An OK Read About Ted Leonsis’ Trouble with One Great Analytics Rankings | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

An OK Read About Ted Leonsis’ Trouble with One Great Analytics Rankings

By
Updated: March 9, 2015

butthurtTed

Ted Leonsis, the founder, chairman and majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the company that controls three of D.C.’s pro sports teams, had some free time on a flight last week. Like any good businessperson would, he spent that time reading up on his competition. Specifically, his competition and the state of play on both the basketball court and hockey rink.

Leonsis digested four white papers published during this year’s MIT Sports Analytics Conference, held in Boston during the last week of February:

The Wizards’ boss “learned a lot from these four papers” and gave the researchers pixelated dap for jobs well done. Totally fair: the white papers are examples of great and important research in the business of winning.

Leonsis also “had a chance to read every word of the ‘ESPN, The Magazine’ story on analytics.” And, well, he didn’t like what it had to say.

In his blog, Ted’s Take, Leonsis wrote that he “wasn’t that impressed” with ESPN’s Great Analytics Rankings, a project between ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. His kicker:

“I thought the work was a bit random in its rankings and wasn’t based on big data, rich data or any data. It was subjective and looked like clickbait BuzzFeed-like work to me. Most every NBA and NHL team is now staffed with smart and deeply analytic thinkers and planners and researchers; big investments have been made in analytics over the past few years, I didn’t think the writers showed enough respect to teams, the leagues, staff and employees that now look at analytics like oxygen.”

Here, Leonsis is dead wrong.

The Rankings rated 122 teams across the United States’ four major professional sports leagues—the NBA, the NHL, the MLB, and the NFL—“on the strength of each franchise’s analytics staff, its buy-in from execs and coaches, its investment in biometric data and how much its approach is predicated on analytics.” The teams were sorted into five tiers: All-Ins, Believers, One Foot Ins, Skeptics, and Nonbelievers.

While the commentary was sometimes pithy(1), The Rankings are neither clickbait nor listicle deep. The production was legitimate, there’s real information there, and the ratings are verifiably and objectively well-researched and data-informed.

(Truth About It’s ESPN affiliation doesn’t make the above any less true, by the way.)

It’s possible that Leonsis is troubled that his big investments in “big data” or “rich data” (or any data) are not being recognized, or deemed short on returns. I imagine that would sting the way Old Bay burns broken skin when you pick at a bushel of blue crabs.

Teams that represented the top of the class included (no surprise) the Philadelphia 76ers, the Houston Astros and Rockets, the Tampa Bay Rays, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Dallas Mavericks. Teams in the bottom overall 10 included the midrange-obsessed Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Jets, D.C.’s NFL team, the once-cool Brooklyn Nets and their neighbors across the East River, the Knicks, the worst team in the NBA.

The Washington Capitals, while not “all-in” were still rated as “believers.” ESPN Insider Craig Custance, who put together the NHL section, praised Leonsis’ hires of analytics consultant Tim Barnes and first-year GM Brian MacLellan, as well as player acquisition in nabbing former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik.

So, why the harsh words for a generally well-received project? Why try to discredit the analysts as well as the takeaways? The writers lacked respect for sports leagues, staff and employees? Please.

It seems that Leonsis took issue with how Kevin Pelton, NBA analyst for ESPN Insider and former analytics consultant for the Indiana Pacers, talked about the Wizards: sabermetrics “skeptics.”

“The Wizards’ front office has shown moderate interest in analytics, which is more than their coach has shown.

[…]

“On the court, Washington lags in terms of applying the lessons of analytics to its shot chart even in the midst of the team’s best season since 1978-79. The Wizards’ ratio of midrange shots to 3-point attempts is the second highest in the NBA. That would be understandable if Washington struggled from beyond the arc, but the Wizards rank fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (37.4 percent). As a result, Washington is just 10th in the benefit derived from 3s, as measured by ESPN’s 3-point index, far lower than it could be.

“Personnel is a factor in the Wizards’ limited use of the 3. They’ve played traditional big men rather than floor spacers. However, point guard John Wall has taken the fifth-most 2-pointers beyond 15 feet this season, per Basketball-Reference.com, and coach Randy Wittman is comfortable with this arrangement.”

None of that is wrong. In fact, it’s 100 percent accurate. And it’s not like the Great Analytics Rankings failed to mention the fact that Leonsis sits on the advisory board for the Journal of Sports Analytics, or re-structured his basketball front office to keep up with the basketball Joneses.

You just can’t have Randy Wittman as your head coach and expect to the Wizards to be ranked any higher than they were.

Leonsis could have hired just about ANY coach he wanted, but he gave Randy Wittman, who’s long resisted the use of advanced stats (or “analytical bullshit,” in his own words), a two-year contract extension with a team option for a third.(2) You can’t expect to the Wizards to be ranked any higher than they were.

The Wizards have scored more than 100 points just four times in the past 20 games, as TAI’s Chris Thompson pointed out in Sunday afternoon’s Key Legislature, but the team-sanctioned word is that defense is the problem. Well, defense and a missing mental physicality. Defense and a lack of effort. That is to say, an offense stuck in 1995 is NOT the problem. And since it ain’t broke, it won’t be fixed. You can’t seriously think the Wizards deserve to be ranked any higher than they were.

You can’t seriously flirt with the idea of trading (or even swapping) a first round pick for volume-shooting, midrange enthusiast Jarrett Jack and believe the Wizards should be ranked any higher than they were.

You can’t get upset about where the Wizards were ranked when you consider that Ernie Grunfeld was given a secret contract extension, despite the fact that most of the players on the roster are long in the tooth and seriously short on upside—and that he’s only ever drafted two All-Stars (John Wall and Michael Redd) in his shot-calling career. Two All-Stars in more than 20 years!

If the Wizards “look at analytics like oxygen,” as Leonsis wrote (and I believe they may, given progressive hires), why is that not reflected in the product on the floor? Why do the Wizards often look like they’re playing a different sport than the teams in the top 10?

And are Randy Wittman and Ernie Grunfeld just holding their breaths?

Maybe they should be: if the Wizards eke out a first-round playoff series win(3) both will likely keep their jobs for at least a few more months.

The Rankings may not be exhaustive in their effort to make so much information digestible, but if the team’s top two influencers continue to package proof-free pudding, the Wizards can’t hope to be ranked much higher.

(Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

(Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

 

  1. A rundown of the Detroit Pistons, for example, ran fewer than 200 words.
  2. It is ‘affordable,’ if nothing else. Wittman’s deal is worth about $3 million per season, which is less than half of Stan Van Gundy’s annual payout in Detroit. What’s that saying? “You get what you pay for”?
  3. …with ALL of the muscle, hustle, grit and midrange prayers…
John Converse Townsend on EmailJohn Converse Townsend on FacebookJohn Converse Townsend on InstagramJohn Converse Townsend on Twitter
John Converse Townsend
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
John has been part of the editorial team at TAI since 2010. He likes: pocket passes, chase-down blocks, 3-pointers. He dislikes: typos, turnovers, midrange jump shots.




  • Gussssss

    You seem to have missed Leonsis’s point entirely, which is that it’s kind of BS to rank teams on their devotion to analytics without actually using actual data to rank them. The list was about as meaningful as rolling stone’s ranking of best SNL members.

    • Conor

      That’s not a great analogy. Rolling Stone’s rankings were entirely subjective. The Analytics rankings WERE based on data (player acquisition, offensive efficiency, coaching and play style, analytics-friendly hires, investments generally, etc.) Would you expect ESPN to roll out a slick feature and show the entirety of their work, or a digestible summary of their findings?

      • Gussssss

        I agree my analogy was an exaggeration, but the data involved in ESPN’s list hardly meets the standards they’re holding the teams to. Not that they should be expected to, just kind of ironic that they’d measure things in a way that so heavily involves bias and preconceptions. Not a lot of data to demonstrate the quality of analytics department personnel, and so much behind the scenes stuff that I’m guessing ESPN isn’t privy to. So, yeah, not as dumb as the SNL list, but in my opinion, just about as worthwhile.

        • Conor

          The author was a former analytics consultant for an NBA team. While the rankings are meant to both be readable in print and online format, there’s nothing to suggest that this was quick work based on bias and preconceptions. And more to the point, as John pointed out, it’s not just a review of the analytics department. It’s a review of orgs as whole entities. Does a random, private conversation about the importance of the 3-pt shot after hours in an NBA front office invalidate a review of the product as a whole? Every team uses SportVU and has invested in data (as Leonsis said). Some teams have been more willing to implement findings.

          • Gussssss

            You seem pretty intent on missing my point, so never mind. You win.