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A Weekend With Smart People: What I Learned At The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference


This past weekend was the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and I was in attendance. There was plenty of handshaking and industry conversation and general schmoozing, but the conference mainly served as a hub for smart people to say smart things and impress other smart people. And while the whole idea of a bunch of sports folk parading around in suits and slacks and ties and dress shoes seemed sort of silly and out of place, it reinforced an idea that has yet to catch hold: some of the smartest people, independent of industry, are revolutionizing how we approach sports on the whole.

All the while, I learned tidbits: the Lakers don’t lose because Kobe Bryant shoots more; Kobe Bryant shoots more because the Lakers are losing; typically “clutch” field goals are a misnomer because the entire premise of “clutch” is statistically insignificant; and we’re on the cusp of defensive metrics for basketball entering the fold, using spatial data to finally confirm that yes, David Lee is a horrible defender, to name a few.

Mathematically, scientifically, mathetifically, it all went over my head – the research, anyway: I have no background in science or math or statistics. But on the whole these researchers presenting papers and evolving sports managed to dissolve the mumbo jumbo and mold a narrative I could perceive. And that, to me, was most impressive: that belief in analytics doesn’t have to be a metric of trust – those concepts can be presented and understood in plain terms by people like me. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell’s “connectors” are for, I’d guess.

The conference had its moments, of course: former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke blurting out that no one’s ever won a championship with Moneyball, or Jackie MacMullan, a moderator, yelling towards audience member R.C. Buford to confirm Bruce Bowen’s intrinsic value. Stan Van Gundy gesticulated and barked and whooped about various certainties, but mostly said things we were already thinking but didn’t have the courage to shout ourselves. Nate Silver, who is undoubtedly smart, seemed smarter because he kept his fingers separated when hand-gesturing. All of which is to say, Sloan demystified the unparalleled work of some of sports’ most scrupulous minds while reinforcing its genius.

What I learned most, though, was that these trail blazers are not arbiters of future; rather, our willingness to accept and normalize these findings will direct how we approach sports’ most basic problems. Stan Van Gundy discussed this process at length, mentioning that he can’t just fling a pile of spreadsheets at his players and expect them to sift through the data and glean something. Players will always be themselves, and sometimes those selves hate video breakdowns or stats or whatever else extra.

Because the analytics problem is two-fold: on the first front – player evaluation – teams are undoubtedly getting smarter and smarter. We see that in more (but not totally) efficient spending or scheme-based player movement. But the second front, player receptiveness, well, that’s still a battle. And as I’ve written elsewhere, that problem is generational because basketball players can’t re-learn the game. But hopefully at future Sloan conferences, we’ll be on to something else.



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