Sports Geeks From All Over Meet in Boston

At the sixth Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held over a two-day period at Hynes Convention Center in Boston, the focus is once again on Jeremy Lin. Executive Vice President of ESPN, John Walsh, who spoke at two of the panel discussions at the conference, said that Jeremy Lin-related merchandise alone accounted for 50 percent of sales for the NBA over a ten-day period that Lin lit up the Knicks. The question was: how did the analytics-oriented Houston Rockets, of all teams, pass up this opportunity?

“Missing Jeremy Lin in the draft is an example of Type II error,” said Daryl Morey, the General Manager of Houston Rockets, who released Lin before the Knicks picked him up. The rest, of course, became history.

Morey, a graduate of Sloan and one of the conference co-chairs, is acclaimed for bringing statistical analysis to basketball and for creating a Rockets team that has become a perennial playoff team without a superstar on their roster. Much of the Rockets’ success is attributed to the usage of advanced analysis, and after the book Moneyball popularized and validated such statistical approaches, the interest in sports analytics has exploded.

Analyzing and collecting data provides a unique way for teams to evaluate talent, so much so that many teams now have at least three to four personnel working solely on numbers. Much of the research in this field is highly sophisticated, and it allows teams to measure, for example, how Kevin Durant’s shooting percentage changes based on how many dribbles he takes.

According to studies, he shot 55 percent when he took no dribbles, 58 percent with one or two dribbles, 39 percent with three or four dribbles and 40 percent with five-plus dribbles. While these numbers are not guaranteed guidelines for stopping Durant, it does provide insight into how teams could try to guard him more effectively.

Some of the other research papers presented at the conference attempted to discover which players exhibit the most potent spatial shooting behaviors, estimate how players should move in order to improve rebounding rates and analyze how a team’s best players complement in each other on the basketball court.

This year’s conference invited speakers from various organizations in the sports industry to discuss how sports analytics have changed the game. Some of the notable panelists at the conference included ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, baseball agent Scott Boras, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. However, the spotlight belonged to Bill James, who first introduced new statistical methods 35 years ago through his book, Baseball Abstracts. Many people believe that without James, who now works as the Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Boston Red Sox, this conference would not have even existed.

Over 2,200 people attended the conference last week, and the event attracted an interesting mix of people, from Facebook and Morgan Stanley employees to Harvard and MIT students studying business and law.

The conference reflected how vital sports analytics have become and how the growing interest can open up access to previously unknown information. Jeff Luhnow, the general manager of Houston Astros, said, “There is no question that sports analytics helped St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series last year.”

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