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The Geeks at Sloan, Part 1: A Long-Expected Party

"We really like what you're doing with your team, but could you please win 3 more games?" – Patrick Minton to Sam Hinkie

That quote was the most memorable moment of our first night at the Sloan analytics conference, and one that set the tone for the weekend. We had received an invite to a pre-party on the Thursday night before the conference and were enjoying some libations with a gamut of basketball bloggers, staffers, and insiders. It happened at the end of the night as we were having one last drink and getting set to go back to the hotel. Patrick got a gleam in his eye and said: "Hey guys, Sam Hinkie just walked in and is making the rounds. We have to say hi!" We very quickly agreed and went over to shake his hand and congratulate him on a job well done. He looked at us like we were from another planet. You could see his utter surprise at someone understanding what he was doing and actually appreciating it. I strongly suspect that this was a feeling that went away before the end of the week.

You see, Sloan is really not your typical room. Everywhere else, something like the Sixers' situation provokes a mixed bag of opinion. However, at this conference, everyone I talked to waxed poetic about it (and that includes some of the smartest basketball minds in the world). This is exactly like the difference between playing in a fantasy league with average players and playing in one with sharps. The Sixers have very ably gamed the system. An average room would be screaming and complaining about it. At Sloan, there was no screaming; instead there was misty eyed wonder, jealous admiration at a sound and innovative strategy, and calls for the league to close the loophole in the future.

Off the record, there are more teams that admit to tanking than you might care to imagine.

This was not the only interesting moment of that first night. Henry Abbott was kind enough to talk to me and let me grill him at length about what he saw as the future of the basketball section at ESPN.com. A conversation that had some interesting parallels to this interview he gave a few days later (and in which he does a great job of laying out his vision). My take was that he's in a difficult spot. With Grantland producing longer analysis pieces and Nate Silver about to step to the plate with his all-star team of quants, the role of the NBA section of ESPN has to evolve. I have given this some thought and I've focused on something that Henry said to me when I asked him what his overarching goal was. He wants the NBA section to be the first stop for all basketball fans on a daily basis. In essence, the goal is to be the hub for basketball content. I suspect the future for them should be something like the Gawker model, where you have different spokes focusing on different aspects and they all point to each other. Visualize, if you will, an article driven section that acts as a collator for all the interesting things going on in the ESPN content universe, be it a Zach Lowe piece on Grantland, a Truehoop Network piece, a Fantasy Basketball piece, or a deep stats dive from FiveThirtyEight. Throw in fan content and I think that's the future.

As I said, it was a weird and wacky night. Another great example I can mention: we were watching the the Raptors/Wizards crazy triple-OT game while talking to the Raptors analytics staff (who were very nice and loved the Masai shirt I was wearing so much that they sent a picture of it to their boss). They actually had to walk away after the game because they had to deal with a player issue. Coach Nick (@bballSource) and I got into the first of our many weekend discussions about basketball. Dan Devine spent some time with us as well. Random owners and GMs were working the room. I got to meet and congratulate Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) on his new website. The Kings' new owner was walking the room like a conquering hero. Lot's of good Guinness on draft was consumed by yours truly.

It was an auspicious prelude to the conference.

Click Here for Part 2: The Data Should be Free

"there are more teams that admit to tanking than you might care to imagine"

Do you mean tanking as in losing just for the sake of improving draft position this year? Or do you mean trading current assets for future assets?
I mean losing for the sake of improving draft position. What each individual team means is a topic beyond the scope of this paragraph.
I may have said this before here, and the fix for tanking is pretty easy: change the odds on the lottery, so tanking is less rewarding.

Right now, if you finish last, you are guaranteed a top 4 pick. What if you were only guaranteed a top 14 pick? What if there was a 50% chance the worst team would pick outside the top 4?

It's simple to execute: give the worst lottery team 14 balls, the next 13 balls and so on. Spin and draw each draft pick in order. It's so easy to understand you could even do it publicly.
I love what the 76ers are doing, and I'm very optimistic for the future of their team. They seem to be putting many of the ideas espoused on this blog and wages of wins to practice. I hope they show other teams that they're doing it wrong in the 2014 draft and in 2015's free agency period.

As long as a good amount of the league is run by owners with very poor processes, a few clever teams will be able to gain advantages through trades and other actions that are perceived as unfair and against the spirit of athletic competition. What the Sixers are doing is being called tanking and is widely perceived as a shameless bid to gain lottery balls at any cost. But, lottery balls are not the primary motivation. They seem to have assessed the value of their players properly, and they found good opportunities to exchange lesser assets for greater assets. Through every decision, they've gained chances for cheap production and increased their flexibility. Each decision came with the byproduct of a temporary decrease in production that was easily offset by the potential to acquire several productive players with exploitative contracts. The salary cap and the structure of rookie contracts had a larger impact on the Sixers' decision making than the lottery.
whoa. Is that Mike Gimbel? That must be pretty exciting!
Sounds like it was a really fun night meeting all those people. I really like your guys shirts as well, really cool.
I understand what Mr. Hinkie is going for I just think people are giving him way too much praise and his moves haven't been that great, but I also don't agree that his moves were bad and he is ruining the integrity of the game, it's hate it or love it, but I'm in between. I think he could have gotten a lot more value for Turner or Hawes, I think they are both overrated and inefficient, but I mean Bargnani at least fetched a first rounder, 2 second rounders and Steve Novak. Turner and Hawes both have a lot more value then Bargnani. Other thing is, other than 4 players (MCW, Noel, Young, Anderson, Wrotten(if even)) who are they developing long term, like more than 2 years out? They can get in the first round by trading that pile of 2nd round picks but in the next two years who is giving up 1sts, 2nd rounders are only useful if you are comfortable stashing international players, other than Raptors or Spurs who is? Either way I would go in the same direction as Mr. Hinkie, I just think he should have gotten a lot more value in return.
whoops, sorry that's actually Bill James not Mike Gimbel, don't know why I typed his name.
Dre wrote: "[By tanking] I mean losing for the sake of improving draft position."

On the one hand, you can tank a team that is mediocre and perhaps not presently a title contender, but is fundamentally competitive in the NBA, on the theory that dismantling the team and starting from scratch will get you a championship sooner than staying on the treadmill. The research shows that this is a terrible strategy.

This has to be distinguished from taking, as Hinkie has, a terrible team loaded with ugly contracts and completely shaking it up, offloading bad players and vacuuming up draft picks. There's not much reason to stick with a very bad team when you can shuffle the unproductive players off your sheet while picking up a small army of rookie contracts.

Even if there is some short-term turbulence and such a team loses a lot of games in the course of being dismantled, they're not really "intentionally" losing games to improve their draft position. I think if you've got a terrible team and you take the opportunity to offload bad players' bad contracts in return for a lot of picks in a loaded draft, you're not really "tanking" and you're playing pretty smart. I think that's the consensus around here about what Hinkie is doing.
Henry: If Hinkie could have gotten more value for Turner and Hawes, then he would have. The difference between these trades and the Bargnani trade, is the Bargnani trade involved the Knicks. If the Knicks had a 1st rounder to trade in the next 5 years they probably would have found a way to trade it for an inefficient guy like Turner.
Hey Shawn, you may be right, it's the knicks after all. I like what Mr. Hinkie is doing I just think he could do a lot better. There were so many Turner and Hawes trade rumors that were so much more promising than what really happened. I think Mr. Hinkie was only asking for a 1st this year or next and that's it, I bet he was offered a couple of nice pieces in terms of young players but he was only insisting on picks that's why he settled on the 2nds, a lot of teams also knew how much of a rush he was in, so he probably had no leverage. Just my opinion.
Hey Sloan, for all of us who don't live in Boston or are willing to fly there, you should have posted the videos for free. Last year I got to see Stan van Gundy look like an idiot, and now I can't. Proprietary data's a problem, but come on, proprietary presentations of proprietary data! For those of you who didn't see this, Sloan's YouTube channel now requires $40 to access. Come on.
Was that for the live feed? I know they were charging a fee during the conference to watch some of them, but I figured they just hadn't released the videos yet. If that is true, then I will be very disappointed as well.

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