October 31, 2019

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference’s Sports Stories Briefing

How we see it…views & opinions from MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

1 – How Will Stephen Curry’s ‘19-20 Campaign Be Remembered?

There’s something odd and unsettling about watching a basketball game from three years ago as it demonstrates how much the game has changed in just a short amount of time. Even in relatively mature entertainment mediums such as movies, a few years makes a huge difference as seen by the 2002 Spiderman movie action scenes which feel like watching a cartoon with weird 3D animation effects.

Relating this to sports, the incredible battles between the Warriors and Thunder from the ‘15-16 NBA season were pre super-team. Before James Harden’s ruthless efficiency hacked the basic mathematics of basketball. Before every NBA team started excessively exploiting the 3-point shot. The ‘15-16 season belonged to Stephen Curry: the unanimous regular season MVP who led the Warriors to 73 wins that year, averaging 30/5/6 with an impossible 50/45/90 shooting split.

The Warrior’s upcoming season will be the first time since that season when Curry is number one option. It’s undeniable that Curry’s mere presence will guarantee a potent NBA offense. Over the last 5 years, he leads the league in true shooting percentage even while maintaining a usage rate well above 30%. Per CleaningTheGlass, he consistently ranks at or above the 95th percentile in scoring efficiency on every level of the court (at the rim, midrange and long range shot). However what often gets missed is how much better the Warriors perform when he’s on the court. Some advanced statistics make this point clear. First of all, since the 2014-2015 season, Curry consistently leads the league in total plus/minus (+4,131). This is even more remarkable when considering that he missed a total of 45 games due to injury in the last couple of seasons. Even when Curry is having an off night, the Warriors outscored their opponents by more than 14 points per game when he is on the floor. Second, as pointed by Sports Illustrated’s yearly NBA player ranking, when Curry was on the floor last season, the warriors team raised their effective field goal percentage by 5.6%. No other NBA player besides Lebron James has this type of effect on his team.

It’s unlikely he’ll be reaching his 2015-2016 efficiency levels again. Klay Thompson most likely will not see any action this season. Draymond Green, though still one of the best playoff defenders in the game,  never regained his above-average three-point shooting form from previous seasons which will put an additional burden on Curry. Last but not least, Curry will turn 32 next March and while that’s not necessarily “old” in NBA terms, he’s possibly past his athletic prime.

Most pundits don’t think the Warriors will reach their previous heights this year. The first 3 games of the season confirmed that there will be growing pains. However one of the most fascinating questions of the season revolve around how will Curry operate and what will Kerr change strategically to exploit his unique skills.  

2 – The Davis-LeBron Pick-and-Roll

When Kevin Love got traded to the Cavs in 2016, the basketball intelligentsia started salivating at the idea of a LeBron/Love pick and roll partnership. It made sense – Love is an elite knock down shooter who can exploit space and rim-roll effectively while LeBron James is LeBron James. That play never really became a staple of the Cav’s offense. Instead it was the LeBron-Kyrie pick and roll which caused all sorts of issues to opposing defenses in 2017.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote about how ruthless this 1-3 pick-and-roll was and how well Lebron and Kyrie complemented each other. The NBA preseason is never particularly insightful but at least this year we got a taste of LA’s upcoming 3-5 pick and roll combination: LeBron/Davis. Anthony Davis might be the most talented teammate LeBron has ever had and is one of the game’s most versatile big men. When Davis is the screener on LeBron’s man, defenses will have to pick their poison: if they hedge, they’ll give LeBron too much time to either get to the rim or be a playmaker, if they switch, Davis will have a smaller player on him which will result in an easy basket or a double team.

3 – Aaron Rodgers is still the baddest man in Football

Much has been said about Aaron Rodgers’ decline over the last couple of years. Last week, the Athletic’s Ben Baldwin made an analytical case as to why he should not be considered an elite quarterback anymore. For the first time this season, Rodgers looks comfortable within the offense. Last week, Rodgers had the best individual performance in Football this week: 5 passing touchdowns, 1 rushing touchdown, 429 passing yards and an 80% passing completion rate. He followed up this performance with another brilliant game this Sunday: 300 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. Make no mistake, if the Packers’ defense can maintain their excellent start and their young receiving core continues to grow, Rodgers will have a serious case for winning his third league MVP award.

What we’re Reading & Podcasting?

Ben Baldwin makes the analytical case that Aaron Rodgers has not been an elite quarterback since 2015 for the Athletic.

Grant Wahl writes about the crisis in U.S soccer after the 2-0 loss to Canada in the CONCACAF Nation’s League for Sports Illustrated.

John Hollinger, most famous for having invented PER, is back on the media side and hosts a weekly podcast with Nate Duncan.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference podcast is the home of the conference’s panels on the most cutting edge sports analytics topics. For example, last year OptaPro presented a panel on the future of soccer and the state of soccer analytics.