This past weekend, Boston was home to MIT Sloan's 7th annual Sports Analytics Conference, a veritable who's who of real and wannabe stat nerds in the world of sports. You can interpret "nerd" as a pejorative or a reclaimed badge of honor, but it doesn't change the fact that this conference was jam-freaking-packed with smart people.
You may be familiar with the Conference for various reasons; I first learned of it from listening to the BS Report with Bill Simmons a few years back (his guest was Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey), and the podcast went on and on about "Dorkapalooza" and how it was trying to look at sports (particularly basketball) with a mathematical twinge. The same can be said about the conference this year; formulas, models, models, graphs and statistics were thrown around all weekend, and whether or not you understood anything that was happening around you, your head was still spinning when it was all over.
The way basketball has evolved over the past few years has been interesting from an analytics point of view. NBA analytics -- to writers, fans, and teams -- has now become a twofold process: figuring out which questions to ask and figuring out which tools are required to answer those questions.
From what I gleaned from the weekend, the Wizards are way ahead on the latter, but still need to make strides on the former.
One of the products showcased at the Conference was SportVU. If you're not familiar with it, it's a new tool that captures everything that happens during in-game action. Ball Don't Lie's Dan Devine (who I met last weekend and is a super cool dude, btw) has a good summary of the technology:
SportVU positions six special video cameras above the basketball court at different angles to capture, record and store tons of in-game information - player movement, referee movement, ball movement; where, how and how fast players are running; where, how and how fast passes are thrown; etc. Recording all that movement in high definition at 25 frames per second, every second, for an entire game makes for an awful lot of data points - 1 million individual records per game, in fact, according to STATS' Brian Kopp. That leaves the 15 teams that have purchased the cameras looking for an analytical edge...
Only 15 NBA teams have them, and the Wizards are one of them. They can capture crazy-specific statistics like distance between player and defender (1, 3, or 5 feet), number of dribbles a player takes before shooting, acceleration on a dribble-drive, etc etc etc. You get the picture.
With a tool like this (and presumably at least a handful of analysts who can squeeze every drop of knowledge out of it), the Wizards are ahead of at least half of the NBA on figuring out nuances about their players. It's basically a secret weapon if used correctly. (Also, you should check out some screenshots and details here.)
So the Wizards have the tools part down. The question part is a little bit murkier. Obviously, I'm not 100-percent knowledgeable on the inner workings of the organization, but results and actions are things to which I can react.
For example, the issue of player development came up during the Basketball Analytics panel. Stan Van Gundy mentioned an article by Kevin Pelton noting that player development is still a mystery to some teams. Van Gundy said a lot of people seem to think that just letting guys get experience on the court is synonymous with development. As an example of why that was incorrect thinking, Van Gundy explicitly mentioned how unsuccessful the Wizards were when they trotted out lineups consisting of JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, and others for extended minutes at a time. The lesson here was that when you put a bunch of players on the floor that don't play with complimentary styles, there's no development happening.
Another example of something I've seen Washington do less well than other teams is rebuild its roster quickly. Kyle Weidie at Truth About It has delved into this topic a few times, but listening to Morey talk about the Rockets put it into a new light. Morey said that their roster has overturned so much that the longest-tenured player they have is Chandler Parsons, who has been on the team since December 2011 (the month the lockout ended). Everyone else has been acquired via draft or trade since. The Rockets are now the most offiensively efficient team in the league, and the trio of James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik (three acquisitions from this summer) are a huge part of that. The Rockets have also built in flexibility into their roster where they still have room to trade or add players until a perfect fit is achieved.
One of the things Wizards fans have been told to be is patient because the roster has been turned over an incredible amount in the past year and a half. If we go back to the dismantling of the Big 3 core, that takes us all the way to January, 2010. In that time, the Wizards have drafted in the lottery, become embroiled in scandals, changed ownership, endured injuries and hung out near the bottom of the league standings. If we start just from the change in ownership, not much of that list is very different.
The point here is that, while patience is necessary, fans can't be patient forever. At a certain point, we need to see a return on an emotional investment. With the way the Wizards have performed after John Wall's return, we're finally starting to see a return. However, before Wall was in the lineup, this team was nothing short of abysmal (top-10 defense notwithstanding).
Simply put, there are better ways to rebuild a roster from scratch (from losing franchise players to building back up) than what Washington did. Houston is an example of that. In fact, Houston was never as bad as Washington, but somehow they pulled themselves out of basketball purgatory and acquired enough assets to turn their bologna sandwich roster into a surf-and-turf lunch special.
If there's one thing to take away from the Sloan Conference this weekend, it's this: if you're there, you're learning and you want to get better. The Wizards have invested in the right tools, they've shown a bit of growth, and they were in attendance this weekend -- Zach Leonsis was spotted, and Vice President of Basketball Administration Tommy Sheppard was scheduled to attend and has gone in the past. From a fan's perspective, that shows me things are moving in the right direction.
Ideally, I'd like them to move a bit faster than they have been, but I think the path has finally been laid.