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The Extra Pass: Recapping the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Mar 3, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT

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The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was held in Boston this past weekend, the eighth in an annual series intended to bring the sports world and the advanced statistics community together to discuss common areas where the two fields can share and benefit from an increasingly abundant amount of raw data that measures athletes performing at the highest levels.

There were plenty of panel discussions and research presentations attended, so here’s a summary of the highlights of what went down over the two-day experience.

– Tanking and the draft that seems to incentivize it were ongoing topics at the conference, and on the basketball analytics panel Friday, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo admitted to trying to tank for a high draft pick a couple of seasons ago. However, he wasn’t exactly able to achieve his desired result.

– One of the more interesting and honest discussions came on a negotiation panel that featured a professor from the Harvard Business School moderating a talk between Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Warriors GM Bob Myers. The two NBA men were very open in discussing their personal shortcomings where negotiations are concerned, and Morey and Myers shared some unique inside information on how the Dwight Howard free agent frenzy last summer affected each of their respective franchises. (Hint: It caused Morey to actually call up Mark Cuban to try to trade for Dirk Nowitzki.)

– The most interesting research paper presented from a basketball perspective may have been the one to address the Hot Hand theory, which has been widely debunked in the past. The new research took into account information from SportVU cameras that wasn’t available to previous researchers, and the conclusion was that the Hot Hand does in fact exist, and that players believe in it and act accordingly. Perhaps not surprisingly, J.R. Smith was one of the textbook examples.

– Not everyone at the conference was 100 percent on board with advanced statistical data and its immediate implementation, at least not without first evaluating who exactly is putting it all together. Stan Van Gundy was amazing on the basketball analytics panel, and explained frankly and in detail why the data may not mean much to those actually running the team from a basketball standpoint if it’s only being assembled by statisticians, as opposed to those who are highly experienced in the game itself.

– NBA Commissioner Adam Silver appeared at the conference on Saturday, and had an extended conversation with Malcolm Gladwell about a variety of topics. The draft lottery system and the perceived issue of tanking were among the more interesting, and while Silver continues to define tanking differently than the rest of us, he at least appears to be very open to looking at ways of changing things so that losing, in any capacity, won’t be at all incentivized in the future.

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