"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.
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