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March 5, 2010
The State of APBRmetrics
At the Sloan Conference

by Kevin Pelton


BOSTON - Preparing for its fourth year on Saturday, the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference continues to grow and expand. For 2010, Sloan has outgrown its origin on the campus of MIT (whose Sloan School of Management hosts the conference) and moved to bigger quarters at the Boston Convention and Events Center. Still, reports are that heavy hitters from the sports industry have been unable to secure spots since the conference sold out last month.

While the Sloan Conference covers all sports and the business side of things as well as statistical analysis, NBA analysis continues to take center stage. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is the conference's co-chair, and several other decision-makers will join him in Boston. As a result, this is a good time to take stock of the development of the analytical community over the last year since I last looked at the state of APBRmetrics.

What hasn't changed is the growth of interest in NBA teams in statistical analysis. Within the past year, we've added a couple of teams to the list of those known to use the numbers. BasketballValue.com's Aaron Barzilai has begun consulting for the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Star reported that Alex Rucker is working with the hometown Raptors.

One of the most interesting developments came from the Dallas Mavericks, who cut ties with long-time analyst Wayne Winston, allowing the Indiana University professor to go public with more of his analysis after publishing Mathletics last fall. At the same time, the Mavericks welcomed Roland Beech in a more prominent "embedded" role with the team. Working closely with the Dallas coaching staff, Beech attends every game, sitting next to owner Mark Cuban behind the team's bench. That's different from most analysts. While there are a few exceptions, few are physically part of their team's front office.

Last year, I lamented that while the growing number of analysts working for NBA teams was an excellent sign of the growth of the field and its legitimacy, it also made it more difficult for APBRmetrics to advance in the public sphere. I should make clear that this is a minor quibble; it's terrific for the analysts to be able to benefit from their hard work and I'm certainly not complaining about the interest from teams. Still, the desire for teams to gain a competitive advantage and protect their insights mean much of the work of the community is taking place behind closed doors.

We have seen more examples of that within the past year. Beech's new role has eliminated his ability to present innovative studies on 82games.com, though the plus-minus statistics for which the site was originally known continue to be updated. Jon Nichols, a student at Harvard, was offering unique play-by-play-based analysis at basketball-statistics.com, including NCAA plus-minus. In January, however, Nichols stopped updating the site, presumably after being hired by a team. Another bright young APBRmetrician, Ryan Parker, joined the Blazers as an intern and has not posted on BasketballGeek.com since.

At the same time, however, there is evidence that the APBRmetrics community is becoming a self-sustaining one. As standouts move on to work with teams, others step up, and the general trend continues to be toward more information being available to all of us.

Most notably, Hoopdata.com has burst onto the scene in 2009-10 as one of the most valuable statistical resources on the Internet. Regular readers should recognize the site from frequent references in my columns, and Bill Simmons highlighted the site in his BS Report podcast with Morey as a guest. Hoopdata.com has made play-by-play-based statistics including charges drawn more easily accessible (and sortable) while also shedding light on the value of breaking down player shooting by location.

Also, Hoopdata.com writer Tom Haberstroh is one of several analysts taking advantage of tools like Google's motion charts to present the data in a graphical manner that helps make it easier to understand. It's my goal, going forward, to work harder to support my columns with more graphs in addition to the preformatted tables that are a Prospectus staple.

Adjusted plus-minus remains something of an APBRmetrics flashpoint. Winston's analysis, of course, is based virtually exclusively on the WINVAL adjusted plus-minus system he and friend Jeff Sagarin pioneered. Hoopnumbers.com offers a new take on adjusted plus-minus, using ridge regression to offer more precise estimates of the impact players have on team performance. Joe Sill, who runs the site, will be presenting his findings at the Sloan Conference and recently offered updated numbers including the 2009-10 season to date.

One of the interesting issues to resolve going forward will be the league's role in promoting the growth of statistical analysis. By hiring former Nets consultant Ken Catanella as Manager, Basketball Analytics, the NBA has shown its commitment to the value of statistics. Catanella led the development of StatsCube, a tool to help teams be more efficient in their own analysis. The NBA has also partnered with Synergy Sports Technology, allowing it to become the primary provider of game video as well as situational statistics to teams.

The question is what, if any, of this information will ever become public. Synergy offered a free trial during the 2006 Playoffs and anticipated rolling out a subscription service for fans, but four years later that has apparently taken a backseat to its role serving NBA teams. Synergy numbers and reports do trickle out from time to time, but not in any organized manner. The MLB, once well behind the curve in terms of analytics, has recently moved to more of an open-source method that has allowed outside analysts to work with Pitch F/X data, among other things, helping the sabermetrics community make useful new discoveries. The NBA tested a similar method of tracking player movement using cameras during last year's NBA Finals, but there's no indication that when the league begins collecting that data it will be available to fans.

During last year's Sloan Conference, Morey answered a question about young fans interested in getting into the field by suggesting that statistical analysis in general was no longer the place to make their mark. I hate to disagree with him, but I think the last year has shown that there is still ample room for exploration. The demand for people capable of generating numbers--and, more importantly, making sense of them--only figures to grow as teams follow the Rockets' lead in terms of hiring multiple people within their analytics departments. We've certainly seen something like that in baseball, where a new generation of voices has developed to augment the group that helped usher in the Moneyball era. That same kind of fresh blood can continue to invigorate the APBRmetrics community.

Given my discussion of teams hiring APBRmetricians, it is with no shortage of irony that I note that I am now among them. Recently, I have been working with the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers front office has been gracious in allowing me to continue to write for Basketball Prospectus while doing some consulting for them, so for the most part you the reader will not see any impact. The exception is that, for obvious reasons, I want to avoid writing about Indiana. Bradford, who already wrote the Pacers chapter in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, should help fill in any gaps.

While we're on the subject of site announcements, John Perrotto's new duties at Baseball Prospectus have cut into the time he has to devote to hoops and he will be unable to continue his twice-weekly On the Beat coverage of the NBA. John will still rank NCAA teams in The List on Tuesdays and cover college hoops in Around the Rim on Fridays.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kpelton. Use the hashtag #ssac for updates from the Sloan Conference.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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