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The Extra Pass: Recapping the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference


The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was held in Boston this past weekend, the eighth in an annual series intended to bring the sports world and the advanced statistics community together to discuss common areas where the two fields can share and benefit from an increasingly abundant amount of raw data that measures athletes performing at the highest levels.

There were plenty of panel discussions and research presentations attended, so here’s a summary of the highlights of what went down over the two-day experience.

– Tanking and the draft that seems to incentivize it were ongoing topics at the conference, and on the basketball analytics panel Friday, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo admitted to trying to tank for a high draft pick a couple of seasons ago. However, he wasn’t exactly able to achieve his desired result.

– One of the more interesting and honest discussions came on a negotiation panel that featured a professor from the Harvard Business School moderating a talk between Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Warriors GM Bob Myers. The two NBA men were very open in discussing their personal shortcomings where negotiations are concerned, and Morey and Myers shared some unique inside information on how the Dwight Howard free agent frenzy last summer affected each of their respective franchises. (Hint: It caused Morey to actually call up Mark Cuban to try to trade for Dirk Nowitzki.)

– The most interesting research paper presented from a basketball perspective may have been the one to address the Hot Hand theory, which has been widely debunked in the past. The new research took into account information from SportVU cameras that wasn’t available to previous researchers, and the conclusion was that the Hot Hand does in fact exist, and that players believe in it and act accordingly. Perhaps not surprisingly, J.R. Smith was one of the textbook examples.

– Not everyone at the conference was 100 percent on board with advanced statistical data and its immediate implementation, at least not without first evaluating who exactly is putting it all together. Stan Van Gundy was amazing on the basketball analytics panel, and explained frankly and in detail why the data may not mean much to those actually running the team from a basketball standpoint if it’s only being assembled by statisticians, as opposed to those who are highly experienced in the game itself.

– NBA Commissioner Adam Silver appeared at the conference on Saturday, and had an extended conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about a variety of topics. The draft lottery system and the perceived issue of tanking were among the more interesting, and while Silver continues to define tanking differently than the rest of us, he at least appears to be very open to looking at ways of changing things so that losing, in any capacity, won’t be at all incentivized in the future.

Byron Scott, is it time to bench Kobe Bryant? “That’s not an option.”

Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell, Byron Scott
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Kobe Bryant‘s shooting woes this season have been well documented. Let me explain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up. Kobe is shooting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three, all while jacking up more threes than ever before. He was 1-of-14 shooting against Cleveland, and that’s as many shots as rookies D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle got combined.

If Kobe keeps shooting like this while dominating the ball, is it time to bench Kobe? Coach Byron Scott laughed at the idea, as reported by Baxter Holmes at ESPN.

“I would never, never, never do that,” Scott said after practice at the Lakers’ facility. “That’s not an option whatsoever. No, that’s not an option.”

It’s not an option because this is the guy the fans have paid to see, at home and on the road (the Lakers have still sold out every road game this season, the only team to have done so). Kobe is the draw, he’s going to play.

That doesn’t mean Scott is handling all this well, Kobe has no repercussions for his actions.

Byron Scott is an enabler with Kobe. In his mind Kobe has earned the right to play poorly because of his career, which is just hard to watch.

The real issue I have with Scott enabling Kobe is the double standard — minutes for Russell and the other young players get jerked around when they make mistakes. Scott sounds and acts like a guy with a couple rookies on a veteran team where the objective is to win as many games as possible.

This can’t be emphasized enough: the primary goal for the Lakers this season is to develop Russell, Randle, and Jordan Clarkson (and Larry Nance Jr., who has impressed). But Russell has sat a lot of fourth quarters, and when Scott is asked if playing in those blowout minutes might help develop the young point guard faster, he says, “Nah.” Scott has benched Clarkson at points and called him out in the media.

Reduction of minutes can be a valuable teaching tool with young players — if the conditions of them getting those minutes are precisely laid out. Clear rules with rewards and consequences. That is not the case in Los Angeles, where Russell has said Scott has not spoken to him much about what he’s doing wrong and why he’s spending the ends of games benched. That’s not coaching a guy up; that’s not player development. There need to be clear guidelines and structures for young players to follow.

The only guideline in LA seems to be “Kobe has carte blanche.”

Boston police now probing fight involving 76ers center Okafor

Jahlil Okafor

BOSTON (AP) — Boston police say a man has come forward saying he’s the victim in a fight involving Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor that was recorded and posted online.

Authorities say a man filed a police report Friday saying the fight outside a nightclub left him with stitches over his eye.

Police say the alleged victim reported the fight began after some of his female friends refused the advances of two men, including one believed to be Okafor. The man told police Okafor punched him and knocked him to the ground.

Okafor says he’s embarrassed about the scuffle and is dealing with the team and league on possible discipline.

The confrontation happened early Thursday morning after the 76ers fell to 0-16 on the season. The Sixers rookie said he was being heckled.

Previously, the police had said they were not investigating the incident.

Durant, Westbrook throw shade at Reggie Jackson after Thunder beat Pistons

Reggie Jackson
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Reggie Jackson‘s exit from Oklahoma City a year ago was not smooth or pretty. He wanted a bigger stage, he wanted out, and he let everyone know it. “We felt like everybody wanted to be here except for one guy,” Kevin Durant said after the trade that sent Jackson to Detroit.

The Pistons and Jackson were back in Oklahoma City Friday night. The fans let Jackson know they didn’t appreciate his words with plenty of boos. After the game, when asked about Jackson both Durant and Russell Westbrook threw shade at Jackson, as reported by Royce Young at Daily KD didn’t even mention Jackson among Detroit’s best players.

“Steven (Adams) did a great job on their best player and Andre (Roberson) did a great job on their second best player in (Kentavious Caldwell) Pope and Russ did his job,” Durant said…

“Who?” Westbrook said, after very clearly hearing who he was asked about.

Reggie Jackson.

“What happened?”

Those comments were more aggressive toward Jackson than the Thunder players seemed to be during the game, where he was treated as an afterthought.

Jackson has played well for Detroit this season — averaging 19.1 points and 5.9 assists per game, with a PER of 20.3 and real chemistry with Andre Drummond — but he was held in check against the Thunder. Spending much of the night battling foul trouble, Jackson had 15 points on 16 shots on the night.

Durant was the stud for the Thunder, with 34 points and 13 rebounds, and the Thunder won comfortably 103-87.



Report: League considering crediting Luke Walton with coaching wins

Luke Walton

It’s about to get a little awkward at the NBA’s New York headquarters. It’s time to vote for the Coach of the Month and in the West this is any easy answer: Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors.

Except he is officially 0-0 as a coach this season. Walton is the interim, and under the NBA’s rules the regular coach gets credit while away. So Steve Kerr is 16-0 — which Kerr thinks is ridiculous — and the league is about to vote a guy who has zero official wins as coach of the month.

So the league is thinking about making a change, reports Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group.

A source confirmed Friday that the league is looking into the long-held custom of wins not being credited to interim coaches, but rather to coaches on leave such as the Warriors’ Steve Kerr.

Changing the policy does raise some questions. Is this retroactive to former interim coaches? Is there a minimum number of games the interim has to serve before it counts? (I don’t know if you want to count games for an interim who does one or two games for a suspended coach, but does he start to get credit at five games? 10?)

That said, the league should do it. Walton and other long-term interims deserve credit.

Walton continues to say “whatever” in so many words.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Walton said of the possibility of having wins on his record as the league reviewed the Warriors’ extenuating circumstances. “It really doesn’t…I’m good either way.”

But Walton could be the first ever NBA coach of the month who has not officially won a game.