BOSTON — The seventh annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is being held Friday and Saturday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
The conference brings together folks from several different sports and continues to grow every year. This year’s panelists and speakers include R.C. Buford, Mark Cuban, Michael Lewis, Adam Silver, Nate Silver and Stan Van Gundy.
Co-chaired by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the Sloan Conference has a huge NBA presence. This year, 29 of the 30 teams (the Los Angeles Lakers being the only exception) were in attendance.
Like the conference, the role of analytics in the NBA continues to grow. And when owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien took over the Grizzlies in the fall, they knew they needed an analytical mind to help them make their basketball decisions.
They turned to ESPN writer John Hollinger, naming him vice president of basketball operations in early December.
Hollinger was thrown right into the fire, as the team looked to restructure it’s payroll and regain some flexibility under the parameters of the new collective bargaining agreement. In late January, the Grizzlies made two trades involving three other teams and nine total players. At the trade deadline, they made one more minor deal.
Most notably, the Grizzlies traded leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto, breaking up a starting lineup that had enjoyed a decent amount of success over the last few seasons. They replaced Gay with Tayshaun Prince and also added Ed Davis to a bench that had taken a hit when they traded three players (and a first round pick) to Cleveland for Jon Leuer.
The Grizzlies are 9-4 since the Gay trade and had won eight straight games before falling in Miami on Friday. They continue to be an excellent defensive team, but are still looking for some answers offensively.
NBA.com exchanged e-mails with Hollinger this week to discuss his new job and how the Grizzlies are moving forward…
NBA.com: How does your approach to analytics as a team executive differ from your approach as a writer?
John Hollinger: The biggest change is that I’m looking at everything through this more narrow lens of “how does this impact the Memphis Grizzlies?” That means I’m probably looking at certain players much more closely and all but ignoring some national stories that I’d be discussing nearly every day in my former gig (like one that rhymes with “Spakers,” for instance), and it means I’m paying a lot more attention to non-NBA stuff (college, Europe, etc.) because that’s the pipeline for incoming players. As a writer I had the luxury of waiting until those guys got to the league if I so chose.
NBA.com: How has your team changed with the trades you made?
Hollinger: Well, hopefully we’re better. More seriously, I think we’ve diversified our offense a little, not just in terms of Tayshaun’s versatility, but also with adding guys like Austin and Ed that come off the bench and give you a major boost.
Rudy was a very good player but Tayshaun’s ability to pass and hit catch-and-shoot jumpers hopefully replaces some of the athleticism and shot-creating ability we gave up in this deal. Defensively we probably get even better, because we still have that 6-9 small forward who can guard, but now we also have an athletic big who plays above the rim in Ed, which is something we really didn’t have before.
And finally, we’re pretty deep in the front line now, because we also have bigs like Jon Leuer and Dexter Pittman waiting in the wings from our other deals.
NBA.com: I think we all understand the basic reasoning for the Rudy Gay trade and that you have more flexibility going forward. But can you explain the reasoning behind the Cleveland trade in the context of the trade that followed?
Hollinger: One thing I think a lot of people don’t understand is that we still were facing a potential luxury tax hit even with the Rudy trade we made, because of certain incentive deals in our player contracts. So even though all those little charts on the Web had us $4 million and change into the tax, in reality our potential liability was about $6 million. Because of that, it was inevitable that another deal also had to be made in addition to a Rudy deal.
Also, there was a fairly important chess element to this — we were able to improve our leverage in the second deal by being under the tax, because beforehand people were demanding a premium for all the money they’d be saving us. The basketball offers for Rudy got better once we’d done this.
As for the particular deal we chose, it was clear given the frontcourt depth we had that moving off that [Marreese] Speights deal for both this year and next was the way to achieve the greatest savings at the least basketball cost. I suppose it’s possible he opts out of his deal now that he’s in Cleveland and getting minutes and playing well, but if he had stayed here and been our fifth big I’d say those odds were pretty minimal.
And going forward, if we’d had him on our books it would have been almost impossible to keep Tony Allen and stay under the tax. Obviously this isn’t the kind of move you’d prefer to make, but we came into a situation where our hands were really tied financially, and now we have options again.
While I have the floor, I’ll also point out two other things: First, that the Speights trade exception was parlayed into an even larger exception in the Rudy deal, because we took Daye into it, so we now have a $7.5 million chip that could prove valuable in the offseason. And second, that our breathing room allowed us to take in Dexter Pittman and a second-round pick at the trade deadline.
NBA.com: How much interaction have you had with players and coaches about numbers that can make you a better team? Does Tayshaun Prince understand the value of a mid-range shot vs. a three?
Hollinger: This is where coming in partway through a season probably limited what we could accomplish somewhat. We’ve had some discussions about it, but we’ll probably be able to have a lot more impact once we’ve had a full offseason together. And obviously time is a factor here two, just in terms of getting to know each other and develop a trust and rapport.
As for Tayshaun, you’re right that it’s probably not ideal to have just 11 percent of his shots come from beyond the arc, given that he shoots it fairly well from out there. We’ve talked about it some internally and with the coaches, but this is another example of an area where we’d be more likely to have an impact in the offseason.
NBA.com: Where are NBA analytics most valuable? (Coaching strategies, lineup combinations, evaluating your own personnel, opponent personnel, draft, etc.)
Hollinger: I think the greatest value is still in personnel, and especially in the personnel that you don’t see everyday. The whole thing about numbers and analytics is that they summarize all the games you can’t see, which is great because you can’t possibly watch every team play every game.
With the Grizzlies obviously analytics helps too, but because we’re seeing all the games there’s a lot of times where we already know the answers and the data just confirms it — not all the time, but a lot. As you might expect, the analytics are probably most valuable at the NBA level, because there is a lot less to translate than there is when players are jumping from college, Europe or the D-League.
That said, the answer to this question may be in flux, especially as the use of video explodes. I wouldn’t be shocked if in five years the answer to this question is “coaching.” And I’ll also contradict myself by saying that the translation of going from lower levels to the pros, while harder, also potentially offers more advantages for those who can break the code.