Analytics: Should We Fans Be Getting Our Geek On?

The Phoenix Suns are reconfiguring their front office. Not only are people being replaced and added to the reconfiguration, but a new department is also being added: Analytics. The Suns were one of only a few NBA teams to not have a dedicated analytics staff until now. Still, they have been a pretty darn successful franchise when it comes to wins even though a championship still remains elusive on planet ORNG.

This past March, The 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Conference occurred for the fourth year, drawing NBA types (including Steve Kerr) from around the league to discuss, among other things-numbers and their value to NBA franchises. Kevin Arnovitz and Henry Abbott of ESPN covered this event, taking copious notes. There are some very interesting nuggets of information in these articles about behind the scenes workings of NBA front offices, some new measurements being reviewed by statheads/geeks/organizations, and issues in the league ranging from the value of the blocked shot to PEDS, Bias in Officiating, and measuring "Clutchness" in a player.

To draw you all in a bit further, here are some interesting quotes:

Morey (Daryl) makes a great point in an exchange with [Adam] Silver (NBA Deputy Commissioner): "With more and more people better able to predict how good any particular team will be, it's tougher than ever to convince fans of bad teams that their team has a chance. A lot of tickets are sold on "hope and faith" and that can be hard to come by in some cities."

More from Morey:

"...it's hard to know where owners should draw the line on spending." He points out there are tons of things owners could do, as a group, to save money and increase profits, that would be fair, but might not make sense. He says that, for instance, "you don't really need coaches. You could put players out there, and they'd play. As long as every team would agree not to have a coach, it would be fair. Every team would save four million dollars. But you can take cost-cutting to extremes where it makes no sense."

Of course Mark Cuban was there:

"...Later Silver reminded the audience that Mark Cuban once said he'd fire any salespeople who sold on the basis of wins. Wins come and go. They had to sell a fan experience."

There are a ton of archived articles on a variety of items from the conference. You can start here with The Next Generation of Sports Management and hit other topics such as

There is a lot more to explore in these articles, and admittedly, I have not read all of them. Mostly because I was struck with too many questions. So I'm going to dump them on you people and see what you think.

Did you have an opinion on analytics before you read these articles? And if so, after reading these articles, has your opinion changed? Should we all start getting our geek on?

It's easy to look at the basic boxscore stats and rattle them off to support your position on whatever point you're trying to make, but the future is going much further. I have dabbled with some of Hollinger's stuff to prove points and analyze players and teams, but I have always felt some doubt as to whether one could tell the whole story by reading numbers. They obviously don't tell the whole story, and should be used in conjunction with what we fans/ coaches/GM's etc. see with our own eyes. We simply cannot turn over everything to numbers and geeks running the numbers as a means to make decisions on acquisitions and trades.

Dean Oliver is one of the analytic field's pioneers, and had this to say to an NBA FO "non-believer" who didn't think analytics could equate to wins for his team.

"...It’s about having good ways to make decisions, to make decisions with input from the numbers, which have an independent opinion. If you can ask the right questions, you can find it’s wonderful to have an independent opinion to complement what you’re doing."

I concur with this sentiment. Numbers can and should be used as a complimentary way to make decisions. There still must be scouts and talent evaluators-when evaluating players we are talking about human beings playing a game, not droids without brains and emotions.

But Oliver says some things I do not buy into to:

"...Just a couple of weeks ago, I looked at teams that have stats people integrated into the decision process. (Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Oklahoma City, Portland and I may have included Orlando -- I’m not certain what they do exactly.) It was seven or eight teams. They had won 60% of their games, and that’s counting Houston, which has only won half their games because they’re missing Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady wasn’t playing...The teams that don’t have quants won 40-some percent. And it was pretty linear … they more or less they had someone integrated into their decision making, the more or less they were at the extremes of winning and losing."

Here Oliver seems to be justifying his existence. As an example, our Phoenix Suns have had very successful seasons without a formal "stat department." It's not to say the franchise never looked at Oliver-type numbers, but Oliver and many proponents of analytics seem to believe that there is a direct correlation between NBA success and teams that have analytic departments within their organizations.

Abbot and Arnovitz have compiled an excellent summary of the MIT conference-some of these articles are more interesting than others, but certainly worth the read.

So I put it to all what's your take on analytics?

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