Lessons from the Sloan Sports Conference

March 6th, 2013 by John Krolik

Stan van Gundy was the hero of the MIT Sloan Sports Conference.

The Sloan Sports Conference was a sports-nerd frenzy. It is perhaps the only place and time during the year where you can tap just about anyone on the shoulder and kickstart a conversation about PER vs. WAR. Just about every single person there was extremely knowledgeable about one sport or another. The conference is commonly believed to be all about the NBA, maybe due to Daryl Morey’s complete control over the proceedings- and the fact that his wide, beaming smile is stamped front and center on all of the promotional material. But there was quite a lot of MLB, NFL and NHL talk to be heard, and hockey and baseball research papers took home awards at the closing ceremonies. Still, though, basketball was the main event, and the preeminent speakers were all from the NBA. R.C. Buford, Kevin Pritchard and Adam Silver all impressed. But the real star of the sports conference was a certain mustachioed man, the former coach of the Orlando Magic, the one and only Stan Van Gundy.

ESPN should absolutely give a show to Stan Van Gundy. And I’m not talking about a radio show between the hours of 2 and 4 PM. Stan deserves primetime TV attention on the primary ESPN channel. He simply showers the world with wisdom. Van Gundy spoke tenderly on the subject of our perception of young players, saying about a young Lamar Odom: “When he came into the league, people said he was a bad guy because he smoked marijuana and skipped class. If not going to class and smoking pot made you a bad person, half of you (the audience) wouldn’t be here.” Later he very effectively explained why coaches are often suspicious of analytics, focusing on the fact that most players respond poorly (or not at all) to data charts and offensive efficiency ratings. That moment, in fact, was probably the most salient of the conference: a former coach describing the limitations of current advanced statistics as applicable solutions to a team’s problems. Because the most innovative presentation of the weekend focused not just on the numbers, but on how the numbers could be broken down into a palatable format for players and coaches. That was Kirk Goldsberry’s The Dwight Effect: A New Ensemble of Interior Defense Analytics for the NBA.

In Goldsberry’s research paper, he examined individual interior defenders in the NBA, discovering who was the best, who was the worst, and who fell in between. His findings were not particularly shocking (Dwight’s the best, David Lee is the worst), with a caveat for Cavs fans: Anderson Varejao is one of the worst interior defenders in the NBA, allowing over 50% shooting on plays around the rim which he defends. What was truly amazing, though, was the way in which he presented the information to the audience. Check this out. Goldsberry’s shooting charts, which you may be familiar with if you frequent Grantland, are exactly the type of visuals that could really help a coach impart to his players what they are doing wrong. (I would love to see Byron Scott sit down with Kyrie Irving and slap a printout in his face that shows anyone with a brain that he is an awful defender.) If I ran an NBA team, I would hire Van Gundy and Goldsberry, and then lock them in a room with a laptop, food, water and a hamster wheel for three months. Dan Gilbert could afford that, right? I hope so. (Also watch this for more info. And this for more laughs.)


Zach Lowe was very nice about telling a never-ending line of Columbia and Harvard students that they (a) would not be offered a job by Grantland anytime soon, and (b) should not pursue journalism because it is a soul-crushing profession. He also chatted with me about the Cavs for a few minutes, and says that Cleveland fans should be very pleased with and excited by Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters’ recent play. Lowe also mentioned that he thinks Kyrie Irving’s defense is a serious concern going forward- not an unfixable problem, but one that clouds his bright future considerably.

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