Phoenix Suns well represented at annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Bob Levey

The annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, taking place today and tomorrow in Boston, is a place where stats geeks jocks go to share their wisdom, innovations and cracking wit for a couple of days. Otherwise known as "heaven".

Some folks feel intimidated (or nonplussed, or excited) by the idea of a bunch of front-office geeks talking about new innovations in data mining and analysis to better scout and predict outcomes in their sport.

Baseball was at the forefront with Billy Beane's "Moneyball" approach to building a major team, and now the other sports are quickly gaining steam. NBA number crunchers like John Hollinger, who invented the efficiency rating system called PER and just this year landed a job with the Memphis Grizzlies front office, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey have been projecting player performance based on numbers for years.

Just recently, Hollinger's Grizzlies traded a max-contract, low-efficiency player (Rudy Gay) for an older, less-talented but higher-efficiency spare part in Tayshawn Prince. The move got a lot of criticism from those who prize talent over production, but Grizzlies are now riding an 8-game winning streak and just held Dallas to 5 total points in the third quarter earlier this week.

Daryl Morey, considered the cutting-edge analytics guru in basketball, has spent the last several years remaking the Houston roster. He turned his group into a bunch of assets, acquired a number of first-round picks and eventually put himself into position to acquire a star.

He was determined to remake the roster with young, high-potential players without sacrificing anything in the win column. Houston has finished outside the playoffs for four straight seasons while this has been going on, but always with a (slightly) winning record.

When Houston cleared their books but couldn't land Dwight Howard in trade last summer from Orlando or any star during the draft, I was skeptical of his plan. He used the new CBA to highjack 24-year old Jeremy Lin (Knicks) and 26-year old Omer Asik (Bulls) using a little known CBA rule to price them out of their team's payroll. Yet, neither was a full-time starter despite now being paid starter money to join Houston.

But they still didn't have a star and wouldn't be able to draft one of their own unless they bottomed out. He'd treated his players like chess pieces, garnered no loyalty and had still struck out landing the big fish. He gave away two young point guards (Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic) for another that was no better, and his new team was full of young parts that didn't mesh (too many tweener forwards).

But then James Harden became available and the assets he still had from the failed Howard experiment were used to acquire Harden: a big expiring contract and a rookie lottery pick at Harden's position, as well as a lottery-guaranteed pick from Toronto.

By themselves, those three big moves could have been considered overpays. $8.3 million per year for Jeremy Lin, who went from the street to a two-month starting gig at PG for the Knicks? $8.3 million per year for a defense-only lumbering C who'd only played short minutes in Chicago? Tons of assets and a max contract for the third wheel in OKC?

Well, they all panned out for Morey. Each player is on the Most Improved list. Harden has become the star Morey hoped he would be: 26.4 points, 5.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game at just 23 years old. A look at his per-36 numbers shows him improving across the board on a per-minute basis. If you're Morey, you've got to love that your biggest acquisition got even better per-minute than his career showed.

Jeremy Lin is not doing quite as well this season as he had shown in New York last spring, as most had predicted, but he's been passable as a starting PG with 12.4 points and 6.3 assists per game to rank third and first on the team, respectively. Is that worth a million more per season than Goran Dragic, who Morey let go in order to get Lin? On Houston, Lin is producing less despite plenty of opportunity to put up numbers compared to a Knicks team that featured Melo, Amare and JR Smith.

Omer Asik has been better than advertised on offense while maintaining his monster rebounding numbers and pedestrian secondary statistics on bigger minutes in Houston.

All of those moves were based on the use of analytics to project these guys' impact with bigger minutes. Two hits and one "ehh" is a good ratio. Houston is pretty much a lock to make the playoffs this season, a step up from prior years, without hitting bottom to draft that star. They acquired assets and turned them into Harden. And this summer, they still have room to acquire another star.

The Phoenix Suns were late-adopters in the analytics arena, one of half the league that did not send a representative to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference before the current front office came into position three years ago.

This year, 29 of 30 teams are represented (the only team missing is the Lakers).

"We have 6 people at the conference," Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby told me. "We have both basketball and business analysts there. Zaheer Benjamin manages our analytics department. On the basketball side he reports to Lance with a strong dotted line relationship to me."

For comparison, guru GM and conference co-chairman Daryl Morey has 6 staffers at the conference as well as himself.

The Conference is a two-day fest featuring topics like:

  • Evolution of the Draft - Lessons from fantasy
  • Data Visualization
  • True Performance and the Science of Randomness
  • The Dwight Effect: A new ensemble of interior defense analytics in the NBA
  • XY Data: The Revolution in Visual Tracking
  • Staying on the Field: Injury Analytics
  • Staying Relevant: Social Media Analytics

These are just a handful of the dozens of sessions planned, going up to four at a time. No wonder teams are sending so many representatives. Football, basketball, soccer and baseball all have special topics about them. The business side of analytics is covered as well.

"We want to make sure we are in the vanguard of the work being done in this area," Babby said.

Quite a couple days of geekdom!

I really wish I was there.

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