Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A look at orange uniforms

Here are four noteworthy orange uniforms from the past.

Charlotte Bobcats, 2004-08 road

These are pretty good uniforms overall, but very good in comparison to other modern-style unis. That reddish shade of orange is attractive and helps the white numbers and lettering stand out. The word mark is interesting, albeit not highly legible, and the number and name fonts are ok. The uniform doesn’t even fall off with the side panels, although they’d be superior without the black and white. Based on the logos and colour scheme for the 2014-15 Charlotte Hornets, plus the franchise’s uniform trajectory, there’s a fair chance that these unis will be better than the ones the Hornets wear next season.

Cleveland Cavaliers, 1983-87 road
The Cavaliers in orange

The Cavaliers have a varied uniform history. These roads mark a time when they let the colour of their uniforms and the Cavs word mark do most of the work, an approach more successful than others from their past. These are particularly plain, though. Perhaps some thicker blue trim would’ve helped. This is one of the issues with an orange uniform. The colour itself can be so bold that there’s not much room for error with other design elements. The current Cleveland roads are plain, too, but they’re helped significantly by striped trim. Something similar could be too much on an orange uni like this.

Golden State Warriors, 2004-10 alternate

This is an orange uni that manages to look bland. The shade of orange is a big offender on that front. The side panels and yellow trim are a hindrance. The word mark is acceptable, but doesn’t elevate the uniform. The current gear worn by the Warriors seems a little off, but in comparison to this orange uni, it looks great. From a colour scheme perspective, the Warriors have significantly improved since the end of last decade.

Phoenix Suns, 2003-13 alternate

There’s a lesson from this uniform, but the Suns’ new uniform set suggests they disregarded it. Messing with the orange and purple colour scheme by adding a significant amount of grey is a bad move. The current Suns gear isn’t sullied by grey, but instead by the equally-draining black. Remove black from the Suns’ purple roads, and ditch the design on the sides of the shorts, and they’ve got a fantastic uniform. Beyond the grey issues, this orange uniform suffers from uninspired side panels and the oval behind the number on the jersey front. There’s some excessive logo and word mark use, too. 

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Art Rondeau on the Psyche of Shooting: Part Two

At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Art Rondeau, a Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and Peak Performance Coach. Art has worked extensively with professional athletes in a number of different realms, and his role is part of what makes his perspective both diverse and unique. Art has compiled a number of works for Hickory High, operates his own blog (Game Time at the Garden of Good and Evil), and has comprehensive list of testimonials listed here. I was fascinated by Art's work and his approach, reached out to him for a few insights on possible misperceptions and issues with the game, and the NBA, and he kindly obliged. You can find more on Art at artrondeau.com, and follow him on Twitter @ArtRondeau. The following is part two of our two part exchange. To access part one, click here.

Angus Crawford: Dwight Howard, one of the league's elite big men, is shooting 54.8% from the charity stripe this season. Despite the ghastly appearance of that figure, it's actually a near six percent uptick from his 2012-13 conversion. Poor free-throw shooting has long plagued Howard's offensive arsenal. It has been reported that Howard frequently and confidently splashes a high percentage of his freebies on the practice court, although such success is yet to translate to any in-game environments. Why might this be, and, if you were working one-on-one with Dwight, how would you approach (and seek to amend) the issue?

Art Rondeau: Regarding why Dwight Howard -- or anyone, really -- might hit many more free throws in practice than in games: much of that has to do with the differences of shooting free throws in practice than in a game. (Clever answer, huh?). In games, players mostly take 1, 2, or 3 free throws at a time. But in practice, we often see a player go to the line and take twenty. And once he hits his first free throw, he is not going to move from his spot. Someone could pull the fire alarm or there could be an earthquake and that player's not going to move. Some bad free throw shooters don't get comfortable on their first free throw but do so on their second. But in practice, taking 20 in a row is like taking one 1st free throw and nineteen 2nd free throws.

In practice, nobody is behind the glass backboard waving foam fingers. The gym's not extremely loud or incredibly quiet. No one is trying to ice the shooter (calling timeout to force him to the sideline), no defensive players are switching sides and making comments, etc.

Game free throws are taken after a player is hit (unless you ask the guys who get called for the fouls -- they never touched him). Hit a muscle hard enough and it will tighten up and affect its ability to extend during the shot. Shooting twenty before or after practice doesn't usually include getting hit first. Also, the major reason that free throws are missed is because of what happens when balance is lost (spoken about in detail in this Hickory-High podcast). Tightened muscles and fatigue affect balance and game free throws are usually shot after a player has been exerting himself. If practice free throws are taken at the beginning of practice -- or at the end after some rest and water -- loss of balance from fatigue is less of or no longer an issue.

All of these things can contribute to higher practice free throw percentage and/or lower game free throw percentage. And this doesn't even get into the emotional differences experienced in the two settings. Players going to the line in practice probably feel much more relaxed than in a game (the exception here being if the team is going to run sprints if the player misses his practice free throws). A player in a game can be happy he's going to the line; angry because he got hit so hard; unfocused because he got into a scuffle after the foul; exasperated because he's been hit the same way the last three times down court but it's only been called this time; nervous because the game is on the line; etc. In a nutshell, different emotions have different corresponding blood chemistries and those differences can affect strength, muscle fluidity, energy, etc. So, emotional differences between practice and games can have a major impact on the player's body and that, of course, would affect his shooting.

As to how I would fix it, there are 3 things I would do first: 1) Get him to take practice free throws like he takes game free throws; 2) Set up an NLP anchor (emotional trigger) so he feels the same way every time he shoots a free throw (think Pavlov's dogs); and 3) Have him do some special exercises to fix the balance problems.

The balance exercises have the biggest impact. Everyone benefits from doing them. The same season that former Knicks center Chris Dudley had his career-best made streak, San Diego State's Matt Watts jumped from his career 50% to lead the WAC at 90% and both of them improved their free throw shooting so much because of the exercises. At the end of the next season ('99-'00), I showed Allan Houston the balance exercises because he was missing a lot of critical free throws at the end of games and others mistakenly thought that he was choking. From the beginning of his career through the end of that season, he shot an excellent 83.7% (1442 of 1723). For the next four seasons after learning the exercises, Allan shot 90.2% (1094 of 1213). During his injury-shortened final season, he dropped to his pre-exercise average of 83.7% (36-43).

There are other things to look at but, before I would do that, I'd see how much the player improved by doing the three things listed above. Often, significant improvements are seen by the next game. It has never taken me more than 10 days to get an elite basketball player (NBA or NCAA) to shoot well from the free throw line.

AC: When we were talking in person at Sloan a couple of weeks ago, you were drawing upon examples from your work to help to adequately portray the value of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. You briefly cited working with former New York Knicks guard Allan Houston, and how your NLP training helped him have his career-best season in many categories. Can you elaborate on this, and/or perhaps offer some of your history of providing Peak Performance Coaching (at any level of basketball) and where you've found tangible results?

AR: My peak performance program is based mostly on NLP (with a few tweaks) and certain other performance technologies. Shooting a basketball is a great way to quantify results but performance improvements can be seen in other areas that can be harder to quantify. For example, if someone believes he's a bad defender, that belief will affect his play and, in certain circumstances, slow him down a fraction of a second. At the NBA level, that fraction of a second can be the difference between making the stop or not. Changing the belief will help him improve his defense. That improvement is harder to quantify since all five players need to play good defense for 24 seconds to get a shot clock violation and if one of his teammates slips up, points will still be scored. Video analysis helps but that's a rear-view determination. Each shot, on the other hand, goes in or it doesn't and, while secondary analysis is very possible (and, lately, very probable) we also know the result of the shot right away.

In part 1 of our interview, I mentioned some details of Allan Houston's outstanding shooting during the '99-'00 season. The results were significant but the "results of the results," even more so. We set a goal to get Allan onto his first NBA All-Star team and, since a majority of the games we worked together were prior to the coaches voting for their All-Star selections, that's a goal that we met. And despite being off the program for over 50 regular-season games that year, his results in his games on the program allowed him to set his career-best FG% and 3Pt%.

What isn't realized is that had we not worked together for one game, Knicks history might be very different. As is mentioned in the NY Post article, Allan and I first worked together late in the lockout-shortened '98-'99 season. He was in an 8-game slump and scoring fewer than 14 points per game. The night after our session, Allan scored 30 points on 10-for-17 (58.8%) shooting and the Knicks beat the Charlotte Hornets by 5 points. Had Allan scored fewer than 25 points, the Knicks would have lost. As it turned out, this win was crucial. All else being equal, losing that game would have meant that the Knicks would have tied Charlotte for the 8th playoff position at the end of the regular season -- but Charlotte would have beaten the Knicks 2-out-of-3 that season and, thus, won the tie-breaker. The Hornets would have gone to the playoffs and the Knicks to the lottery. Instead, the Hornets went to the lottery and the Knicks made their odds-beating march to the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. How many things would be different now had the Knicks gone to the lottery instead?

One more example from that special '98-'99 Knicks season helps illustrate how quickly NLP can work: my first Knicks client that season was Chris Dudley and he had set his career-best made-free throw streak while being on my free throw program. That program is 90% physical and, in fact, I originally developed my NLP-based program to make up the 10% of the free throw program that's mental. All season long, I tried to work with Marcus Camby, as well. Marcus is a great guy and was always friendly towards me and I never convinced him to work with me during the regular season.

During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks lost game 4 to the Pacers by 2 points. Marcus had played a great game but gone just 4-of-8 from the free throw line. After the game, I was waiting outside the Knicks locker room to speak with Chris and Marcus walked up to me and said, "What can you do to help me?" He was in a suit with his gym bag over his shoulder, and I asked him how much time we had. He said they were leaving in 10 minutes to go to the airport to fly to Indianapolis.

In the middle of the crowd and without a ball, I showed him the basic exercise that Chris also did during his career-best streak. Marcus did the exercise fine and I knew I could ask Chris to do the exercise with him on the road. But Marcus had shot just 57% from the free throw line all season and was shooting 57% from the line in the playoffs, too. I knew I needed to change his belief about his ability to make free throws; I knew that I couldn't change it too much or his brain would reject the new belief (trying to convince him he was a 90% free throw wouldn't have worked); and I knew I had to do it on the fly. So, when Marcus was distracted by his agent calling over to him, I used a quick technique to plant the suggestion that Marcus was a 70% free throw shooter. Then we shook hands and I wished him well in Game 5. The result? Marcus shot 69% from the free throw line for the rest of the playoffs and the entire next season. We only worked together that one time but I've been fortunate to learn some powerful tools, and they came in handy.

AC: Where do you see the future of research into NLP and the psychological side of shooting to be headed? Is it a well of information that is yet to be properly tapped, in your eyes? Much time and advanced analysis has been devoted to matters such as spacing, positioning, contested/uncontested shots, and per-minute data, for example, but is there any part (of shooting) left over where we still have more to discover?

AR: This is a great question. As advanced as we are, we are only beginning to tap into the possibilities of humans to perform at higher levels and most of the research has been into improving size, strength, and endurance. As important as those are, without the ability to perform his or her best when it matters, someone who could be the best at something might never achieve those heights. Earlier, you asked about higher free throw percentage in practice than in games and, although I pointed to a lot of physical reasons for that, for some players that would be strictly a mental issue (a limiting belief or not accessing the right emotional states during the game). That would be an easy fix for me but I'm one person and need to market my services better. Ideally, I'd train people to work with all 30 NBA teams. You're still going to have a winner and a loser in any game but imagine if both teams shot 50% or better, no matter which game you watched? If you're interested in basketball, that's more fun. If you're interested in marketing, teams with losing records who are playing well have often sold out games and sold more merchandise than teams who are losing and losing badly.

The increase of advanced analytics and video tracking have the potential for backlash, and mental performance programs are the way to counteract it. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, in effect, states that when you measure something, you change what you're measuring. If you put a thermometer in a glass of water, you don't get the temperature of the water, you get the temperature of the water after the temperature of the thermometer has changed it. Advanced analytics and video tracking are "measuring," and there can be a corresponding change in performance. Media coverage is "measuring," as well. One of my clients was leading the Big East in 3PT% for six weeks and was then interviewed in detail about why he was shooting so well. The result? He immediately went into a six-week slump (as they said during his great shooting streak, he was "unconscious." Asking him questions made him conscious about his shot.)

What's going to happen when some reporter or coach looks at advanced analytics and tells the player "you can't make shots from the left sideline"? The player thought he was just having some temporary trouble but he may now believe he actually can't make the shot. That would need to be fixed and mental changes like that aren't ordinarily going to come from watching game film. Teams need someone with my skills as much as they need someone who is great with analytics. Analytics show patterns, they don't show why the pattern exists and they don't tell you how to change the pattern. We're really just scratching the surface in both advanced analytics and mental performance. But a team utilizing my program and a stats guru would have a powerful advantage over their opponents.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Art Rondeau on the Psyche of Shooting: Part One

At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Art Rondeau, a Trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and Peak Performance Coach. Art has worked extensively with professional athletes in a number of different realms, and his role is part of what makes his perspective both diverse and unique. Art has compiled a number of works for Hickory High, operates his own blog (Game Time at the Garden of Good and Evil), and has comprehensive list of testimonials listed here. I was fascinated by Art's work and his approach, reached out to him for a few insights on possible misperceptions and issues with the game, and the NBA, and he kindly obliged. You can find more on Art at artrondeau.com, and follow him on Twitter @ArtRondeau. The following is part one of our two part exchange.

Angus Crawford: Recently, you put together a guest post for Hickory High discussing the standard practices of free-throw shooting, and how certain aspects of it add unnecessary length to a game's duration, and clog the overall flow. Aesthetically, how much of a concern do you think the time it takes the average fan to watch/follow an individual game is for the NBA? Which elementary components of the game might need remodelling in order to better serve the league (and its product) as a whole?

Art Rondeau: There are parts of many games that are brutal to watch (“Hack-a-Shaq” and the numerous timeouts late in the 4th quarter to name two). Eliminating or improving these situations (and I'm working on articles suggesting fixes to both of them) would help a lot. When new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was interviewed at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he mentioned that studies show that the average time fans watch games on television has dropped from 50 minutes to 30 minutes. So, in addition to some over-the-top complaining by some NBA analysts who seem like they'd like the NBA to play a five game season and just 20 minutes per game, there is evidence that people are watching less for some reason(s). I think it's in everyone's best interest to find ways to make the game more watchable but to do so in ways that don't change the game too much. Dramatic changes probably aren't going to happen and if enough simple changes were made, dramatic changes would not even be necessary.

The guest post that you referred to suggests not allowing defenders to line up for free throws until the last one is ready to be taken (since it doesn't matter who rebounds a missed first free throw when the shooter's at the line for two). That would save between 30 seconds and a minute for each free throw, saving 10-20 minutes per game. The other suggestion was to wait to shoot technical free throws awarded during the first 3 quarters of games and shoot them right before the 4th quarter. In some games, there'd be no saving at all. In others, that might save 5-10 minutes. Eliminating “Hack-a-Shaq” would save twenty minutes in some instances and save no time in most. Changing how timeouts are handled late in the game would save time and make the games more exciting. Another area for improvement is inbounds plays; saving five minutes here and ten minutes there would benefit all concerned.

What must be avoided is changing the game so much that you can't compare players from different eras. There has been an idea floated to eliminate free throws all together (I'll pause here for "Airplane" fans to all say "eliminate free throws") and I've written an article to show why that would be a bad idea based on historical comparisons. One idea that has been floated is to cut the game from 48 minutes to 40 minutes. But if you reduce the game by almost 17%, you ensure that no one coming into the league will ever break onto the top ten all-time scoring list. As I mentioned in my "saving time" post, if you think player introductions take too long, the answer isn't having the teams play 2 on 2.

AC: One of the heavily-discussed research paper presentations at Sloan covered the idea of the "Hot Hand," and its validity. What have your studies and your work produced on the subject of the psychology behind players netting consecutive shots? Where do you stand on the so-called "Hot Hand" mindset?

AR: Contrary to most of the research, the Sloan paper suggests that a Hot Hand exists. I'm on board with that. In trying to disprove that the Hot Hand exists over the years, there are a number of flaws that were made in the studies due to lack of knowledge at the time of the study and some due to other errors. Without spending too much time on the flaws, it's important to list a few of them because shaking some of the belief in the "No Hot Hand Exists" studies is important in proving that the Hot Hand does actually exist. In what is probably the most well known study, Gilovich, Tversky, and Vallone looked at a year's worth of shooting data from the Philadelphia 76ers to determine if there was evidence that anything but random series of made shots existed. They also defined the Hot Hand as the likelihood that a player's next shot has a greater chance of going in if he hit his prior shot. They used free throws in the study and, as you see above, there are too many issues causing players to miss free throws to use them to prove or disprove anything like this. Finally, for here, they discount players' beliefs in Hot Hands.

All of this causes problems. It's very possible for a player to have a Hot Hand (what I'll define here as an out-of-the-ordinary game shooting well above his average for reasons other than blind chance) without hitting a lot of consecutive shots. If X is a make and O is a miss, we could see a normally 40% shooter have a game where he shoots X-X-O-X-O-X-X-O-X-X (70%) while only hitting consecutive shots 3 times. If he shoots something similar 3 games in a row (maybe missing his first shot in the 2nd game to break up the Xs), would we say he didn't have a Hot Hand because he didn't have many consecutive makes? Some would but I think most people would realise that something special was going on. A Hot Hand doesn't mean perfection, but holding it up as perfection helps when trying to prove that it doesn't exist.

Defining making a shot or missing a shot as a random act like flipping a fair coin is not accurate. Coins don't get tired. The defense doesn't double-team coins after a couple of heads in a row, making it harder for the coin to come up heads a 3rd time. The coach can order the player to shoot on a given play - whether the shooter wants to shoot or not. The coin doesn't care.

In looking back at the 76ers' data or at our example of X-X-O-X-O-X-X-O-X-X, why were the shots missed? How many times did the shooter miss a shot that he only took because the shot clock was about to expire and he chucked it up just to give his team a chance at the rebound? How many times did he take a shot that would have gone in but it got blocked (something that goes into the box score as a miss)? How many times did the player take a shot he knew probably wouldn't go in because he'd been fouled and wanted that foul to be in the act of shooting so he could go to the free throw line? We don't know and neither did the people who examined the 76ers' data. None of those three examples of why a player might miss is proof that the player didn't have a Hot Hand at the time that he missed the shot. They're only proof that the player missed. Without knowing why he missed, we can't legitimately disprove the Hot Hand.

Discounting beliefs is a mistake because a person's belief in his/her ability to achieve an outcome can have a significant impact on what the person actually achieves. Almost invariably, when I work with an elite athlete, one of the things that we'll do is to identify any negative beliefs about their ability to win and replace them with positive beliefs. There are studies that are helping to quantify the power of beliefs -- for example, identifying changes in blood chemistry when a belief changes -- but in my own work I have many examples of negative beliefs being the cause of an athlete's poor performance and installing a positive belief being part of the program that breaks the athlete out of a slump and/or helps him/her to excel during the next game.

In working with basketball players, I'm able to provide better examples of a relationship between the athlete doing a customised series of mental exercises and a superior shooting performance. In a very small sample, former Providence College player Maris Laksa shot 50% and, in the next game, 62.5% in his 2 games on my program after having been in a 6-week slump. In a larger sample, during the 1999-2000 NBA regular season, New York Knicks shooting guard Allan Houston shot 60% or better in just 5 of 52 games when he was off my program and shot 60% or better in 15 of 30 games when he was on it. Allan shot 50% or better in just 10 of 52 games when he was off my program and shot 50% or better in 27 of 30 games when he was on it. When an NBA player who is considered an excellent shooter can only shoot 50% or better in one out of every five games on his own but manages to shoot 50% or better in 9 of every 10 games after doing customised mental exercises, I think there's enough proof that how well a player shoots isn't random. More data is needed, but I'm off to a good start.

You can follow up on Art's work with Allan Houston here (inc. detailed statistics), and read this New York Post feature on Art teaming up with the former Knicks shooting guard.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Bringing back original Raptors uniform a welcome move

The Raptors' original road uniform
The Toronto Raptors’ decision to wear their inaugural purple uniforms for “select” home games in 2014-15 seems a good one. It’s logical that a team celebrating its 20th season would wear a uniform from its past for a few games. And in this case, that uni is very good.

It is certainly busy, but it’s busy with good-to-fantastic elements. There’s the raptor on the jersey, the jagged pinstripes in two different shades, the spiked nameplate, the funky word mark, different logos on each side of the shorts, the scoop collar and coloured waistband with striping, and the colours.  

All of those are positives that combine for a distinctive uniform, but that many positives are also slightly overwhelming. Only slightly, though; the good still outweighs the bad.

The Raptors will also be wearing a 20th season patch on their regular home uniforms in 2014-15. The patch will be a variation of the team’s 20th season logo, which means that it could look pretty nice.

Despite the patch’s aesthetic potential and that patches are pretty common, this move seems too unnecessary to be worthwhile. Marking your 20th season isn't enough justification for essentially altering your home uniform for the length of that season. Still, that’s only a mild issue.

Wearing that purple uniform could be a way for the Raptors to determine if purple should be used in the team’s rebrand for 2015-16. They did choose to wear the purple uniform for next season, not the white one, even though they’ll be wearing them at home games.  

If that is the case and the consensus is that fans like the old uniforms, it’d be interesting to know how much those purple uniforms will influence the rebrand. Is reverting to those uniforms with minimal tweaking an option? Or will just one or two elements be revived? There are plenty to choose from, but it could be tough to pick out just a few when the complete combo is what makes those unis so distinctive.

Of course, the 20th season celebrations and the 2015-16 rebrand could be entirely separate.

What’s more certain is that the Raptors will look sharp when wearing purple next season, however many times that is.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Considering Mr. Wittman's Wonderful Wizards Emporium

Earlier in the season, I approached Conor D. Dirks of ESPN's TrueHoop Network Wizards blog Truth About It. I was seeking Conor's timely two-cents on the state of the Washington basketball union, and he more than appropriately addressed the subject. You can find our January exchange here, for greater context. Recently, I once again found myself in search of Conor's well of Wizards wisdom, left befuddled by the team's persisting, steady successes. He more than kindly answered the call, compiling a comprehensive catalogue of astute analysis and "savvy" suggestions. The following is the product of our virtual to-ing and fro-ing, listed in no particular order:

Angus Crawford: Nene went down with a sprained MCL during Washington's February 24 win over Cleveland. Prior to this specific injury, the Wizards had gone 8-34 in games played without the Brazilian pivot in the lineup. Since this injury, however, the team is sitting neatly at 4-1 -- including a gritty triple-overtime win in Toronto last Thursday. In sum: what the hell is going on?

Conor D. Dirks: Good times. Good times. Or bad teams. Wins against Orlando, Philadelphia, and Utah are better than losses against Orlando, Philadelphia, and Utah, but this is a better team than the one that existed during previous periods of absence from the Brazilian, and the Wizards were strong favorites to win those games even without the numinous experience of Nene's tremendum. The Wizards of years past aren't worth mentioning (barely ever), but earlier this season, when Nene missed a few games, the Wizards were also dealing with an injury to Martell Webster, an injury to Trevor Ariza, an injury to Chris Singleton, and a limited Marcin Gortat, who had only just joined the team after the trade from Phoenix.

There is no silver lining when your second-most important player goes down for six weeks with an injury, but the Wizards are fortunate in that they have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. An easy schedule by no means guarantees success, though, and my "sources" say the Wizards still have to go out and win those games/these are all NBA players/guys have pride/you have to respect your opponent/Jupiter's moon Europa has a sizable core which some believe to measure around one-third of its radii, etc.

Wins against actual, non-tanking teams like Toronto come from a confluence of events which usually includes two of the following three items: 1) All-Star level play from John Wall; 2) good 3-point shooting from Beal, Webster, and Ariza; 3) Heavy pick and roll action from Marcin Gortat. The Toronto win featured ample amounts of #1 and #3, with a very notable absence from #2. The Wizards shoot almost 10% better behind the arc in wins than they do in losses both as a team, and by each individual shooter.

AC: After the team suffered the blow of Nene's prolonged absence, it was announced that they had signed former NBA journeyman and lottery pick Drew Gooden. Yes, that Drew Gooden. Did this actually happen, or did society as a whole enter the Twilight Zone? Can you confirm for us that Drew Gooden does indeed still exist as a person, and as a basket-shooting man?

CDD: Drew Gooden, good gracious. So far, the commentary from play-by-play great Steve Buckhantz has been more about the did-you-know-oh-you-didn't-but-you-still-don't-care trivia factoid that Drew Gooden totally has an apartment in Bethesda, Maryland than any basketball-related reasons Washington fans might have to invest in Drew Gooden, Wizard.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not disputing the fact that Bethesda is on the red line of the DC Metro system, or that it's practically a part of the District. Bethesda is legitimate! Be proud, Bethesdans! But really, that's the best we can do? What's that you say? He only really has the apartment because his girlfriend owns a business in Bethesda? Awesome. It's probably too much to ask Comcast SportsNet to ask the hard-hitting (and wildly inappropriate) questions regarding whether this apartment ownership/rental is part of a more traditionally furtive (and traditionally D.C.) arrangement.

But I'm not sure we can blame Steve Buckhantz. Drew Gooden isn't compelling. He did surpass Otto Porter's career high in last night's game against the Jazz though! And looked good doing it.

He also famously tried to negotiate a buyout after being traded to the Wizards on February 13, 2010, failed to reach an agreement on said buyout, reluctantly showed up at the Verizon Center to report to Coach Flip Saunders at a shootaround (even after promising Saunders he had no intention of playing for a rebuilding team), and then found out while he was there that he'd been flipped to the Los Angeles Clippers in the same trade that packaged Antawn Jamison to the Cavaliers. The hilarious part about this story is that Gooden asked Antawn for a ride to the hotel in Jamison's Bentley, and then got caught by a flood of reporters in the parking lot who were desperate to speak with a semi-beloved, departing Jamison. So there's Drew fucking Gooden, awkwardly hanging back behind Jamison while the quote-getters swarm, suddenly cognizant that he had been traded to an actual team with actual reporters, but not feeling sheepish enough to bail and just find a taxi.

That's probably enough on Drew Gooden. Improbably, Kyle Weidie, John Converse Townsend, Adam McGinnis and I recounted some of the other Twilight Zone-esque connections Gooden has to the Wizards (there are more!) and talked about his spirit animal. Reader beware: there are mentions of astral projection and colugo.

AC: All season long, a glance down at Randy Wittman's quote sheet has meant trifling through a tireless tirade of anti-advanced metrics qualms. Wittman is developing an identity of infamy in the basketball community for his undying opposition to analytics. On the other hand, from the outside looking in, your man "Skinny Ted" Leonsis appears to be quite progressive and open-minded on that front. Surely this kind of hierarchical disconnect is counterproductive, no? What might be done for the organization to adequately address to opposing outlooks on the value of stats-based decision-making?

CDD: Randy, I feel so small when you're mean to me! Along with my colleagues at TAI, I've tracked the application of Wittman's vapid "take what the defense gives you" maxim for good offense over the course of the season. Washington has a stat geek's wet dream in terms of personnel (the Wizards are among the top teams in 3-point percentage and field goal percentage at the rim), but irresponsibly lead the NBA in mid-range jump shots while hitting them at an 8th-worst clip. They also have a coach who, when asked about finding good, non-midrange shots by Kyle Weidie, said this (after a pregnant, nerve-wracking pause):
“So you’re saying that a 15-foot open look is not good?
“You take open shots. You take open shots. Where they are is dictated by what the defense does. If you predicate what kind of shot you’re going to take not based on what you’re doing reading the defense, you’re not going to get good shots. I just worry about goods shots.
“You know what? Those numbers you can stick… Alright? You know, all you analytical people that take that… You take good shots, that’s the most important thing. Maybe we’re not taking good midrange shots, maybe we’re taking contested ones. I understand the numbers are there for a reason, we look at the numbers, but to sit there and… We got a good, open shot we’re taking, I don’t care where it is.”
So, yeah, Gus, you can stick those numbers...well, we'll never know. Suffice it to say, Wittman's Wizards are in a unilateral, unrequited love affair with the mid-range jumper that rivals my affinity for Britney Spears in 1999 in terms of hopelessness.

And it might turn out to be the reason that Ted Leonsis (who penned an advanced stat dump after the loss to Memphis) goes with another head coaching candidate this offseason, when the contracts of both Wittman and team president Ernie Grunfeld expire. But I do believe it's important to temper expectations regarding how fully a coach will embrace and implement stats-based decision making. There's a balance. Players aren't normally all that interested in hearing reams of data. Rather, as John Converse Townsend noted, it's about providing the correct clues. Wittman's churlishness regarding numbers doesn't inspire confidence that he is interested in nudging his players in a direction that takes any amount of the voluminous information regarding mid-range jump shots under consideration. In the meantime, the Wizards will probably be less relevant than they could be otherwise.

AC: Eric Maynor's mystical journey through the 2014 NBA season as an offensively repugnant reserve point guard has taken its talents elsewhere since being dispatched at the deadline. Melon-balling Maynor's putrid play from the rotation "helped" [Wizards GM] Ernie and the boys attain the academic and locker room services of the super savvy Prof. Andre Miller. (Aside: With Miller, Nene, & good ol' Uncle Al Harrington, the 'Zards are doing their best to re-assemble the 2011 Denver Nuggets) On a scale of Fabricio Oberto to Nick Young, how many sads did it cause you to say goodbye to #MaynorTime?

CDD: When Eric Maynor was still the presumptive backup for John Wall in November and early December 2013, the opening tip of each game was naught else but the flip of an hourglass, the first step of an inevitable death march which culminated in perfunctory minutes for Eric Maynor. Those minutes were the worst minutes. Fabricio Oberto is too many sads. JaVale McGee, who was a joy to watch leave at a previous trade deadline, is too many sads. The departure of Eric Maynor inspires nothing but relief. The trade that sent him to Philadelphia, on the other hand, is simply another example of team president Ernie Grunfeld's inimitable knack for cleaning up after himself at the expense of hard-to-conceptualize, but very real, potential future assets. It should not be so easily forgotten that Eric Maynor was signed mere hours into the 2013 summer free agency period. Grunfeld was that sure.

AC: For the good of society, please summarise Jan Vesely aka the Air Wolf's tenure in Washington D.C. in one chronically-outdated 1990s song.

CDD: When Jan Vesely was drafted in 2011, the Wizards desperately needed a running mate for John Wall to make the team exciting to watch and play into Wall's (at that time) speed-based game. It became rapidly apparent that Vesely wasn't that somebody yet. For years, Washington wondered, Washington watched (like a hawk, even)...and finally Washington decided that Airwolf, inescapably likable as he is, would never become that somebody. Aaliyah provides the soundtrack.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Memoirs of a Sloan: Reflecting on My Improbable Journey to SSAC 2014

This past weekend, I traveled to Boston for the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The conference was held over two days -- Friday & Saturday -- and the following is an assortment of anecdotes, ideas, and tidbits from my first time attending the event.

Seventeen thousand kilometres. That's an approximate measurement of the distance between my city of origin (Melbourne, Australia) and downtown Boston, Massachusetts. Thankfully, for the time being at least, I didn't directly make that arduous trek. Flying in from Toronto makes the task all the more achievable, and realistic -- even with yours truly's border-hopping, foreign, alien identity. Nevertheless, the realities of the fundamental, start-to-finish voyage that transpired factors heavily into why my very appearance at the conference was an altogether unexpected and unlikely one.

The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) has ballooned in both stature and recognition since its 2007 inception, so much so that murmurings prior to the event were flooded with scepticism as to its present-day purpose and worth. Paul Flannery delivered an interesting commentary on the growth and manoeuvring of the conference for Boston Magazine, only a few days ahead of the commencement of the 2014 incarnation. Flannery, intriguingly for those with little Sloan experience, noted that the techniques and flow of information may have been altered ever so slightly:
To find any real insights, you have to sift through the handful of academic papers that are presented each year outside of the main hall—either that, or buttonhole a few stat-heads and try to pry out their secrets over a few drinks. All of which makes you wonder: Has Sloan outlived its usefulness? Has it grown too large to fulfill its initial mission as an academic conference?
The underlying "it was only legitimate when it was underground," sentiment is enough to give pause to any potential attendee. I guess the more important question becomes: if you are attending, what is the primary purpose of being there? Sloan is a fairly idiosyncratic paradigm; a meeting of the minds, a chance for individuals to pitch their value and their ideas, and an odd setting where familiar faces and relative celebrities casually adorn the hallways. The overwhelming concern is, has the freshly corporatised environment and proprietary nature of the information lessened the intellectual currency of the conference?

In this case, the beauty (of the accessible knowledge) is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder. As enlightening as it may be to absorb the dulcet tones of Phil Jackson for forty-five minutes on stage, or serve as a sounding board for Stan Van Gundy's stereotypically raw, profane outlook on advanced metrics, it can be even more productive to liaise with the "lower-profile" types lingering in the analytics-driven atmosphere. There's a jovial, jocular undercurrent at the joint where many a "nerdgasm" takes place. Whether jawing over the decision to include a linear kernel in a research method, searching for positional distinctions beneath the "Hot Hand" theory, or simply relishing in the magnificence of the abundant oatmeal-raisin cookies on offer, SSAC (still) presents ample opportunity for engaging conversation.

An important takeaway from Sloan, and for any such gathering of likeminded folk, is that often the people you unexpectedly encounter and get to know are just as illuminating and diverse as those who you had previously hoped to meet, and those who may be featured and/or posted as "attractions." For example, I stumbled across a middle-aged man -- who had traveled from San Diego -- who for one reason or another caught my attention, and I found myself captivated by the dialogue. Here I was actively seeking a discussion, at length, on a subject matter (the appropriate number of innings for the average pitcher in an MLB season) that was far beyond the realm of my own individual interest, albeit with a complete stranger. These forms of informal, organic interactions function as the added bit of unpredictability, and the cherry-on-the-icing-on-the-sundae of the experience as an entity.

Personally, little could deter me from immersing myself in the company of the lively basketball writing community. The palpable presence of the TrueHoop Network hovered over the clustered media room at the end of the convention centre's expansive foyer. So many characters, and such scarce time. There's a fervent sense of fraternity amongst those in the THN, even despite the predisposed condition that the Network in and of itself is a collection of bloggers and thinkers of varying experiences, ages, and identities. This heterogeneity of thought and personality was not exclusive to the TrueHoop clan, either. Whether it be Jim Cavan and Robert Silverman of Knickerblogger, Tom Sunnergren of Hoop76, Ian Levy and Andrew Lynch of Hardwood Paroxysm, Taylor Armosino of The Knicks Wall, Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal, Neurolinguistic Programming Trainer and Peak Performance Coach Art Rondeau, or any number of the other informative, accommodating writers in attendance, Sloan conjured a setting for all and sundry to rendezvous and float ideas and opinions.

The caveat of serenely nattering away with assorted media members was a refreshing juxtaposition for the more prototypical practice of witnessing Sloan's panel deliberations. The utter eccentricity of author Malcolm Gladwell acted as a highlight of the innovation and intellectual conversation that is regularly threaded throughout Sloan's stages. Gladwell appeared opposite fellow author David Epstein in the "10,000 hours vs. The Sports Gene" forum, and later steered a one-on-one interview with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. His trademark quirkiness and vehement, hound-like interviewing technique fostered an environment rich with entertainment, to be sure. Gladwell's re-introduction of the 10,000 hours theory within his book, Outliers, stood as relatively groundbreaking material, and prima facie. This was a fitting foundation for the lighthearted exchange that he and Epstein eventually enjoyed.

There is so much to be extracted from the well that Sloan is, so it's difficult to summarise it all in a concise fashion. Here are a handful of bits and pieces that stuck in my mind even days after returning from Boston. As unlikely as my trip to the conference may have been, it'll be interesting to see if I'm writing a similar recap of the events in twelve months' time.

  • Predictably, Zach Lowe moderating the Basketball Analytics panel and directing traffic on matters such as PEDs, tanking, SportVU player tracking data, injuries, minutes restrictions, the draft lottery, and parity within the league, delivered on its promise. Not to be lost among the shrubbery of the stage littered with current and former league executives such as Steve Kerr and Mike Zarren was the sheer candidness of Stan Van Gundy, and Bryan Colangelo. While Van Gundy panned the perceived philosophy of the Philadelphia 76ers' front office by labelling their operations as "disgraceful," -- with the team's General Manager Sam Hinkie in the audience, mind you -- Colangelo submitted a startling concession of his fading years as an executive in Toronto. 
  • The "In-Game Innovations" panel attributed the conference with the surprise wrinkle that esteemed baseball writer and statistician Bill James would be in attendance. ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz expertly massaged the crew that included former NBA head coach George Karl, Pulaski Academy football coach Kevin Kelley, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, and the aforementioned James. Of note within this dialogue were the ideas of unpredictability and pace of play, with Karl asserting that his preference for a helter-skelter offense had never really waned -- despite the perception that it has failed in the postseason. Save for his bitter disposition toward the public's interpretation of him as a coach, Karl discussed managing lineups and having unconventional rotations and, in doing so, referred to how he was left to handle a competitive point guard dual with Denver in 2011. Perhaps the other most interesting anecdote from this early-morning discourse was Morey's assertion that -- under Jeff Van Gundy -- the Rockets' studies showed that they often found success scoring the ball in broken plays.
  • In a not-entirely-bewildering turn of events, the "Building a Dynasty" discussion felt more like a sponsored nostalgia session than anything else. Not that the panel was absent of insight, but the laudatory way in which both Jonathan Kraft and Phil Jackson are (rightfully so) perennially treated slightly masked the substance and depth of conversation. Notwithstanding this, Phil Jackson's not-so-subtle jab at his former employer (the Los Angeles Lakers) in response to a Jackie Macmullan question (on which present-day player may be best suited for his patented triangle offense) was characteristically zany: "How about [Dwight] Howard?"
  • Following along with the theme of the rest of the weekend, the unforeseen aspects were almost universally the most enjoyable. Add having 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie tardily slink into a presentation room, take a seat next to yours truly, and welcome some friendly banter between one another to that very list. This (intermittent) conversation was not expected, and yet it proved to be a treasured takeaway from the whirlwind weekend. 
  • I have long-admired the work of the aforementioned Ian Levy, creator of Hickory High. As such, the opportunity to meet and greet with Ian in person was one that could not be missed. I'm not quite sure how he juggles everything at his feet in the way that he does, suffice to say that it impresses me. Ian's writing and contributions are innovative, well-researched, and often transcendent, while Hickory High as a whole carries a near-unmatched degree of respect within basketball circles. If you were not previously a reader of Ian's site, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  • In an activity that left me questioning my own elementary level of intellect (see: "Automatically Recognizing On-Ball Screens"), listening to a scattered mixture of the conference's research paper presentations -- yet again -- handed a point of difference. The work of Rajiv Maheswaran and Second Spectrum, Inc., however, left me simultaneously blown away and fascinated. The segregation of the practice of rebounding within the "Three Dimensions of Rebounding" paper (into positioning, hustle, and conversion) created a framework from which ample knowledge could be extrapolated -- even for a layperson. The success of this paper and the regard with which it was held in by those at the conference is not altogether alarming. 
    Information courtesy of Rajiv Maheswaran, Yu-Han Chang, Jeff Su, Sheldon Kwok, Tal Levy, Adam Wexler, Noel Hollingsworth, and Second Spectrum Inc.