Analyze This: Kerr Using Science to Gain Edge in Front Office

By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: March 25, 2010

Where athletes meet mathletes, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Mass. is fast-becoming a can’t-miss on the schedule of professional sports executives. After attending for the first time this year, Suns President of Basketball Operations and GM Steve Kerr is one such executive.

Essentially, the conference is a forum where leading researchers and sports executives come together to try to better analyze the performance of athletes through the use of statistics. Through their findings, the researchers, executives, industry professionals and students attending the conference look to improve and better understand the sports world.

“It was definitely beneficial,” Kerr said. “It was a day-long event of 10 or 12 different panels with some really smart people engaging in a lot of discussions. I was very impressed with the caliber of the people on the panels.”

Besides being invited to speak on a panel on performance-enhancing drugs, Kerr’s motivation for attending the conference was to become more familiar with the progress mathematicians and statisticians have made in the area of analytics in basketball. The use of analytics and stats to improve performance in professional sports became popular in pro baseball this past decade with the Oakland A’s and their GM Billy Beane.

Beane’s success with stats was documented in the best-selling book Moneyball, which was written by Michael Lewis, who was also a moderator at the conference. Mathematical studies found that certain prevailing myths in baseball were actually false beliefs.

For example, many teams sought out lead-off hitters with power, instead of looking for lead-off hitters that drew walks and had a higher on-base percentage. However, studies would prove that lead-off hitters with better OBP was more valuable to a team’s success than power.

The Suns GM, as well as many other GMs in the NBA are hoping to discover the same sort of key statistics to measure success in basketball. Thus far, the magic formula and key statistic seems to remain elusive.

“I think there’s been a lot of progress made but it’s so much harder to quantify because baseball is pretty much one-one, pitcher vs. batter,” Kerr said. “So you can quantify it much easier and it shaped a lot of way a lot of teams did business. (Front offices) started valuing walks and on-base percentage, but with us it’s a little trickier because it’s 5-on-5 and everything is made up of combinations and variances.”

Kerr does believe that there are some specific statistics currently in use that can help quantify a team’s performance to some degree.

“We have used lineup plus-minus, as well as a rating system in free agency and in the draft that has been helpful to us as a tool,” Kerr said.

Some of the panelists at the conference included NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, Colts President Bill Polian, Patriots President and COO Jonathan Kraft and Maple Leafs President and GM Brian
Burke. One of the panels Kerr enjoyed the most was between Polian and Kraft’s discussion about New England’s decision in the playoffs to go for it on 4th and 2 against the Colts, despite being deep in Patriot territory.

All of the statistics proved that bucking conventional wisdom and going for it in that situation was the right decision. Interestingly enough, it turns out that Polian agreed with Kraft and that New England made the right decision in that circumstance; despite the fact New England failed to make a first down on the play.

Kerr said that based on the percentage of time New England converted on 4th and 2 as well as various injuries that had sidelined the Patriots’ best two cornerbacks during the game, New England believed it had to go for it.

“Otherwise, according to the statistics, the Colts were probably going to drive 60 yards for a touchdown anyway,” Kerr said of the discussion. “They talked about the probability of converting a 4th and 2 statistically vs. giving up a 60-yard drive or a 30-yard drive (to Peyton Manning and the Colts).”

The Suns don’t have anyone specifically dedicated towards statistical analysis, but they do have two members of basketball operations that are stat wonks. Both Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin and Assistant Director of Basketball Operations Amin Elhassan assist Kerr in analyzing certain trends and stats.

“We look at our lineups and we quantify all of the plus-minus on the lineup side,” Kerr said. “Not as much on an individual basis, but we know which lineups are most effective against which teams.”

The Suns GM hopes to take some of the ideas that were raised at the conference and implement them in Phoenix.

“Just to hear these guys talk about different subjects was really, really interesting,” he said. “When the panels were over, I was able to talk to some of them afterwards and it spurred a lot of thought. I’m definitely going to go every year.”

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