen and give them a fair shake. They’re excited about their ideas. They believe their ideas will be helpful to anyone who loves the game as much as they do. It is you that is judging them, not the other way around.
Take the five former Apple guys who developed HomeCourt.ai, a shot tracking system that uses artificial intelligence (here, AI is not Allen Iverson) to chart practice shots using nothing but an iPhone. There’s no equipment to buy; just an app to download. The app can superimpose a 3-point line on the screen if the court on which you’re shooting doesn’t have one. Your shooting session stats from each area of the court are charted just as they do on NBA.com.
HomeCourt was one of the entries this year in the Startup Competition Performance Devices track. The winner among the entries selected by a judging panel would get a $5,000 first prize.
“Most people can’t afford a shooting coach,” said Alex Wu, one of the ex-Apples. “We want kids to get outside more. Having something like this, they’ll be out shooting and won’t be inside watching YouTube videos all day.”
Having two tweenage boys who sit inside watching YouTube videos all day, this struck a nerve.
Then there was Vijay Shravah, whose new company, Fansure, was an entry in the Startup Competition’s Technology Services track. Fansure is, essentially, insurance for fans in case a star player doesn’t play in a particular game due to rest.
Shravah got the idea after he and a buddy went in on Golden State season tickets, just before Stephen Curry and the Warriors exploded in 2012. “All of a sudden we had all of these games to go to,” Shravah said. And he began to notice that, here and there, some of his favorite players would be healthy scratches, as coaches made strategic decisions down the stretch of the regular season.
Enter Fansure. The idea is this: after you buy a ticket for a game, you contact Fansure. You tell them the player you want to “insure,” and pay Fansure a nominal fee -- about seven to 10 percent of the cost of your ticket, according to the company website. If the player is then held out for rest and it is noted as such on the official box score, you get 50 percent of what you paid for the ticket back, less the fee you paid Fansure. You can purchase additional insurance on a player in case he sits out a game due to injury, as long as the injury isn’t disclosed beforehand.
This is an interesting idea.
And, really, that’s what Sloan seems to be about: smart people who are trying to come up with more good ideas to make the game better. That it is often done in a language unfamiliar to me does not make it bad, or impugn the motives of those who are trying to implement them. And that’s something you would only know by coming here.
There is a panel, “NBA 2.0” New Rules to Impact to the Game.” Now, in reality, this is but a mash of previously-discussed ideas: fixing the Draft, a tournament for teams at the bottom of the playoff standings in each conference, four points for longer shots, etc. And my friend Kevin Arnovitz from ESPN.com, who is moderating, starts with a question: why is there still such a desire to “fix” what is no longer broken? The NBA is doing great by almost any metric: ratings are up, franchise valuations have exceeded $1 billion for every team for the first time in history, according to Forbes Magazine. “Why beam up New Coke when everything’s working?,” he asks.
Because … you can, comes the answer. And, it makes sense: if you can make something one percent better than it currently is, why wouldn’t you try that?
For example, says Evan Wasch, the NBA’s Senior Vice President for Basektball Strategy and Analytics, the average NBA game is now taking about two hours, 10 minutes, which is well within the acceptable window for the league’s broadcast partners, ESPN/ABC and Turner (and Turner, as I always point out at times like these, runs NBA.com).
Yet there remain three areas where the game’s flow is still slowed: timeouts, commercials and free throws. So, one of the ideas the people in Wasch’s office are kicking around is, why not make a free throw worth two points, or even three -- but only shoot one free throw instead of two? It’s an idea. It’s not anywhere close to being implemented. But these are the kinds of things you think about in Wasch’s office.
The league is also aware about the dominance of the 3-pointer in today’s game. Most teams are somewhere between the mid-30s and high-30s in percentages of their shots per game that are 3-pointers. The Rockets, of course, are out near Pluto compared to the rest of the league, with 53.2 percent of its shots this season coming behind the arc, per NBA.com/Stats. “Historically, the Rockets are an indicator of where the league is going,” Wasch said.
But, the league knows that there can be too much of a good thing, and it stands ready to recalibrate if the 3-point imbalance becomes unwieldy.
“If our 85 shots (per team) per game are 90 percent 3-pointers, we have a problem,” Wasch said.
So, it’s good to be here and see what people are thinking about when it comes to the game and its future. Yet I remain concerned about one area: diversity. Not just racial and gender diversity (though the crowd at Sloan is, overwhelming, white and male, many in jackets and shirts half a size too big for them), but diversity of thought, experience, class. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with hiring people who are writing cool things about basketball on the internet. Except, a lot of people still don’t have regular access to the internet.
Which is why I was glad to run into Nazr Mohammed, one of my all-time favorite guys. Late last year, Naz was hired by the Thunder, one of the teams graced by his presence during his 18-year NBA career, as a “professional evaluation scout/identification and intelligence,” which is a typically OKC way of saying “we’re gonna teach you everything about the front office.”
Lots of teams are implementing similar programs for former players. The Players’ Association has a Leadership Development Program that runs during the Las Vegas Summer League and had more than 20 current and former players take part last year.
But Naz also reminded me that the NBA is doing the same thing with its Basketball Operations Associate Program, run through the office of Bethany Donaphin, the league’s Associate VP of Basketball Operations, and a former WNBA player for the New York Liberty.
After her six-year pro career ended, Donaphin, a Stanford grad, wanted to make sure she was ready for the next step of her life. She went to Wharton. She interned with Deloitte. But she knew that other ex-players may not have those kinds of opportunities. The Associate Program helps fill in some of those gaps.
“We’re still learning and tinkering,” she said by phone Sunday, “but we’re trying to give former players who show an aptitude for (future front office jobs) the chance to learn and train.”
This year, two former NBA players -- Acie Law and Cherokee Parks -- and two former WNBA players -- Lindsey Harding and Michele Van Gorp -- moved to New York for full-time immersion in the NBA office, sitting with league lawyers and cap people to learn the CBA, learning how to break down data from Second Spectrum and Synergy from the league’s analytics people, doing scouting, learning how to write a business plan from the league’s marketing people. One of last year’s graduates, Allison Feaster, a 10-year WNBA player and Harvard grad, now has a full-time gig in the G League as Manager of Player Personnel & Coach Relations.
(An aside: if Harding isn’t an NBA or WNBA GM/Director of Player Personnel within the next five years, something’s way wrong. She was a great player who has an incredible way with people. Just all aces across the board.)
Someone like Donaphin, a really smart former player, is sensitive to the notion that the very idea of being a former player is something that still works against ex-players in some front offices. The Associate Program eliminates that excuse. And Law, Parks, Harding and Van Gorp were all at Sloan.
So, all of this is to say: if someone can help with the “transition layers,” as Donaphin puts it, and can make the language of the advanced decipherable, bring on the coefficients and algorithms. Adapt or die, man.
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