|Jack Winter: 2014 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference -
In-Game “Innovations” With George Karl and Daryl Morey
The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is built on a foundation of forward thinking.
The sports world converges on Boston for a weekend every winter with one all-
encompassing goal in mind: To broaden understanding of the games we love through
avenues previously unexplored.
The intentions of “In-Game Innovations: Genius or Gimmick?” – a panel comprised of
George Karl, Daryl Morey, Bill James, Nate Silver – were undoubtedly to further such
discovery; progress is bred by new curiosities. Mere minutes into the hour-long
discussion led by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, though, it became evident the speakers were
focused on “innovations” that challenged the very definition of the word.
Karl and Morey are two of basketball’s foremost pioneers of the analytical age. Their
teams stress efficiency above all else, leading to an invariably large discrepancy
between shot attempts that carry higher expected outcomes and those that hold lower
ones. The thinking behind that strategy is unquestionably sound on the surface, and
the public majority is finally trending toward similar awareness below it, too.
But that shift still hasn’t shielded Karl and Morey from consistent criticism. The 2013
Coach of the Year is out of a job, after all, and some league followers remain
lukewarm on the surging Rockets despite league-best play since the calendar year.
The belief that in basketball, real innovation isn’t innovation as we know it.
Coaches tend to want to control the action on the floor. All coaches
overuse strategies which give them the illusion of control. Chaos is
actually very useful; if you’re on offense and you can create chaos
it will lead to a breakdown and you can score. The instinct [for
coaches] to try and control the action actually can work against
you. I think that is one of the things that makes great coaches in
basketball [more] than any other sport: tolerance for creating chaos.
– Bill James
There’s no discord with regard to defensive pandemonium. General ball/player
pressure and the creation of miscues are universal positives not only because they
limit or prohibit the opposition’s chance to score, but for the possibilities that
aggression immediately gleans on the other end of the court. “Points off turnovers” is
a meaningful statistic for a reason other than the explicitly obvious: The highly
efficient transition opportunities that such a quick change in possession often yield.
But we’ve been slow to embrace the effects of overall offensive ‘chaos’ the way we
have on defense or fast-breaks. The panelists agreed that line of thinking is flawed.
When I first came to the Rockets we started tracking the success of
Jeff Van Gundy’s play-calls. Two-thirds of the way through [the season]
we had enough data to say which play-calls are better than most? So
we had HORNS, we had this, we had that, and then I said, ‘What’s this
one at the top–the most efficient one?’ And [Van Gundy] said, ‘It’s
called random. That’s when the play breaks down and we just set a
random screen.’ That might tell us something.
– Daryl Morey
Letting players simply play – if you have the personnel, of course – is sometimes the
best course of action. Basketball is an intuitive game at its core, one rooted in
creative spontaneity. Certain types of structured offense, though, clash head-on with
those unique tenants. The overarching theme of “In-Game Innovations” was a
consensus belief that hands-off coaching is the surest approach to winning games,
especially when a team lacks the singular star conventional wisdom says is necessary
to become a champion.
I got fired last year. The gimmick was our style works in the regular
season but not the playoffs. I don’t think my team could beat anybody
playing slow-down, possession basketball in the playoffs or the regular
season. The style of playing fast and quicker, I think, will get more
contagious… There’s great coaching in the NBA, and playing fast
takes out concepts and philosophies of defense; it’s a reactionary
game. If you’re trying to score in the first seven to 10 seconds it’s
a reactionary game as opposed to a structured game. If you’re
going to try to play power basketball against the best big guys in
the world and LeBron James and Kevin Durant, in a seven-game
series they’re going to figure out how to beat you.
– George Karl
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