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MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference | Annual conference on sports analytics organized by the MIT Sloan Business School

Raptors took a pounding at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Feschuk | Toronto Star

Sports / Raptors
Raptors took a pounding at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Feschuk

Fifteen things Dave Feschuk learned at the two-day event devoted to data-based study of the games people love that wrapped up Saturday in Boston.


By: Dave Feschuk Sports Columnist, Published on Sat Mar 02 2013
BOSTON—Fifteen things I learned at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the two-day event devoted to data-based study of the games people love that wrapped up Saturday:

The Raptors took a pounding here. One stat guru arrived wearing a T-shirt bearing the names of what his statistical model deemed the five most overpaid NBA players. Two of the top four, Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay, were Raptors.

Another attendee noted that the Raptors were one of only three NBA teams without at least two representatives at the conference. Toronto had one. The Brooklyn Nets had six employees accredited. The L.A. Lakers were the only NBA team without a presence. Said San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford: “If we can keep the Lakers locked out, that’s fine with us.”

Brian Burke, who made waves at the conference Friday by casting repeated doubt on the validity of the analytical approach, said he found it difficult to fire his friend Ron Wilson. “It’s crappy even if you don’t like the coach,” Burke said. “I fired Mike Keenan in Vancouver. Mike and I didn’t get along. But I still didn’t eat for a day and a half after I fired him. It’s still, ‘He’s got a daughter.’ It’s still, ‘There’s a human dynamic to it even when you don’t particularly like the individual.’ ”

Stan Van Gundy, who was fired last year as coach of the Orlando Magic, didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Burke’s plight. “It’s always a lot harder on the guy getting fired,” Van Gundy guffawed in response to Burke’s comment.

Brian Burke’s daughter Katie Burke, who has worked as a conference organizer and introduced her father’s panel, offered a window into the ex-Leaf GM’s post-firing disposition: “If you want some unsolicited advice, don’t sign your dad up for a panel shortly after he gets fired. It doesn’t work in your favour.”

There’s new technology in the hoops world: A ball implanted with sensors. The 94Fifty ball can measure, among many things, the hang time of a jump shot. There’s an optimal number, apparently, that will allow, say, Bargnani to see how much better he could be if he didn’t fire off so many low-arc low-hopers. One assumes Bargnani wouldn’t listen to the data. But still, cool gizmo.

Michael Lewis said he will write a sequel to his bestseller Moneyball “someday.”

Michael Smith, host of ESPN stats show Numbers Never Lie, said that despite Moneyball’s popularity as a book and movie, there’s a mainstream resistance to advanced math: “When we say QBR (a quarterback rating system developed by ESPN), people roll their eyes. It’s not yet mainstream.”

Speaking of resistance, NHL teams weren’t represented en masse, but hockey got its due. An academic paper was presented introducing THoR, an attempt at providing an NHL equivalent for football’s QBR or baseball’s WAR or basketball’s PER — advanced stats that condense a player’s value into a single number. There’ve been some giggles that the THoR formula, looking at two recent seasons, considers Alexander Steen the best player in the league. But the top 15 forwards also include most of the expected suspects, from Evgeni Malkin to Sidney Crosby to Jonathan Toews. So it’s worth further study, for sure.

Stan Kasten, the L.A. Dodgers president, took repeated broadsides of Forbes magazine’s franchise valuations: “I don’t know their methodology — I mean, I don’t know which hand they throw their dart with.”

A researcher offered an explanation for why bad NBA teams tend to hang around so many games, only to lose in the end. It’s because teams with leads become risk averse, tighten up and shoot less three-pointers than they should while teams that trail play loose and take risks. Still, as author Justin Rao said in his lecture, “at clutch moments, a good team and a bad team are worlds apart — in some cases it’s like a pro team against a college team.”

Inane persistence can get you a job with a pro sports team. “I know one person who just sat in the lobby until (the team) hired him,” Darryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets and conference co-founder, told a panel. “But don’t.”

The ears of sports bettors perked up when Matthew Holt, director of race and sports data for Cantor Gaming, said bookmakers have a difficult time making lines on one particular sport. It’s college basketball in November and December, if you’re asking. He said it’s tricky for the books because there are 300-plus teams playing out-of-conference schedules, and data is more scarce than in pro leagues.

Professional gambler Haralobos Voulgaris, who made his name as an NBA bettor, said he doesn’t touch the NFL. “It’s almost a random game . . . the ball isn’t even round. It goes this way. It goes that way. You’re basically flipping coins.”

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban offered an interesting insight on the nature of running an NBA team: “The No. 1 job of a general manager is not to win championships . . . It’s to keep their job. They’ll take huge risks, because the downside is, if they don’t take the risk, they lose their job. It cost me tens of millions of dollars to learn that lesson.” Perhaps there’s an analytically minded Toronto fan who can estimate the current cost of suspected job-keeping in Raptorland.




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