Ted Leonsis Into Advanced Stats, Will Ernie Grunfeld Follow Suit?
Okay, so Ted Leonsis already has one quality that’s in high demand from sports fans … transparency. How many other professional sports team owners have a personal blog where they actually share candid opinion and not boring, patronizing fluff?
Now, more and more, Leonsis is expressing interest in other areas of concern for educated sports fans, especially Wizards fans … advanced statistics.
If you’ll recall, Leonsis proclaimed his belief in basketball analytics on The Mike Wise Show on 106.7 FM in early April. More recently, he reiterated his belief in statistical analysis in an interview with CSN Washington’s Russ Thaler.
Today, on his blog Ted’s Take, Leonsis recommends two books on sports statistics. One is Stumbling On Wins: Two Economists Expose the Pitfalls on the Road to Victory in Professional Sports by Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt (a book for which I held a contest to win on this very site, winners to be announced soon). The second recommendation is Mathematics: How Gamblers, Managers, and Sports Enthusiasts Use Mathematics in Basketball, Basketball, and Football by Wayne L. Winston (a big plus/minus guy who’s served as Mark Cuban’s stat guru for the Mavericks).
Thanks Mr. Leonsis, the message has been sent. But to whom?
Well, let’s consider how the top decision makers of the Wizards, Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders, have publicly discussed advanced stats in the past year.
When asked about advanced statistics last September, Grunfeld was somewhat vague, saying, “I think those stat things are great for fantasy leagues and things like that” and that the Wizards use some “services.” Now, he didn’t exactly come out against stats, but he certainly can’t be dubbed as a believer. Other sources have indicated that those “services” and the overall involvement in statistics from the Wizards front office is minimal in comparison to other teams around the league.
So what about Flip?
In a ‘Fan Night’ Q&A session he held with season ticket holders last June, Saunders divulged some of his thinking on statistics. “It’s a combination,” the coach said, speaking in terms of statistical analysis versus gut feelings and conditioned knowledge. “When it comes down to it, in the last few minutes of the game, you gotta coach with your gut. Statistics, what you see, and what can really happen doesn’t always hold true. But you use those things to help you.”
Flip’s son, Ryan Saunders, whose title is assistant coach/statistical analysis, is the driving proponent for statistics amongst the coaching staff. The elder Saunders credited his son with the idea of handing out iPod Touches with diagrammed plays and video to the players prior to the season.
Flip more recently touched upon the work of his son in a profile on the head coach from the Pioneer Press on TwinCities.com. “Ryan helped develop a new computer program, and we’re the first team to use it. It took him four months to develop it. It has the ability to chart plays on the spot and get analysis,” said Saunders.
So, we get an idea that those responsible for the on-court instruction/coaching of the team are slightly more directly involved with statistics than those in the front office responsible for evaluating roster moves.
However, there was some indication that Tommy Sheppard, vice president of basketball administration for the Wizards, attended the 2010 MIT Sloan Sports Analystics Conference. At one point, he was even listed as a confirmed panelist (although his last name was spelled wrong), but he did not make it to the final agenda. Others have said that they did not see Sheppard at the event, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t attend to some degree. It’s worth noting that the Wizards played a March 7th road game against the Celtics in Boston the day the conference was held on the campus of MIT. [Update: Joe Treutlein of HoopData.com confirms in the comments section that he saw Sheppard at the Sloan Conference.]
Sheppard, it is said, keeps tabs on the stat world and checks with consultants on an as-needed basis, but the Wizards do not have an in-house person solely dedicated to advanced statistics. So, at least team management is paying attention to the thought leadership in the area, but there’s no indication of an intense level of involvement. That being said, teams often keep their statistical strategies closely guarded.
In any case, the new head honcho is very interested in advanced statistics, so it’s probably advisable that Grunfeld, who will be around for the time being as sources have indicated, jump aboard the ship and become more accepting of statistics … lest he could find himself left behind in the future.
Leonsis also said this interesting quote in his interview with Thaler: “It’s not my style to say, ‘This is who we’re picking’ [in terms of the 2010 NBA Draft], that’s not what I do. If you don’t believe and trust the staff, then you should get rid of the staff.”
One can easily assume the trust/get-rid-of part applies to multiple basketball administrative decisions, including the use of advanced statistics.
Again, message sent Mr. Leonsis. Now are the intended recipients listening?