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.

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