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September 27, 2011

The Pistons Embrace Analytics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 6:31 pm

I missed the news a couple of weeks ago that the new coaching staff of Lawrence Frank in Detroit will include Charles Klask, who had served as the Orlando Magic’s scouting information director. The responsibilities of that nebulous title included providing Stan Van Gundy with statistical analysis.

According to SI.com’s Zach Lowe, the addition of Klask is just part of a change in how the Pistons will utilize statistical analysis under their new ownership group. Lowe talked with Robert Wentworth at Saturday’s New England Symposium on Statistics and Sports, an academic-minded one-day program held biannually at Harvard University. Wentworth is a partner for Platinum Equity, the private equity firm whose founder, Tom Gores, purchased the Detroit franchise earlier this summer. He expounded on the team’s plan for using advanced statistics.

SI.com: You guys just hired Charles Klask, who did this kind of work for the Magic and [Orlando head coach] Stan Van Gundy. How did you settle on him as the right guy to start this movement within the organization?

Wentworth: That was all Lawrence Frank (Detroit’s new head coach). He was out there beating the bushes and had come up with Charles as the guy who will help do all that game preparation. But he’s not the sole resource we’ll end up with at the end of the day.

SI.com: So you plan to hire more folks with this kind of background? Or spend more resources on this kind of research?

Wentworth: That is a pretty good assumption. There are various ways you can approach this, either through hiring in-house or using outside resources. Charles is going to focus on working with the coaching staff on a day-to-day basis, and we’ll continue to look at how statistical analysis can help us on the basketball operations side — in free agency and all of that.

I’m not sure I have an exact count on the number of teams that employ an analyst at this point, and this situation points out why such a strict definition is less than ideal. The Magic will continue to use analytics, surely, but Otis Smith told the Orlando Sentinel the team will replace Klask from within.

Using that broader sense, I come up with 19 teams that have displayed considerable interest in modern statistical analysis. There are another four that have shown an awareness of the latest developments by sending representatives to the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for example. That leaves seven teams–less than a quarter of the league–who do not apparently value analytics whatsoever. Even that number to shrink further as more teams change hands and new ownership groups with analytical backgrounds take over, as we’ve seen within the last year in both Detroit and Golden State.

September 20, 2011

Conference realignment that makes sense

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 8:53 am

Colleges used to band together into conferences according to the gravitational pulls exerted by simple geography and institution type. Now league alignments are driven by access to TV eyeballs. As the owner of two eyeballs myself, I’m fine with that. But I do have to wonder why all college sports have to march to this tune when only two — football and men’s basketball — draw sufficient audiences to generate big TV dollars. We should let the non-revenue sports keep their traditional geographically-contiguous conferences.

Mind you, I find many travel-time-related worries about the student-athletes in our midst to be cartoonishly overwrought. If travel time is truly such a pernicious evil, Hawaii has no earthly business being in D-I. Still, you don’t have to be a “think of the children!” reactionary to note that sending a women’s soccer team over a thousand miles to play a league opponent is odd, even if it makes perfectly good business sense for their football team to do exactly that.

In a realm with few clear boundaries, the distinction between revenue and non-revenue sports is as plain as day. Conferences should reflect that distinction.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.  

September 19, 2011

The Rest of the NCAA

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:24 pm

I spent my early Saturday morning flying to Phoenix, and though the reason was professional sports, I decided to theme my entertainment on the flight around the trouble with amateurism. I brought along my College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 to reread, including my colleague John Gasaway’s essay of the same name, then used the in-flight wifi (one of man’s most impressive accomplishments) to dig into Taylor Branch‘s exhaustive “The Shame of College Sports” from The Atlantic.

Just like Gasaway, I found Branch’s research to be an invaluable addition to the existing NCAA literature, but felt he slightly misstepped with his conclusions. In fact, I think Branch gave the NCAA a bit of room to take an unlikely moral high ground. Something was missing from the nearly 15,000 words Branch wrote, and that something is what the NCAA often loves to remind you about amidst the sea of advertisements CBS sells during its coverage of March Madness: Nearly all NCAA athletes are going pro in something other than sports.

Branch tried, but ultimately could not resist the slavery metaphor to explain the NCAA. I have always found that particular comparison lacking. No, the more apt explanation for the NCAA’s activity is the communist ideology as best defined by the Soviet Union.

On paper, college sports are socialist: Revenue produced from each student-athlete according to ability goes to a broader spectrum of them based on need. As Gasaway noted in his essay, it’s fortunate that the NCAA is benevolent, if only out of obligation. A wide variety of non-revenue sports are the biggest beneficiaries of the huge sums captured by elite football and basketball teams.

Let’s be clear that this doesn’t in any way justify the many abuses of power Branch details, which explain why the appropriate metaphor is communism and not socialism. As in Soviet Russia, some members of the NCAA are more equal than others. These are the administrators who are in fact profiting from someone else’s work, and they have no particular interest in seeing the system change to their own detriment. As with slavery, it’s inappropriate to compare the worst of communism’s abuses to the NCAA system. No college players are becoming unpersons. Still, the lack of individual rights and due process are shared between the two.

Branch’s most provocative conclusion is that the NCAA has never had any particular legal standing explaining its right to exist and operate as it does. Should college presidents decide enough is enough, a new organization could easily spring up in its place, one that does more than pay lip service to the role of student-athletes in their own governance. If such an organization found a way to fairly compensate the star athletes in basketball and football who would generate most of its revenue–say, distributing the rights fees to video games to players in those sports, or giving each player a share of the proceeds from sales of their jerseys–it would be much more just, but not better for all student-athletes.

In a world where these top athletes are bringing home something close to their actual value, non-revenue sports would be irreparably altered if not die. This scenario is complicated by the continued existence of Title IX. To comply with proportionality, it’s difficult to see how any male sports besides basketball and football, with the latter’s enormous rosters and no female equivalent, could survive. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing or a good thing. It’s probably safe to assume that players in non-revenue sports come from wealthier backgrounds than their hoops- and football-playing peers, given the cost of becoming elite in sports like tennis and lacrosse. In practice, the NCAA isn’t really distributing according to need.

There’s also a certain danger that traditionalist NCAA forces seize on this argument as a rationale for maintaining the status quo. This is their opening to dismiss Branch’s damaging research. That is not my intent. The way the NCAA operates, and particularly the archaic convention of amateurism, must change. But the entire NCAA, not just moneymaking basketball and football, has to be part of any discussion. Otherwise, we’re missing a key part of the picture–and using the wrong metaphors.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

The shame of “The Shame of College Sports”

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:01 am

Frank Deford‘s right: Taylor Branch‘s “The Shame of College Sports,” in the October issue of The Atlantic, really is “the most important article ever written about college sports.” Branch’s is a meticulous and invaluable history, far and away the best I’ve ever read on the NCAA’s evolving ad hoc defenses of amateurism. He is also pitch-perfect on the organization’s reflexive yet often groundless insistence upon secrecy. Even if you already thought of the NCAA as the masters of maniacally manicured minutiae, Branch presents a more vivid and varied backstory than you possibly could have imagined. “The Shame of College Sports” offers more insight on how we got to where we are today than any piece I’ve ever seen.

But to grasp the magnitude of the missed opportunity presented by this particular important article, consider the piece’s final, and worst, paragraph:

“Scholarship athletes are already paid,” declared the Knight Commission members, “in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education.” This evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning our whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.

Facts are Branch’s friends, and in his piece he unearths many, many friends. Nevertheless my experience has been that, for reasons that have never been explained to my satisfaction, only highly intelligent people can write passages as hauntingly dumb as the one above.

Invoking both slavery and colonialism, Branch is contentedly and assuredly swinging for the fences. It’s exhilarating to see someone do so within the traditionally quotidian confines of college sports commentary. It is also, of course, patently absurd. If Branch were to be taken at his word and actually offered a Rawlsian choice between being a slave in the Mississippi Delta in 1853, being a colonized Herero in Namibia in 1905, or being a strong safety at Vanderbilt in 2011, we know which alternative he would select — instantly, self-evidently, and incontestably. In this instance “echoes” echoes nothing, “just so” is just awful, and a good editor would have saved Branch from himself.

Not that Branch and his editors don’t deserve our thanks. In an exhaustively researched piece that surely took months to cobble together, the pressure to stay ahead of fast unfolding events must have been tremendous. Little could Branch have known when he embarked on this assignment that the terrain would shift so violently under his feet. Nevertheless, in a couple places those cracks do break the surface. Near the top of Branch’s article, in a passage that reads like it was written many months ago, we’re told that the notion of paying college players represents a “taboo” that the powers that be “recoil from.” Really? Imagine our surprise ten thousand words later when Branch quotes SEC head football coaches, surely the most powerful of all powers, as proposing in 2011 that their own players be paid. Some taboo.

Moreover the NCAA’s unmatched genius for adopting and ferociously defending positions that all non-NCAA parties find indefensible is notable, surely, but it is not the whole story. Just because we can all agree that Ed O’Bannon has a case doesn’t mean it’s terribly clear what we should do across the entire landscape of college sports after O’Bannon wins. (Though, to be sure, my proposal is on the table.) College sports will most definitely outlive the NCAA’s long-held and long untenable conception of amateurism; college sports may outlive the NCAA itself. But the knotty question of what to do with our country’s peculiar and (as Branch notes correctly) wholly unique admixture of higher education and high-revenue sports isn’t going anywhere, whatever happens in court and in Indianapolis.

In presenting his bill of indictment against the NCAA, Branch draws upon a rich American vein of reformist outrage. However in the normal course of these injustices our conscience is awakened not only by a pitilessly detailed piece of journalism like Branch’s, but also, and more importantly, by a best-selling novel that comprises the obligatory scathing indictment of the evil in question. Why is it, then, that we know instinctively and without a moment’s hesitation that no such novel will be forthcoming in the case of college sports? How can we be so certain in advance there will be no “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, Sonny Vaccaro’s passing” moment in American letters in 2014? Perhaps it is because while the NCAA is patently unjust in many of its most characteristic actions, it inflicts little or no actual human suffering.

Imagine that tomorrow the Transportation Security Administration announced that henceforth anyone with an annual household income in excess of $250,000 will be subjected to mandatory pat-down searches and body scans at all airport security checkpoints. Imagine further that the TSA defended their decision by rote invocations of “the welfare of worker-travelers.” Imagine that they lovingly maintained a 500-page binder of bylaws on what $250K-plus travelers can and cannot wear and carry, litigated any challenges to the hilt, and shrouded all their deliberations behind a sanctimonious curtain of secrecy. You would then have a rule that is manifestly arbitrary and unjust, one that indeed could be contested and eventually overturned on the highest and most solemn constitutional grounds. At the same time you’d also be looking at a policy that impacts only a very tiny and, by at least one measure, very privileged population that could elect to evade the rule entirely by simply choosing an alternate mode of travel.

This is roughly the nut that any would-be critic of the NCAA must crack, and if you don’t recognize the particular contours of this preposterously improbable set of circumstances, as Branch so clearly does not, you’re more or less doomed before you’ve set out. A failure to discern how strange and accidental this quixotic spectacle really is — blatant and capricious injustice almost totally divorced for any commensurate level of tangible suffering — has resulted in a raft of NCAA critiques that swing and miss, if only in ratiocinative terms. And now Branch too has swung and missed. Brilliantly, and to our benefit.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

September 18, 2011

Pitt and Syracuse realign realignment

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:14 pm

“Realignment,” the steady and inexorable transformation of major-conference memberships in college sports, is the water that we fans have been swimming in for a good long while now. When the millennium began Boston College was still in the Big East where a Jesuit school located in Chestnut Hill self-evidently should be. Conference USA was still considered a “major” basketball conference. And the thought that serious people might discuss scenarios whereby student-athletes fresh from the Stillwater, Oklahoma, airport may soon play conference games next-door to Bel Air would have been ludicrous. This realignment thing has been going on for a while, truly.

But what happened this morning, with the ACC’s announcement that Pitt and Syracuse have officially been invited to join the conference, represents something entirely and qualitatively new and different. Choose your cliche, and it will be correct. The Rubicon really has been crossed. It really is the point of no return. Everything really has changed.

We’re used to programs switching conferences, but Pitt and Syracuse were not fleeing a collapsing league the way every Big 12 refugee program has. (Ironically the Big East may now be in danger of collapsing, or at least retrenching. See below.) Nor did their new conference pursue and accept them for football reasons alone. Syracuse is terrible at football (though they did beat an ACC foe already this season), and while Pitt’s eminently respectable on the gridiron (29-13 since 2008) this is not your standard ACC poaching of a Big East football power a la Miami or Virginia Tech. In other words for the first time since Marquette and DePaul were given their what-the-heck invitations to join the Big East in 2005, a major-conference shift has been made for reasons only tangentially related to, and not solely based upon, football. That’s new.

Yes, as strange as it may sound, a conference shift can help the new league’s basketball. A lot.

NCAA tournament wins, 2000-11

Duke           31
North Carolina 29
Maryland       17
Syracuse       16
Pitt           15
Georgia Tech    7
Boston College  6
Wake Forest     6
NC State        5
Miami           3
Florida St.     2
Clemson         1
Virginia        1
Virginia Tech   1

The Big East is a wonderful basketball conference with a jewel of a postseason tournament, but its continued vitality if not its very existence can now legitimately be questioned. If space aliens landed tomorrow and were told nothing of the wonderful basketball and the postseason tournament, they could be forgiven for thinking the Big East is merely the ACC’s developmental league. Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Syracuse — they all cycled through the Big East, then made the jump to the big show when they got the chance.

There will be much speculation about what this all means in the coming days, and hopefully we’ll soon get a behind-the-scenes account of how precisely this came to be. But at first blush this move appears to reinforce the perception of the Big Ten as being both incredibly content with the status quo and as incredibly stingy with their invitations. Pitt and Syracuse were always the two Big East schools that made a lot of sense as potential candidates for Big Ten expansion. (As much as if not more than Rutgers, which always comes up in these speculations.) The fact that both schools have jumped eagerly into the ACC suggests that they may well have vaulted with equal enthusiasm into the arms of the Big Ten had they only been asked. Meaning Big Ten basketball fans will spend the next few days moping about, staying indoors, and listening to Coldplay. They could have had Syracuse and Pitt. They got Nebraska.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

September 6, 2011

The Age of the NBA

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:17 pm

Friend of this site Tom Ziller has a thought-provoking piece on SBNation.com this morning. In his daily Hook column, Ziller investigates whether the NBA is really “a young league”–at least relative to the past. Ziller offers a variety of interesting measures, but I think my database allows some that emphasize his point.

First, I looked at the league’s average age weighted by WARP–essentially the average age of a win produced. As Ziller points out, this is a slightly more meaningful measure for what we’re pondering than minutes-weighted age. Last year, the WARP-weighted average age of the league was 27.5, which is just a little bit lower than average for the 32 seasons for which WARP is calculated. The league was much younger in the early ’80s, at one point dipping below 27 for WARP-weighted average age. The NBA then got really old in the late ’90s. During the lockout season, the WARP-weighted average age reached an ancient 28.9 before getting back in the 27 range by the middle of the last decade.

What looking at this issue emphasizes is that there are two trends at play. Yes, players are entering the league younger and having success doing so, but they’re also aging better than ever, a topic I considered at length last season. Those two issues work against each other when we look at the average, so it probably makes more sense to look at the distribution of WARP by age. I grouped players into three buckets: those under 25 (the young), those between 25 and 30 (the prime) and those over 30 (the old). Check out a graph of how WARP has been distributed among these three groups over the last three-plus decades:

Chart of NBA Age

The way these buckets are set up should favor the players in their prime and almost always does, most dramatically so in the late ’80s. At the end of the ’90s, however, as a generation of players like Michael Jordan and Karl Malone aged better than we’d ever imagined before, the league suddenly got very old. At this point, there wasn’t a younger generation of stars successfully coming in to replace these veterans. Those young players did not really start taking off until the lockout season. Since then, we’ve yet to see such a dip in terms of young talent, so as that same generation of players comes of age, it’s the prime group that is relatively down. So it is that right now, the NBA is a young league, but simultaneously also an old one.

September 2, 2011

Bucks Exec on Advanced Stats

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:14 pm

On the blog BrewHoop, Alex Boeder has an excellent two-part interview with Milwaukee Bucks assistant general manager Jeff Weltman focusing largely on the role of statistical analysis in the NBA. The Bucks have hired Jon Nichols, one of the brightest young analysts around, and are having him play an increasing role in their player evaluation. Both Part One and Part Two of the Q&A are well worth your team. I was particularly intrigued by Weltman agreeing with friend of BBP Benjamin Golliver about analytics entering the maturity phase of their acceptance by NBA teams (link in the quote).

There was a great quote coming out of last year’s MIT Sloan Conference in Boston, which I think was the fourth or fifth one (editor’s note: 2011 marked the fifth conference), and it’s grown significantly of course. There was a piece written… and the writer was coming to the conclusion at the end of the piece, and basically said: The honeymoon period with the analytics guys is over.

Now this position is commonplace enough where it is not an outsider looking in; it is part of the establishment. And as such, the analytics guys have been right, they have been wrong, they have differed from one another. And they have basically proven, the bloom is off the rose, so to speak.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us, in our minds, here the Bucks, with the conclusion that analytics has a strong part of our evaluation process. Is it the end-all, be-all? No, nothing is.

At the end of the day — and I hate to always use that term but it seems like when you when you are talking about this stuff that it reverts back to that — it’s really you are scouting players, and every decision, no matter how much empirical data you apply, is going to come to some sort of gut level.

Because if you ask the medical guys, they are going to give you a gut level. If you ask the analytics guys, they are going to give you a gut level. There is nothing that can distill it enough to say, empirically, here is the right answer.  So, long way of answering your question, but in a nutshell, we view the analytics as an important part of the process, one of many layers that we try to incorporate. From sight tests, to stats, to medicals, to background work and probably most importantly, to our own scouting evaluations.

In this case, the honeymoon period being over is largely a positive. Teams have realized the limitations of statistical analysis, but also its value, which is why it will continue to have a place in many–possibly even most–NBA front offices.

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