NBA AM: 20-Year Age Limit Is Coming

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Six Things To Know From Sloan:  Every year in early March, some of the smartest people in sports gather in Boston for what’s become one of the biggest informational conferences in sports. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference has become more than just “Dorkapalooza” as it’s been affectionately dubbed; it’s become a gathering point for some of the most compelling debates in sports.

This year’s conference featured plenty of debate on the virtues and values of analytical data across all sports, but it also featured a lot of conversation about many other topics and here are the six that really hit home:

“Two And Through” Is On Deck:  Currently the NBA has a rule that prohibits players from entering the NBA until they are 19 years old or one year removed from their high school graduating class. New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said numerous times that increasing that age limit to 20 years old and two years removed from high school is a top agenda item for him once the NBA Players’ Association hires a replacement director. During the last round of labor talks, the NBA pushed hard for a 20-year age restriction only to agree to table that topic in efforts to get the 2011 NBA lockout lifted.

Silver was asked by acclaimed writer Malcolm Gladwell during a one-on-one panel discussion, that hypothetically, if he could make any change in the league and that change would be wholly endorsed and approved by both the players and the owners, what would he change? With a few moments of deliberation, the Commissioner said changing the age limit.

Of all the things he could consider changing, the age limit was the top item in his mind.

Now for all of you that get upset at the notion of an age limit, understand that no one is trying to restrict entry into the NBA because of on-court ability. What they are most concerned about is bringing players into the NBA that are not mentally, emotionally or professionally prepared for everything that is demanded of players off the court.

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The belief from the NBA’s side is that the longer a player is in school, the more prepared they will be to be successful in the NBA on many levels. There is value in fans knowing who players being drafted are. There is value in giving teams more time to scrutinize and understand players. There is value in having players more prepared for the pressure and expectations of being an NBA player.

Silver was asked his thoughts on the idea of compensating college players and if the NBA should have a role in that given that they want to enact rules that would keep more players in school longer. Silver said he thought the NBA should play a role in that discussion, not in terms of cash payments to players, but possibly helping provide insurance and health care coverage programs for players who stay in school.

Silver admitted that college is not for everyone, using the analogy that no one told Bill Gates he couldn’t quit school to start Microsoft, but pointed to the idea that players have options outside of college such as the NBA’s Development League or the chance to play abroad or in prep school programs.

It’s absolutely clear that Commissioner Silver is gunning for a 20-year age limit and whether you like it or not “two and through” will be replacing “one and done” in the not so distant future.

The Wheel Has Legs:  Several weeks ago, Zach Lowe of Grantland revealed a proposal sent to the NBA from the Boston Celtics that would massively alter the process in which NBA draft picks are awarded.

Wheel_DraftDubbed “The Wheel” system, the proposed draft process would award draft picks at a fixed and balanced position over a 30-year span. There would be certainty to where every team picks, every year. When teams are trading picks they would be able to accurately extract value knowing exactly what position the pick traded will be.

The system in short awards the top overall pick to every franchise at least once every 30 years. The system would ensure every franchise has a pick in the top six every five years.

The wheel system was the brain-child of Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren and actually has a lot of support from within the NBA. As Zarren pointed out this weekend, the current document that covers all of the traded draft picks and their various protection scenarios is 70-pages in length. His hope is to simplify that process, remove wins and losses from the equation and create a format that can be planned around, rather than the arbitrary and random system that’s in place now.

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at first glance he really thought Zarren had solved the problem, but as the NBA passed the proposal around for feedback, a number of teams expressed concerns that because incoming players and their agents would know exactly what teams were picking where that some players might forgo the draft and stay in school in efforts to control where they were drafted and that some franchises might lose out on players because of the transparent certainty the “The Wheel” would provide.

As quirky as the wheel system sounded in December when it was revealed, this week it’s clear that Zarren’s Wheel system might get a lot more consideration, especially with the top three selections still being done via a smaller lottery system, something Zarren said was a tweak submitted to counter other teams concerns.

Don’t dismiss the wheel. It wouldn’t be possible to implement for almost eight years because of all the future picks that have been traded and the protections some of those trades carry but it is something the NBA is looking at among many other scenarios to remove the “incentive” to lose games that the current system seems to be fostering.

Stan And Phil Won’t Be Coaching:  You can cross Stan Van Gundy and Phil Jackson off your coaching wish list. Both former coaches said this weekend that coaching in the NBA next season was highly unlikely.

Jackson said that he does not expect to ever coach again, while Van Gundy said that he has promised his family some stability while his children finish high school.

Van Gundy admitted to Basketball Insiders that he wanted to coach again and that he’d listen to situations, but that unless his family signed off on a situation he would not be up-rooting his kids again. Van Gundy’s youngest is 14-years old, so he’s planning to be out of coaching until all of his kids graduate. Van Gundy and his family still reside in Orlando, which has led to speculation that Van Gundy at some point in the future could be a candidate to return to the Magic, which according to Magic sources is not even a discussion point. So for now, you can cross Van Gundy off the wish list. He says he’s having fun calling college basketball games and doing media, admitting he has a lot more respect for the job media members have now that he’s on that side of it.

The buzz around Phil Jackson is that several teams have Jackson at the top of their Team President list. Jackson served as an adviser to Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores this past summer and there are some that believe Jackson could be tapped by Gores to run the show in Detroit once current team president Joe Dumars’ contract expires this summer.

One league source openly questioned whether Jackson would consider the Cleveland Cavaliers, as they are expected to look for a proven championship pedigree leader for their team this summer.

Phil’s days of roaming the sidelines seem to be over, the question now becomes who can entice Jackson into their front office – that seems to be what’s next for Jackson.

The NBA Wants More:  The Sloan Conference is about data. And while most of us think about data in terms of information gathered from the game, the NBA is gathering data from every aspect of its business; mountains of data to be exact. The problem with all of this data is that no one really knows what to do with it yet.

On the basketball side, the NBA has partnered with STATS, Inc. to install cameras in every venue to gather and track spatial data. The problem is all this “SportVu” data is going into systems and no one has written really intuitive tools to extract and manipulate that data to its optimal level. During one panel discussion, Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren openly recruited User Interface developers in the middle of the panel. This was common throughout the weekend.

There is a lot of data being collected, but the tools to refine that data into useful dashboards and easy to consume tools still does not exist.

The NBA seems to have an unquenchable thirst for data, but even more so they are looking for ways to refine that data into useful tools.

The Basketball Operations side of the business is a little further down the road on what some called “rudimentary” tool sets. The business side, which is gleaning amazing information from its data, still has a ways to go.

So if you are looking for a job in the NBA and you are not a 6’3 point guard with a killer crossover, you might want to consider database user interface design classes, because it seems every team is hiring one these days.

Cracking The Chemistry Code:  As important as advanced analytics are in sports and as much as teams are learning from seeing their teams in hyper advanced ways, the tool no one has developed and every team is searching for is the chemistry tool. Sports teams across all disciplines have become really good at breaking down athletic performance and creating interesting predictive analysis tools. But the one thing teams still can’t beat is how teams come together and function effectively as a group.

A number of advanced statistical and psychology based companies like Sports Aptitude have been working to marry advanced stat data to advanced psychology data, to create tools to help teams understand how identity and select players will fit into their specific needs and culture.

The problem is that no one has been able to pull it off in a way that everyone buys into.

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As teams continue to look for answers in the data, the question they really want to be able to get to is how to identify and quantify team chemistry; that’s the Holy Grail of advanced analytics that every team is looking for.

Making A Deal Isn’t Sexy:  There was a great panel discussion on negotiating deals that was moderated by a Harvard professor Deepak Malhotra and featured Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers.

Both GMs talked about their own personal struggles in getting deals done in the NBA and both told stories of how they approached transactions this summer.

There was the expected lack of trust, which both admitted was common, in talking with other teams. Both characterized the NBA trade process as making a lot of frustrating calls. There was almost a used car salesman type vibe to some of their frustrations.

In peeking behind the curtain in a really candid and open way, it became really clear that consummating a deal in the NBA isn’t as sexy and calculated as you might think. It absolutely is a lot of salesmanship and in some situations completely about luck and timing.

Myers recalled the process of signing forward Andre Iguodala this summer, and how he had to find a way to off-load $24 million in guaranteed salary in order to create the cap space to land Iguodala. Morey laughed at his peer’s struggles saying he thought the Warriors had a zero percent change of pulling off the deal. Myers said he called every team in the league and was almost to the point where it wouldn’t happen, saying he’d agreed to a noon deadline with Iguodala’s agent and at nine that morning did not have a deal. It was a last ditch call to the Utah Jazz and an off-the-cuff offer of cash in the deal that ultimately got the trade done.

Listening to Myers explain the process, it was really clear that as polished and experienced as Myers is as an executive, pulling off the trade that allowed the team to land Iguodala was as much about timing and luck as anything else.

Another point that Myers made was how much pressure there was on him and his staff to make the deal. Ownership wanted Iguodala and was not going to walk away because the situation was complicated.

Many times in sports we view the general manager as the “buck stops here” guy, when in reality he tends to answer to someone else, who may or may not understand how everything works.

Morey characterized his owner as very hands on and aggressive, Myers did much of the same with his owner.

Myers also commented on how the external pressure does impact the process, commenting about how transactions are immediately graded and scrutinized in the media, admitting that many times team simply don’t know how a transaction or an addition is going to work out.

There tends to be this belief among fans that trades are easy to make and that teams know exactly what they are doing when they make them. In listening to Morey and Myers talk about their process, it was pretty clear that not everything is done in a massively calculated way and sometimes trying to make a deal is a shot in the dark. That’s likely why so many details of trades get out into the media, because like all sales type transactions, you do have to make calls if you want to make sales.

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