If for some reason you weren't scouring BDL and Twitter for NBA news over the weekend, you might have missed that I was in Boston checking out the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. I made some faces, I had a huge first day, I tweeted like a crazy person from the @YahooBDL account and I gathered some string for some more stuff I'd like to write (including one piece in the works now).
All told, it was pretty similar to going to last year's conference, where I got to write about Tracy McGrady's talent and the prospect of data analysts influencing coaching decisions. I certainly didn't understand everything that I was seeing and hearing, but I saw and heard enough to find plenty of value in the experience.
One thing I heard came at the start of Friday's basketball analytics discussion. The panel's moderator, venerable Boston basketball reporter Jackie MacMullan, told the crowd that Kevin McHale isn't really that big a believer in sports analytics.
Considering McHale was hired this offseason to coach the Houston Rockets by general manager Daryl Morey — the co-chair of the annual Sloan conference, who is, as you might have heard, kind of into advanced stats — this information struck David Hardisty of Rockets-focused fan site ClutchFans as interesting. So he asked McHale about it before Houston took on the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night. Here's McHale's response:
You guys all saw that, right? The moment where it all turns around? If not, follow me after the jump and I'll lay it plain.
At first, McHale largely confirms MacMullan's assessment, saying he thinks analytics often just tell you what you already know and that he doesn't put too much stock in advanced stats as a font of revelations:
I didn't know much about it [before coming to Houston] and, you know, I think all that analytics says is, "If you score in the paint, it's good." Well, I could have told you that. "If you block shots and rebound, it's good." Well, I kind of knew that. "If you make a bunch of threes, that's good."
It reinforces a lot of stuff you think. I mean, look, you want to shoot free throws ... you want to shoot in the paint. Defenses are trying not to foul you and trying to keep you out of the paint, so believe me, it's ... it's the yin and the yang. But I didn't all of a sudden look at the analytics and all these numbers and go, "Oh, my goodness." It was, "Yeah, I pretty much knew that."
The turning point, though, comes at the 1:07 mark.
McHale has just told Hardisty that you don't get to the NBA without having played years of basketball and developing an innate feel for the game, which, he implies, is what informs most of the decisions he and other basketball players and coaches make. Having made that point, he's about to end the interview.
Instead, he pauses, looks up and away from the camera, and then sort of backtracks.
"I would say that a couple of things surprised me, where you go, 'Oh, that's interesting' — [there were] a couple of things I really learned from it that I think are of huge value," McHale said. "But I think what it is is a tool ... to put together a package. So, it's interesting."
That is the face of a man who is thinking, "Whoops. Just said on camera that the thing that my boss is super into is kind of a crock of crap, and that everything he's been showing me for the past nine months is pretty much just stuff I already knew, because I'm not a dummy. That might not go over well. Better hedge this a bit." Smooth cover, Kevin. Maybe not as fluid as your up-and-under, but still probably enough to stay out of the principal's office.
Maybe McHale's nonchalance toward advanced stats, especially as the floor manager of one of the most analytically focused organizations in the NBA, will anger some stat-loving fans. It might also elate others who think all that math, as Jeff Van Gundy said during the Sloan conference, "sap[s] the fun out of" a game that is often so brilliantly "inexplicable." Whichever way your sympathies run, the reality is that while McHale is way off-base when he suggests that analytics can only tell you it's good to score and block shots, his general thesis isn't necessarily wrong. Sometimes advanced stats do just confirm conventional wisdom and commonly held notions.
Where he steers into the curb, I'd argue, is in suggesting that confirming conventional wisdom isn't valuable. Over the course of time, decisions made based on stuff you know stand a better chance of being right than those made based on stuff you think. On top of that, firm facts also provide a better foundation for trying to figure out the next thing you don't know than healthy hunches do. The continual process of gathering and analyzing data is just as much about getting better as practicing your footwork on the block is. It's trying to turn a weakness (all the stuff that an organization doesn't know, which is still an awful lot, even for the best ones) into a strength. To paraphrase Quasi, the future's just the past with a new coat of paint.
Fans and writers whose skin crawl at the increased geekening of basketball are absolutely right when they point out that for all the ink spilled over Morey's supposed genius, the Rockets' commitment to analytics has resulted in exactly zero championships and only one trip past the first round under his stewardship. It makes all the sense in the world to want to see some actual proof that this stuff works (beyond one Dallas Mavericks title) before anointing analytics as the definitive path to glory.
But intellectual curiosity and trying to learn stuff are still, at base, good things, right? And proudly insisting that we already know everything — whether the prideful one is watching the game or running a regression analysis while insisting — isn't, right?
- Kevin McHale