x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Quants forget one key thing: greed

The sports quant is one who applies maths to facilitate a greater understanding of sport. The best way to win is to fix the game. Analyse that, whiz kids.

The world's pre-eminent "sports quants" descended upon the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past weekend for the annual Sloan School of Management's sports analytics conference. A quant is a quantitative analyst, someone who puts their faith in what mathematics can reveal about the mysteries of the physical world. The sports quant is a similar breed who applies maths to facilitate a greater understanding of sport.

While baseball may hold the unofficial title as the most quantified sport, basketball is running a close second. The event's panel included the Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, and the Houston Rocket's general manager, Daryl Morey. These two Texas-based teams have been at the forefront of basketball's statistical revolution. Several other NBA teams showed up to learn from some of the world's brightest mathematicians. Armed with numbers and super computers, the geeks are now running the playground and the teams are enthralled.

At the end of one panel discussion, the Portland Trailblazers' general manager, Kevin Pritchard, pretty much offered a job to any student who had invented a new way of analysing the game. Not wanting to get left behind, executives from Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League, as well as the English Premier League performance directors Mike Forde of Chelsea and Simon Wilson of Manchester City, were also in Boston.

As data mining improves with the constant introduction of faster and faster super-computers, so too has the ability to pick up on patterns within the data. Perhaps the most important information will reveal which combinations of five players deliver the best performances. These numbers can quantify the proverbial "team chemistry" that makes the sum of the parts better than the individual components and thus help coaches make better decisions in the game setting as well as helping team executives to sign the right players.

LeBron James told me about this valuable chemistry and how he always strove to create it with his teams from his youth league days in Akron to his current Cleveland Cavaliers team. MIT graduates are now catching on throughout the NBA, dispensing advice on which groups of players possess the best chemistry. Cuban, an early believer, ended his panel session by suggesting that the future was for the behavioural psychologists. According to Cuban, and flying in the face of the spirit of the conference, finding the right players and creating the best team chemistry was best left to the students of Carl Jung. "The psychological side is where you will find value in players," he said.

Morey suggested the best evaluation would come from a former jock who was also a quant. It was suggested that the current Los Angeles Lakers general manager, Mitch Kupchak, embodied this horse-sense-meets-statistics talent evaluator. This is not to say that the quants are wrong. It is fashionable to tear down mathematical modelling in the wake of Wall Street's collapse, yet this critique forgets to properly evaluate the impact of greed.

Kupchak deserves praise for his work in bringing a championship to Los Angeles, but he won a title because Jerry West puppeteered a preposterous trade that brought the All-Star Pau Gasol to LA from Memphis for pennies on the dollar. West's best friend, Arn Tellem, is Gasol's agent. You do the maths. The best way to win is to fix the game. Analyse that, whiz kids. @Email:sports@thenational.ae