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My experience at the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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I went to Boston over the weekend to learn more about sports analytics and here’s some of the cool things I saw

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This past weekend was the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The conference, which is held in Boston, sees the gathering of some of the greatest minds in the sports analytics world. A ton of media people and team representatives gather in a conference center for two days to discuss all things analytics, with panels including former players, coaches, and owners to discuss key topics in the analytical world.

For the second year in a row I was able to get the opportunity to attend this conference. Although I only attended for the Saturday session (due to two exams I had on Friday), it was an amazing experience. I got to hear some great talks, go to some workshops and read research papers on new points in basketball analytics. Here are some of the things I got to see and my general takeaways from the conference.

Not everyone views tanking the same way

One of the big topics, especially when it comes to the Chicago Bulls this season, has been tanking. The basketball world is split when it comes to the topic of rolling out bad lineups in order to lose games for the sole purpose of a higher draft pick. It makes for some unwatchable basketball in the present with the hopes of getting better players for the future. The last panel of the conference offered some insight on differing opinions in terms of the controversial topic. The panelists included former Cavaliers GM David Griffin, Clippers President of Basketball Operations, Lawrence Frank, and the one and only Sam Hinkie. The former GM of the Philadelphia 76ers was greeted with applause as he was introduced to the panel. It was a very cool moment to see the creator of “The Process”, one of the most fascinating NBA GM’s ever.

All three had valid points on what they determined was the best way to build a future contender. Obviously all three, plus former(?) player Chris Bosh and Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, offered their differing opinions. Hinkie justified his methods when it came to losing games for higher draft picks and trying to maximize the assets his team would have. Those assets ended up being Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the cornerstones of the franchise. Frank was more on the re-tooling side and talked about how the Clippers went in a different direction with the Blake Griffin trade. They didn’t tear it all down but instead they received some decent players in the return and Frank also commented about how they can use the city of LA to their advantage in free agency.

Overall, it was a very interesting panel and one which was highly anticipated, mostly due to the presence of Hinkie. It was a good discussion to end the conference on, especially given the great tank race the NBA is currently having this season.

Analytics still has a ways to go in Women’s Basketball

Although analytics has taken a big leap over the years overall, the same can’t be said specifically about the womens’ game. There are almost zero to little advanced stats when it comes to the women’s college basketball. But there seems to be a solution on the way.

In a talk by Aaron Barzilai of HerHoopStats.com, he highlighted how his site would have advanced statistics on the women college game. You have to search for a while just to find regular stats on women’s college basketball so advanced stats are scarce. He explained his site would be a place where you could find them. It would include some of the “basic” advanced stats, ones which aren’t currently all that easily available. Barzilai said the site would be subscription based. With the way analytics is moving, more focus needs to come towards the women’s game. Not only in more advanced statistics and research but in how we can analyze the game from a math minded view.

Women’s sports is growing but more needs to be done.

Remembering the “07 Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns

This was my favorite panel. It featured only four people: author Jack McCallum, Steve Nash, Shane Battier, and Houston Rockets GM Darly Morey.

McCallum was the one who wrote the famed Seven Seconds or Less, and it was really cool to see him sitting right next to it’s main architect in Nash. Both guys ribbed each other throughout the panel in good fun. McCallum specifically asked Nash some questions about how it was like playing more and more of the pick and roll in a time which saw more post ups than ball screen action. He also asked a very good question in prompting Nash as to why he didn’t play more shooting guard or had more reins when it came to having him play off-ball. McCallum cited some of Nash’s crazy stat lines in Dallas to illustrate how the point guard was not only a fantastic passer and reader of the game, but a dominant scorer when he needed to be.

Battier was also asked about what it was like to guard a team like Phoenix and basically gave the answer which most teams were feeling back when the Suns were running everyone off the court: It wasn’t fun. The former Rocket defender acknowledged many teams, more specifically his, were still focused on guarding the post rather than work on defending the pick and roll. It showed when the Suns played the Rockets.

The panel also discussed how the fast paced Suns were ahead of their time and how innovative they were. McCallum also brought up to Nash about his lack of winning a ring during his playing career. The 45 minutes slotted for the talk flew right by and they almost didn’t have time for questions. In my opinion, it was so unique to see two great players in Nash and Battier talk with a guy like McCallum. Morey also had some good points on how more modern NBA teams, more specifically his Rockets team, have adopted some of the principles current Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni implemented way back during his time in the desert.