My Weekend at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

This past weekend, I went to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. The event is hosted every year by MIT and is always attended by the rock stars of sports analytics. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, leads the conference, and the keynote speaker this year was Malcolm Gladwell. It had everything, from panels with sports analytics leaders, to groundbreaking research papers, to live podcasts from big sports media personalities.

My favorite talk was a conversation between Bill Simmons and Adam Silver. Silver was frank and forthcoming about issues that are facing the NBA. He talked at length about mental health issues facing NBA players. He commended DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love for writing about their struggles with mental health and cited Jackie MacMullan’s piece for ESPN about mental health in the NBA. He said that a lot of NBA players face issues with anxiety and loneliness.

Silver specifically brought up one player who said that, on a road trip, from a game on Friday to a game on Sunday, he would not communicate with a single other human being. He would put his headphones on for the flight, go directly to his hotel room, and stay there all weekend. I feel for this player, and can empathize with how he might feel. He is on the road all the time, and constantly under a microscope. Silver said that he was someone players can talk to about these issues, because he suffers from anxiety issues himself, and is glad players come to him as a confidante. He also expressed hope that the NBA could lead discussions with people about mental health issues, particularly with young players at the AAU level.

This was all refreshing for me to hear. It is great that the NBA can lead frank discussions about mental health, and can hopefully provide help to players everywhere, of all ages. It is great that teenagers feel comfortable talking about their mental health, and I hope that this will help them become more well-adjusted adults.

Another talk I enjoyed was a basketball panel of team executives, writers, and Paul Pierce about the concept of a “unicorn,” which generally is a player with a unique combination of size and skill, though there was some disagreement over the precise definition. Example of unicorns include Kristaps Porzingis (for whom the term originally referred to), Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They did say, almost universally, that teams do not necessarily need a big man who could shoot 3 pointers, as most people think of unicorns, to win. Rather, a team needs any star who can greatly boost offense single-handedly. Celtics Assistant GM Mike Zarren said specifically that the best offenses are scoring about 1.6 points per possession, and you needed to get there somehow to be good. But in terms of needing a big men who could play outside, they all agreed that Shaq would be good in the current era. Even though he was not able to shoot from outside, he would still be able to dominate inside.

Warriors GM Bob Myers brought up the concepts of playoff players and regular season players. He said that there were some players who could only play in the regular season, and could not hack it in the playoffs, where the level of play was more competitive. Draymond Green said something similar last year. I find this fascinating, and it explains how the Warriors treat their centers. Other the past several seasons, they have run through a motley crew of centers, who have all gotten plenty of starts and minutes in the regular season, but barely play in the playoffs. They know that their best lineups have always included Kevin Durant or Draymond Green at center, but do not want to subject either player to the punishment involved in playing center over a full 82 game regular season.

Malcolm Gladwell and David Epstein had a panel about the making of a modern athlete, where Epstein argued that it is best to specialize in a sport as late as possible, both because it is good to pick up a brand array of skills from different sports, and because that lessens the chances of a person specializing in the wrong sport. He gave the example of Roger Federer, who played a wide array of sports as a youth, and was not allowed to specialize by his mother until he was older. They went on to argue that this principle could be applied to other fields as well, not just sports.

There was plenty more on tap at the panels. Daryl Morey shared some outlandish theories about soccer, saying the game should be played 7 on 7, with an in-between free kick being added for fouls that are in the box but not bad enough to be called penalty kicks. He also said if he ran a soccer team, he would kick everything into the opponent’s box, then press high and hard, not caring about possession at all. Mike Leach rambled on and on about whatever he felt like talking about while Michael Lewis looked on. Pablo Torre talked about Kardashians dating NBA players. It was all a lot of fun.

I also found the research papers to be illuminating. There was one I particularly enjoyed about using financial asset pricing models to approximate the value of an NBA draft pick with a protection scheme on it. NBA draft picks are usually traded with a level of protection on them, to prevent the pick from transferring if certain conditions are met. For example, the Lakers traded a pick to the Suns several years ago that was protected from 1–5 in 2015. This meant that the Lakers would keep the pick if it was in the top 5, but the Suns would get it if it fell outside the top 5. If the Lakers kept the pick in 2015, the Suns’ compensation would roll over to the next year’s draft. As you might imagine, putting protections on picks greatly lessens their value. The authors of the paper did a great job of exploring exactly how much. The applications of their research are easily understandable. They provide teams with a basis for valuing the amount of protection that a potential trade partner is asking for.

I also got to see a live taping of the show NBA Desktop, which is a Ringer production that airs on YouTube. It is a hilarious show about the NBA that I highly recommend. It was cool to see how the sausage is made, and the star of the show, Jason Concepcion, is truly an incredible talent. He taped for an hour and nearly everything he said was funny. Generally, the edited show lasts about 10 minutes, so I imagine cutting it down to that length will be a nightmare. The final episode is here.

I was also impressed by the people in the room while recording the episode. Plenty of famous NBA people were there to watch the show, and clearly are fans. Daryl Morey was there and agreed to be interviewed on the show. I find it interesting that even some NBA general managers are fans of comedy shows about NBA culture.

I loved the conference. From strolling the halls with prominent sport figures, to seeing some of my idols talk, to hearing new research, the conference was everything I could have hoped for. I highly recommend it to any sports fan with an analytical viewpoint.