The Wages of Win: On Ideas, Numbers and People at the Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference

The general mood at Sloan was that of a happy revolution, with good, new ideas overtaking and replacing bad, old ones. But how bloodless is this coup, really? Part two of two.
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To read part one of Robert Silverman's dispatch from Sloan, click here.

If its opening panel was a sketch of the Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference's overarching thesis, then the second major event of Day One seemed posited as its antithesis.

It was called “It’s Not You, It’s Me; Break-ups in Sports,” and was moderated by Boston Globe columnist and Around The Horn regular Jackie McMullen; the panel was comprised of former Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian, former Whalers, Canucks, Maple Leafs, and Ducks GM Brian Burke, ESPN’s John Buccigross, and Steve Pagliuca, a co-owner and Managing General Partner of the Boston Cetlics and the current Managing Director of Mittens Romney’s old stomping grounds, Bain Capital. No one dared ask whether Pagliuca’s master plan was to overload the Celts’ with debt and then fire Doc Rivers/Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Tommy Heinsohn/the parquet floor and then cash out. Rounding out the panel was the recently canned Orlando Magic Head Coach, Stan Van Gundy.

The stated intent of the panel was to, “Explore whether or not coaches get fired with too great of a frequency…and discuss whether there are lessons to be learned from some of the most well-known makeups and breakups in the world of professional sports,” but the dialogue went off its rails fairly early on, and degenerated quickly into a contest in which each panelist took a turn at seeing which could most biliously, wittily and ferociously order various whippersnappers to Get Off Their Lawn. Said whippersnappers included the audience.

As I mentioned in Part One, Sloan's air of simmering resentment was partially fueled by the chairs that MIT’s best and brightest have chosen. Not "chairs" as in chairman or Distinguished Fellow that or whatever; chairs as in chairs. They were standard Ikea-ish plush p/leather crypto-Barcaloungers; the kind you’d find in the break room of any office. Still, anyone sitting in them, no matter how much of a striving, heady, next-gen, go-getter he/she she may be, had no choice but to slouch/sink into them in a manner befitting a hyperadiposic, varicose vein-speckled, lower lumbar-stressed 50-ish, overworked middle-manager, and one who has had a shitty day at that. If Stan Van Gundy had tucked his hand under his belt, Al Bundy-style, no one in the audience would have been the least bit surprised.

The panel kicked off with a brief prodding into L’Affaire Dwight, and Stan’s public battles with his outward bound, outwardly unhappy star. There were no great revelations, really, save for the fact that Stan was aware of D12’s dissatisfaction for awhile and asked Orlando’s management to either fire or extend him at the beginning of the year in order to quell the episode of Divorce Court that would surely (and did) follow. “I asked Otis Smith to make a statement—a real one, not one of those ‘We have confidence in our coach’ bullshit statements,’" Van Gundy said. A gleeful, juicy, “Teacher said a cuss word!” titter rumbled through the crowd, followed by hundreds of heads lowering to Tweet Stan’s profanity to the world. Mine was one of those.

We also learned that, when the new ownership took over, Danny Ainge headed up the Celts’ search committee for a new GM before ultimately deciding that he, Danny Ainge, was in fact the most qualified candidate; this more or less makes Ainge the Dick Cheney of the NBA, which in turn fits with how he saw fit to make his campaign donations in 2012. Again, though, this was all off topic.

And anyway, it was all prologue to Brian Burke’s screed-y performance. Apparently fed up with the semi-controversial content, he took to the crowd as a flailing comic does to a horde of drunken hecklers, starting with his declarative statement that, “There’s no ‘fun’ in a player’s contract. It’s not a game. You’re not here to have fun. It’s a war.”

Wince. This is hackneyed and familiar and generally dumb, this “Sports is War. Coaches are like Generals, the leaders, molders and shapers of men, real men. MANLY men. Men who enter the arena of combat where only the strong shall survive! Politics is War. Business is War. Everything is WAR (except actual Wars, ironically),” stuff. But leaving aside that it isn’t even really true anymore even of the 21st Century military leadership—and that screaming at a ref doesn't exactly make you Curtis LeMay—it was also off message for Sloan. We were suddenly on the opposite side of the table from Brad Pitt in Moneyball, prattling helplessly about ugly girlfriends and Good Face.

But sorry, Brian. You were saying: “It’s an eyeball business. No one ever won a championship with Moneyball...If you’re only using stats, good luck, I hope you’re in my division.” Right. Sloan, Day One.

***

There was, of course, a guy addressing this very same group nary 30 minutes ago named Mark Cuban. Very rich, very confident, knee-deep in analytics and flush with cash and not at all shunning scouting—although of course he wasn't, as no one actually is—but still, I’m pretty sure his team won a chip in 2011. Burke’s next line looked like it was culled directly from Tom Waits’ gravel-voiced back catalogue.

“Stats are like a lamp post to a drunk, useful for support, but not illumination.” He also stated that, “The worst thing that ever happened in sports was sports radio, and the Internet is sports radio on steroids with lower IQs.”

Now the natives are beyond restless, but that doesn’t stop our man. My notes here start to get a little illegible and the tape recording was no help. But in brief: the ol' dude started channeling Spiro Agnew, declaring loud and proud that, were he tapped to run a team again, he’d hire a press secretary—possibly even the comely lass of virtue true sitting right beside him, one Jackie McMullan—to be his press officer and deal with these nattering nabobs of negativity in the media and have her fire some well-timed shots at the ink-stained (byte-stained?) wretches herself. Mr. Burke, meanwhile, would busy himself piling the newspaper clippings that detail any and all rumored moves outside his office. There they’d be recycled/shredded/used to line his pet parakeet Jaromir’s cage. As SI’s Rob Mahoney quickly tweeted, Jackie MacMullan was recast as The West Wing's C.J. Cregg.

Anyway, all this is maybe not fair to poor Brian Burke, who was after all just fired by the Maple Leafs a few months ago, an experience he likened to "a two-by-four upside the head." Part of me wonders if engendering all those raised eyebrows and rolling eyes and pithy Twit-asides was kind of the point of his tirades. If he was off the conference's perceived message—finding a better and smarter way, understanding more and doing more with that understanding—he did at least deliver some buzzworthy Twitter fodder and presumably some precious hitz. There is the possibility that, despite his apparent wish to make it appear otherwise, Brian Burke knew what he was doing. At any rate, it was probably a tough time for him to be discussing firings.

Second, given Burke's reputation as a man not known to mince his words—to put it lightly: he once offered to rent a barn in which to engage Kevin Lowe in a bout of fisticuffs after an offer sheet was extended to Dustin Penner, and informed those who'd criticize his openly gay son that he'd "stand beside him, with an axe"—it's hard to imagine that anyone expected much different, or that his vitriol sent a team of the MIT student-organizers scrambling to cut his mic. It's easier to imagine that Burke was playing his designated sad/angry clown role, and that his shtick was a rebuke to everything the advanced stats crowd was shilling, and further meant to connote that he and his were scared and angry at what the stats-folk were selling. There was a moment in the conference-opening “Revenge of the Nerds” panel when Michael Lewis said he was shocked that there was such an incredible backlash by baseball to Moneyball, until he realized,  “The reason people were angry is because I was costing people their jobs.”

Which, yes: people and jobs. The people see the Daryl Moreys and Mark Cubans coming for them, challenging everything they’ve known and learned over uncounted and uncountable hours that obliterated family/personal/private lives, all while blithely bypassing every tradition that has stood as the bulwark of the game’s mythology. Like Jon Lovitz in Tommy Lasorda drag before Dana Carvey/George Will in that eerily prescient Saturday Night Live sketch, I assume that old guard wants nothing more than to jam a pudgy digit squarely into the sunken sternums of these eggheads and gruffly demand, “Let me ask you something. You ever play baseball?” What would or should anyone expect of Burke, freshly fired and running out of time, but “These punk kids think they can kneecap me with a goddamn spreadsheet? I’ll show them…” And if this was the role he was assigned to play, and if the audience was supposed to jeer him and what he said, well, what were we doing, then?

***

It’s false to suggest that there’s an ultimate, galactic battle for the soul of sports occurring between “eyes” and “numbers.” One will never wholly supersede the other. Burke knows this and Cuban does, too. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be real casualties here, to piggyback on Brian’s militaristic imagery/paradigms. I can’t help but think that Burke is Willy Loman and Morey/Cuban/Silver are Howard Wagner, Willy’s 36-year old boss who can’t even look up from his newfangled wire-recording device for a second to tell Willy that he’s finished.

That’s an oversimplification of what’s actually occurring, of course. But in essence, that’s the narrative that Sloan sold—the old guard, nice people though they may be, are feeble, weak and dumb; the arrival of the new is not only inevitable, but also part of a path to some Greater Good and Deeper Understanding. The victors write history and this, despite the fact that the battle is not yet over and maybe not even yet begun, is the textbook that was scrivened at Sloan, in bright triumphal ink.

This dramatic thrust continued in a research paper by Kirk Goldsberry entitled, "The Dwight Effect: A New Ensemble of Interior Defense Analytics for the NBA;" it's already famous, and was discussed instantly as the sort of thing that will get Goldsberry a job in some front office or other. It was also a "finalist." I didn’t mention it earlier, but Sloan is—free market and all that—set up as a competition. There was an awards ceremony and everything, which looked and sounded exactly like you’d think an awards show for an analytics conference would. You can read Goldsberry's full paper here.

In brief, its intent was to show how blocked shots and steals don’t sufficiently describe a player’s impact on the defensive end. Like errors in baseball, the numbers don’t correlate to value. A better and more accurate stat would include both the shooting percentages that a defender induces/allows from those he’s guarding and the lack of high-percentage shots (those near the rim) that are caused by his presence.

In this chart, Goldsberry uses two players, Larry Sanders and David Lee, to illustrate his point:

As you can plainly see, Lee’s wicked bad and Sanders is both underrated and really good. It's easy (and fun) to gawk at Sanders’ blocks, but to truly appreciate his skills, this is the data we need to be looking at and talking about. This is a good point, but the reason Goldsberry’s popularity/q-rating has soared over the last couple of years is not just because of his data-mining acumen, but because of the nifty, user-friendly graphics he created to get his point across, which you see above. This was a much-discussed topic throughout the conference—not just the need for newer, more advanced analysis, but for increased sophistication and elegance in terms of how this information is presented to players, coaches, GMs and fans. Goldsberry gets this.

But unlike many of his fellow academicians/presenters (One of whom, in a paper called, “Live by the Three, Die by the Three? The Price of Risk in the NBA” tried to sling the line, “Kobe gets mad points when the Lakers are down,” with about as much success as you’d imagine an aspiring PhD candidate at UCSD might have when trying his hand at that kind of argot. You can watch the entire presentation here.), Goldsberry is quite the showman. He knows how to work the room and has a brusque charm, dismissively shooting down one (admittedly silly) question about whether or not the Defensive Player of the Year Award isn’t enough of a measuring stick with a curt, “Oh. Who wins the Non-Defensive Player of the year award? Who wins the 83rd Best Defensive Player of the Year Award?”

Beyond being handy with a one-liner and larger numbers, Goldsberry also included a video clip of three of Lee’s most egregious sins on the defensive end, to the delighted snorts and chortles of the crowd, including a rep from the Golden State Warriors.

This was perhaps a strange reaction, but watching Lee get roasted, toasted and refried I couldn’t help but think, “Was that necessary?" Everyone in the room was aware of Lee’s shortcomings as a defender prior to Goldsberry’s bit of mise en scene; he was in the process of explaining it in great detail. There was no need to hold him up for derision/mockery. But as was the case with Brian Burke’s slings and arrows, there was this sense that the old ways must be pummeled into submission. The point being made and remade was that the conventional statistics that made Lee an All-Star (19ppg, 11rpg) are not only inadequate and possibly skew our understanding of his value—that, too, but also they’re wrong, morally wrong, and Lee’s status is an injustice, a sign that the backwardness that has reigned throughout sport, despite the efforts of the smart, fresh young minds of the new generation, still holds sway. If we must think of Sloan as an insurgency, it's worth noting Saul Alinksy’s fifth Rule for Radicals: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s hard to counterattack ridicule, and it infuriates the opposition, which then reacts to your advantage. It works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.”

It’s not that Goldsberry is incorrect. He's not. But between the laughter and the overwhelming rush of new statistics, there was a conference-spanning desire to quantify players’ every iota of action. So this meant using missile-tracking technology as the basis for SportsVu’s player tracking system, and the baby steps into monitoring heart activity for players in team sports as a precursor to the eventual role of DNA in contract negotiations, and led to a moment at the panel on business analytics where—and this was a joke, though there’s a whole lot of truth in it—an executive said the goal was, once the genetic code had been fully cracked, to start contacting Ob/Gyn’s and sign fetuses up to lifetime marketing deals with Gatorade.

It was all interesting, and important in its way, but all these roads of argumentation led to the same bleak-ish outcome—the better and more scientific we get about understanding how and why teams win, the more the men who play the game are treated like commodities, or further dehumanized into sets of data points. This is a business, and commodities is—for front offices, or at least the more businesslike ones—what these players are. But all those non-professionals in the audience, the bloggers and fans and business card-dispensers hoping for some job close to sports: is this how those of us who can choose really want to think about all this?

***

There is no going back. Grantland Rice's thesaurus is closed forever, and thank goodness—leave the granite-gray skies and thundering Four Horsemen and Simple Virtuous Country Ballplayers to the imaginary past they never quite inhabited. Those athletes were marketed as heroes, stripped of their personalities and foibles alike, and so were commodified in their own way and just as much as LeBron or anyone else currently on the court. The worst kind of narcissistic nostalgia is nostalgia for a past that never existed, or only existed in our fantasies. I’m not sure there's really that much to miss, or that anything has been lost other than an innocence that was a lie to begin with.  

Teams getting smarter is a good thing. Fans getting smarter is a good thing. As a business model, it’s a great thing: analytics, properly applied, can create better and more equal leagues; the sports industry is harvesting eyeballs and dollars at a rate that beats any in history. And Sloan may itself be a good thing, in time; though grueling, it was fascinating and I enjoyed the heck out of myself. I loved meeting and talking with all of the incredibly smart, talented writers whose work I’ve long admired. I enjoyed watching Stan Van Gundy try to negotiate that chair. I’ll be back in 2014.

And I’m aware that there’s an inchoate vagueness in my protestations, which in the end boil down to, “It just feels wrong, man.” It’s not unlike going to an American Meat Association event and leaving with qualms about the scientific advancements that go into making a better, more affordable chorizo, and trying to reconcile all that with how delicious chorizo is to me.

But naïve or not, I just don’t like thinking of players as meat, or as data, or as anything but humans who happen to be brilliantly better at sports than the rest of humanity. Like anyone else, I have a hard time when my self-imposed illusions/rationalizations are taken away, when my favorite food is revealed as red flesh. The paradox of Sloan is that, like many things in life, the more you know and learn about a thing, the harder it becomes to love it unconditionally, or to love it romantically. But I’m not going to stop eating. I'd starve.


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