Commentary

PER Diem: March 9, 2009

John Hollinger looks back on the discussions and debate from the MIT sports conference

Updated: March 9, 2009, 3:25 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Mark CubanNoel Vasquez/Getty ImagesMark Cuban and John Hollinger debated the Devin Harris-Jason Kidd trade in Boston.

BOSTON -- I've argued about trades with people before, but this weekend marked the first time I argued with the person that made the trade.

The vast majority of the game's numerical analysts and a great many other interested parties converged on Beantown this weekend for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, or as it's known more colloquially in a name coined by our Bill Simmons, "Dorkapalooza."

The event, arranged by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has rapidly grown in size and stature since its inception in 2007, That was made abundantly clear to me when I sat on a panel on Basketball Analytics along with the two most famous Mark(c)s in Dallas, Stein and Cuban.

As you might imagine, the Jason Kidd-Devin Harris trade between Dallas and New Jersey came up (amazingly, without Simmons raising his hand from the audience and asking about it), and Cuban and I had a healthy give-and-take about the pros and cons of the deal. He was arguing pro, of course, and I was arguing con, with the argument mostly following on the lines of this blog post by Cuban and this column by me.

Some folks already have written about this so I guess it was one of the memorable parts of the conference, but to me several other parts of our discussion were much more interesting. Cuban, for instance, matter-of-factly told us that a win is only worth about a half million dollars to a team's bottom line, so that rebuilding teams with low salary structures are often the most profitable. And there was some pretty healthy discussion between Cuban and Celtics exec Michael Zarren about what, exactly, went down in the Kevin Garnett trade and whether the Mavs had made a better offer to Minnesota.

Ours wasn't the only gathering of note. An earlier panel on the fan experience was highlighted by an interesting back-and-forth on entertaining versus winning, with former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy taking the latter approach and Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke extolling the necessity of the former. In doing so he made a point which few execs will readily admit -- that chances are, no matter how smart the organization, they'll only win the title about once every 30 years, and in the long run will end up around .500. In other words, teams need to engage fans in a way that makes them come back even when they're not winning.

John Huizinga, who, when he's not teaching economics at the University of Chicago, serves as Yao Ming's agent, delivered a fairly ironclad analysis showing that the hot-hand phenomenon almost certainly doesn't exist, and that players who have just made a jumper are far more likely to take and miss a jumper on the next trip -- what might be called the Jamal Crawford phenomenon.

Huizinga studied high-volume shooters over the past five seasons and took note of players who had made a jump shot on the previous trip. On the subsequent trip, they shot about 16 percent more often and converted 3.5 percent less of those shots. The finding was statistically significant and pointed to a tendency by players to act as if they were hot after one made J … and a counterproductive tendency to feed the allegedly hot hand by both the player and his teammates.

Proving that something doesn't exist is always vastly more difficult than proving it does, but Huizinga's analysis hammered the hot-hand theory from so many angles that its proponents are reeling. And as luck would have it, the scenario played out at the end of the Boston-Orlando game: The Celtics ran a play to feed their hot hand, Ray Allen, and he missed a difficult 3-pointer after a strong contest by Dwight Howard that would have tied the game.

Interestingly, Huizinga's study showed this phenomenon was almost entirely confined to perimeter players -- most likely because it's far more difficult for post players to ignore the offense and call their own number. (Though I suspect Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki may be exceptions).

Of course, the biggest highlight of the conference was probably just seeing how many people were there, and how many teams had representatives. I'd estimate that half the teams in the NBA has somebody doing analytics for them either full-time or part-time, though a few clubs are still reluctant to admit that publicly. It's amazingly gratifying to see what had been purely an outsider's pursuit until about five years ago become so rapidly ingrained in the thinking of NBA teams.

I should point out that among those teams were the Dallas Mavericks, whose analysis goes far deeper than trade justifications -- which is one reason why they, and nearly every other team doing analytical work, are near the top of the standings this season (a point made by Denver Nuggets director of quantitative analysis Dean Oliver during our panel).

And finally, let's close by giving a tip of the hat here -- whatever your opinion of the Harris-Kidd trade, how many other owners do you suppose would have been willing to go into a public forum like that and debate a controversial trade? Could you imagine Glen Taylor or Clay Bennett showing their faces at this shindig? The NBA, and every other league, could use a lot more interested, committed owners like Cuban.

Even if their passion occasionally results in a bad trade.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.