BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – When you think of someone who has helped grow and revolutionize the game of basketball, a few names may come to mind. Michael Jordan. Allen Iverson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Or Wilt Chamberlain. Maybe even a Dr. Jerry Buss.
But what about a man who bends functions and builds formulas in Excel spreadsheets and works out of a 18x8 office that looks as if it should be on "Hoarders: Buried Alive"?
Enter Dr. Wayne Winston's world, where his wonkafied data has changed sports.
Store bags, crumbled up yellow legal paper, Amazon boxes, books, Life Savers wrappers, a pair of khaki shorts and water cups are strewn about the floor.
Winston, a Professor of Operations & Decision Technologies at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, hunches over his Lenovo ThinkPad laptop, pouring through thousands of rows and columns of basketball data on a screen with grease and water stains.
With 22 days until March Madness, Winston is crunching and analyzing numbers and lineups for the No. 1 ranked Indiana Hoosiers. Later that evening, he will do the same for the New York Knicks, who are legitimate championship contenders for the first time in a dozen years.
It's no coincidence that when sports teams and Fortune 500 companies want an edge, they call on Winston, whose impact on basketball equals Sabermetrics' on baseball -- but, on steroids.
"Obviously he helped start the basketball analytics revolution with us," said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whose team won the 2011 NBA championship in part because of Winston. "We've been working with him for 12 years and he's proven year after year when people doubted him that his stuff works."
Two MITs Make a Right
Winston grew up in a brainy household. His mom studied chemistry, and everyone on her side of the family were either PhDs or scientists. His dad was an electrical engineering professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
A self-proclaimed introvert, Winston was enamored by sports and numbers. During recess he would play dice baseball, a mathematical game using dice, basic multiplication, decimals and fractions, and baseball rules. In the fifth grade, he would calculate batting averages from the newspaper in his head. When I talked to him, he wondered if he still had it in him. "Batting 122 for 385 is," he said, followed by a one second pause, "0.316."
Numbers served Winston well: A degree in mathematics from MIT in 1967 and PhD in operations research from Yale in 1971.
While at MIT, Winston met his lifelong friend, Jeff Sagarin, who is now a statistician and has provided sports ratings for USA Today since 1985. The two met watching football games in the basement of their dorm at Bexley Hall. The two would often finish each other's sentences on math and sports. The two would play table football and intramural basketball.
An average athlete, Winston enjoyed playing basketball the most. However, his career in pickup hoops was cut short when he ruptured his Achilles' tendon.
Away from the courts, Winston was described by Sagarin as someone who would always finish his work first before having fun. Sometimes the two mixed simultaneously.
"'I can take the inverse of any matrix in my head,'" Sagarin recalls Winston saying after Winston consumed a few beverages. "In the condition he was in, all he could do was a 1x1 matrix."
In 1975, Winston found his way to Bloomington, IN to teach. Sagarin joined him a few years later. In 1986, the MIT tag team created a DOS college basketball simulation game, HOOPS. In 1998, they created a company, WINVAL, which is a basketball evaluation system. The duo figured with Winston's skills in Excel and Sagarin's stats rating prowess that they were an unstoppable force.
Their first big client was the Dallas Mavericks.
"Wayne and I were cocky and obnoxious when we both started doing this," Sagarin said. "We would say there may be better people in math than us, but very few. In sports, there may be more passionate, but very few. But combine the two, there's no one better.
"Literally, no one can duplicate what we do."
Behind the bench
After every Knicks game Winston emails a detailed report to 15 Knicks staff members, including members of the coaching staff up to the front office. Included in the report is the effectiveness of each player per 48-minute game, which he and Sagarin calculate by taking the raw plus/minus and adjusting it to the other nine players on the court and the strength of the opponent. The email also includes the best 2-3-4-5 player combinations, best and worst lineups, effectiveness of each player by position, and the impact each player has on the game by quarter relative to the average NBA player (discounting garbage time).
Here's an example of a single-cell Excel formula Winston wrote:
Winston bends functions with just his index fingers. Microsoft Excel ninjas rarely use a mouse. He weaves through Excel cells like a Formula 1 driver on a track. He's looking for insights.
Winston proved analytically that Carmelo Anthony is more effective at the power forward position than his natural small forward position. The adjustment helped the Knicks start the season 18-5. He also identified the strength of a seldom used lineup of Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Amar'e Stoudemire. Down 18-6 against the Sacramento Kings on Feb 2, the Knicks inserted that lineup combination -- though Winston can't say for certain it was because of his suggestion -- and it helped spark a 40-4 Knicks run and an eventual 120-81 blowout victory.
Think of the potential.
If the Los Angeles Lakers had Winston in their corner, they would realize that forward Earl Clark is horrible in the second half. Instead, the Lakers should be playing a lineup of Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard, Winston said. (See Row 15 compared to Row 1).
Here is a breakdown of some of the Lakers' lineup combinations and how effective each player is in each quarter as of Feb. 22.
In the past, NBA general managers have e-mailed Winston asking him what he thought about certain players and whether they should make a trade. The gist of the emails: "Do you think (this player) would help or hurt our team? This (player) is available; do you think he will help us?"
"I feel really cool," said Winston of being involved in the NBA to that extent. "I wasn't that good of a basketball player, but to know I actually I have some affect on the basketball world, it's fun because it makes me feel like I was a better player than I was."
The Knicks aren't the only ones benefiting from Winston's assistance.
Winston has been helping his own backyard team, the top-ranked Hoosiers. Winston, who has been teaching at Indiana University for the past 38 years, approached the Hoosiers several years back to lend his expertise.
"He gives us a strong edge," Indiana University head coach Tom Crean said. "Wayne is in a group and class by himself. When you have someone who is tracking your team, looking at what fits for you and what you're looking for as an individual coach, and who knows your team inside and out, since he's right here in Bloomington, it brings another level of intelligence."
Similar to the Knicks, the Hoosiers receive an email report. Winston sends it to graduate manager Seth Cooper, who then relays the data to Crean.
In practice, Crean looks at the 2-3-4-5 combinations of players. The graphic below is an example of the most used three-player combination, and the rating shows how much better that combination of players does per 40 minutes than the average three-player combination at a top-10 NCAA team.
Crean then runs scrimmages and tests these combinations. He also works out the kinks for lower-ranking combinations. This statistical insight becomes advantageous especially for substitutions. For example, Crean knows which other players should be in or out if he sends center Cody Zeller to the bench.
The Hoosiers have also gotten a leg up on the competition when it comes to scouting their opponents.
"Wayne has taken it to another level," Crean said. "When he dives into the other team, he finds real insights. No question about it, with Wayne, we know the other team's combinations and we definitely game plan for that."
Added Crean on his thoughts of Winston: "My characterization of him is: Brilliant."
Behind the Data
Winston has the inquisitive mind of a child, often pushing the limits.
He once won a pancake eating contest. He ate 22. In college, he said he would have a 3 Musketeers bar and a Coca-Cola for breakfast every day until he was 40. A father of two, Winston once created a solver model for his daughter, Jennifer, to determine how much she could spend for her prom dress and jewelry. He is a celebrity gossip and reality television junkie. His favorite series? Gossip Girl.
Winston is an encyclopedia of random facts. He was a two-time champion on Jeopardy!
Winston rarely stays on a topic longer than a few seconds. It's as if his mind is moving exponentially faster than his body can react. He's likely the only person who can talk about analytics and transition to up-to-date gossip on Lindsay Lohan in a single breath.
"He's the ultimate geek," Cuban said. "That's why we get along so well. I think the world of Wayne."
As he did in helping Cuban win the franchise's first championship, Winston has also left an indelible print on the business world.
The past 20 years, he has taught advanced Excel and modeling techniques to more than two dozen companies, the majority of which are Fortune 500 companies. It's a who's who of companies: Microsoft, Deloitte, Cisco, Intel, Eli Lilly, PwC, Medtronic, and 3M just to name a few. Some may find it humorous that Microsoft is hiring an outsider to teach its own product, but not Winston.
"I don't think about that," Winston said. "There's tricky stuff people don't know about. That's why I make money teaching this stuff to them."
When Winston isn't allocating his time to teaching classes, consulting for Fortune 500 companies, or working with the Knicks and the Hoosiers, he takes on a myriad of side projects. Recently, one of them has been with Ultimate Fantasy Payout, an online rotisserie fantasy basketball league that lets you compete in a 10-team league against nine players that are computers. The site is still in Beta testing. Winston, who was hired on as an expert NBA Analytics consultant, created the algorithm through Excel that may create the next big thing in fantasy sports.
So, is it easy to beat Winston's computer? Nope.
"The math I did has worked very well," said Winston, who was contacted out of the blue by the company. "Basically, we're doing well against the human players. Humans should win one-tenth of the leagues, but they are winning less than one-tenth of the time."
In his spare time, Winston is working on a textbook on Marketing Analytics, the first of its kind in the market. He has authored more than a dozen books on everything from Managerial Statistics to Mathletics, a book on how to use math when it comes to sports and gambling. Written in 2012, Mathletics is heralded within the sports and analytics circle. Kevin Demoff, the St. Louis Rams executive vice president of football operations & chief operating officer, enjoyed the book enough to reach out to Winston for a project.
Analytics in the NFL
In sports, teams are secretive when it comes to how they are utilizing analytics. It's almost taboo to talk about what they do, especially in football.
In February, Winston received the green light from Demoff to help the Rams create an algorithm that will better predict the success of players before they reach the NFL draft, potentially saving the team millions.
Winston will analyze each position - with the help of the Rams' proprietary scouting information - and determine which variables really matter in predicting success in the NFL. By uncovering these statistically significant factors, the hope is that it will help the Rams identify a Peyton Manning from a Ryan Leaf before the player even steps foot in the NFL.
Winston lives for these brainteasers. It started with what he and Sagarin have accomplished in basketball.
"The way we rate players and lineups," Winston said. "We changed the way people look at sports."
Now he hopes to make his mark in the game of football.
"If you want to make $1 million, figure out how to predict QB success in NFL," Winston said. "I think I know how to find the value of each position in the NFL, but it's not going to be an easy problem."
(Photos by Theresa Muench.)
Bryan Chu is a multi-award winning journalist who has covered the Los Angeles Lakers for NBA.com and worked as a sports and criminal justice reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and the Albany Times Union. During his career, the Los Angeles native has covered everything from Jeremy Lin (pre and post Linsanity) to Lance Armstrong. He is currently pursuing an MBA in brand management and business analytics at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. You can follow him on Twitter: BryanChuNBA
- Sports & Recreation
- Jeff Sagarin