Thoughts on Breaking Bad

One of the advantages of having consumed Breaking Bad entirely via Netflix (with the exception of the final eight episodes, which AMC aired as part of a marathon on 12/30 and 12/31) is that I missed out entirely on all of the reviews and the commentary that must have happened immediately following (and during) each episode as it aired originally. This means that, as far as I know, all of the rambling, unrelated thoughts that follow in this post are original and have never been published by anyone else.

(Of course I know that any such pretense is delusional; nothing you will read here is unique, or even terribly thought-provoking. But, after that finale—which I watched, alone, last night at around 1:30 AM—and that series, like many of you, I need to say something, even just for my own edification.)

So, here I present my assorted thoughts and reactions and would love to engage in some “therapy” via comments if you agree/disagree, or just want someone to hold you digitally after seeing what went down in Albuquerque.

* * *

My text, as it were, is Alan Sepinwall’s entertaining (if not exactly life-changing) The Revolution Was Televised, which chronicles the rise of television as the preferred medium for crafting and consuming drama over (primarily) the past 15 years. Of the 10 shows Sepinwall discusses, I have heavily invested in only three: Friday Night Lights, LOST, and now Breaking Bad. Those other two shows serve, for me, as points of comparison in judging Breaking Bad. I am going to add a fourth point of comparison, which Sepinwall mentions as having been so close to making his list, but ultimately left on the cutting-room floor: The West Wing. These four shows represent my four favorite TV dramas of all-time, by far.

I won’t bore you with an exhaustive tale-of-the-tape, but in my mind I have to refer in particular to LOST and West Wing when I try to put Walter White into some context.

* * *

Perhaps the most striking thing about Breaking Bad to me was its complete and utter lack of preachiness. It had no objective—no real lesson to teach us. And why should it? Once you decide that your show is going to lay wisdom on the audience, aren’t you sort of boxed in? Plot has to develop in a certain way; characters do and say things according to a code that you have established.

Breaking Bad was total anarchy. Was there ever a point at which you were sure of how the plot was going to break? Or how a character was going to react to a stimulus? Well, okay, maybe when you still believed Walt that he was doing everything for his family. But even that turned out to be a falsehood.

Contrast this with, say, LOST. It was far from preachy, but it was far more heavy-handed in the way that it warned about the consequences of actions, usually via flashbacks. With the benefit of hindsight, we could easily see how characters’ poor choices had made them unhappy. In Breaking Bad, even though we see Walt’s steady transformation, we are never given a clear window for reflection.

The West Wing, far more than either of the other two shows just mentioned, had not just a political agenda but also a moral agenda. It did not just want you to believe in a platform, it wanted you to be honest and make good choices and be patient and weigh both sides of issues. It wanted to teach you how to live. Personally, I found its approach not to be holier-than-thou, and so it didn’t bother me that President Bartlet, and really Matt Santos after him, seemed to be a little too perfect. Even LOST, though, could not help philosophizing on its way out the door, with Christian Shephard explaining how people need each other.

It’s not just that Walt was incapable of reflection by the end of the series—I’m sure the writers could have come up with an elegant way for him to say something about his purpose that would have made us all stop and say, “Ah, wisdom!”—it is that they had the wherewithal not to take the bait.

And that is both refreshing and disorienting. We are used to TV shows (again, even the good ones) trying to bestow wisdom. Instead, Breaking Bad said, “Here is some stuff that happened. Any lessons that you want to draw, you can draw, but you do so only from the events you observed, and not because we were trying to convey something.” And we loved it.

* * *

There is this rumor, now apparently confirmed, that Sir Anthony Hopkins wrote a letter to Bryan Cranston in which Hopkins said, “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen—ever.” And later: “If you ever get a chance to – would you pass on my admiration to everyone—Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Steven Michael Quezada—everyone—everyone gave master classes of performance . . . The list is endless.”

At first, I was skeptical of the authenticity of the letter—the tone seemed a little too ebullient and complimentary—but I also couldn’t argue. TV is so good at plucking little-known actors seemingly out of thin air and turning them into Emmy winners. With the exception of Cranston and Odenkirk (well, and the episode of Parks & Recreation where Jonathan Banks plays Ben Wyatt’s dad), I had never seen any of these actors or actresses before. But Hopkins is right; from episode one it was a set of performances unlike anything I have seen before.

But there is one casting choice that stands out—at least to me personally—as particularly dissonant, and I hope it was intended that way: Jesse Plemons as Todd, the nephew of the neo-Nazi crew that Walt begins hiring to do his dirty work in Season Five. Why dissonant? Because Plemons is best known as the nerdy, kind Landry Clarke from Friday Night Lights. Unlike with the dad from Malcolm in the Middle, we don’t see a lengthy transition in Todd. It is true that we do not know the depths of his depravity from the start, but we only know him for 13 episodes. And, by the end, it is clear that he is a different sort of psychopath than Walt: incapable of empathy, happy to kill innocent people, and lusting for misery (typified by the way he gives ice cream to the captive Jesse and then cheerfully executes Andrea seemingly within a matter of minutes). Even though he has the same manner of speech, he is the polar opposite of Landry Clarke. There are two kinds of “bad guys,” and Breaking Bad used both kinds perfectly: those who look the part, and those who look anything but. Turning Landry into Todd was almost better than the slow revelation of Gus’ depravity, or Walt’s. It was a fascinating, almost manipulative contrast from the very first frame, and the sort of thing that Breaking Bad was all about.

* * *

As I sat alone last night watching the last six episodes, I came to the point where Walt leaves the house with Holly, while Skyler falls her to knees in the street. As a father of three young kids, this was the most panic-inducing scene of television I have ever watched. I almost had to turn it off but I knew that I would not be able to settle down if I did so.

I’m rarely “affected” by media. I can point to a handful of scenes across a number of shows and films that drew a real emotional reaction from me, but never anything quite like Holly’s kidnapping. I am told that this was generally regarded as the best episode of the series, and on the basis of IMDb ratings it might be the best episode of television ever; unless I am reading this wrong, it scored a perfect 10/10 based on almost 44,000 ratings.

There is no way I can argue with that score. It was a 10.

* * *

So, where does it rank on my list? I have been struggling with this question since last night. I have decided that I can’t rank Walter White and Jesse Pinkman against Josh Lyman and Leo McGarry, or against Jack Shephard and Kate Austen, or against Eric Taylor and Matt Seracen. Breaking Bad is too different. Perhaps all four of these shows are too different to be ranked against one another.

Come to think of it, I am not sure why we are so obsessed with ranking things. Does the fact that Breaking Bad is so tremendous somehow disparage Friday Night Lights?

Of course there is the “if you were stuck on a desert island, which would you take?” test, and (amusingly, given the premise of that scenario) I would have to take LOST, because it spurs the imagination in a way that the other three shows don’t.

Fortunately, I am not stuck on a desert island, and the ability of Breaking Bad to suck you in to this world of relative morals and the perfect anti-hero puts it right up there. I’m going with a three-way tie. A Mexican standoff, if you will—a place where Walter Hartwell White would have been very much at home.

2013 Robert Horry Memorial Playoffs All-”Rising Stock” Team

The 2013 NBA playoffs are over, and it’s time to reflect. In my opinion, one of the most fascinating lenses through which to view any NBA playoffs is in terms of players whose stock rose the most with the spotlight on them.

It felt like this playoffs featured more big names turning into stars, and more marginal guys turning into big names, than in the past few years. And, as often happens, it seemed like every time one surprising star got eliminated, it seemed that another emerged in the next round.

(I could have named this team after any of the dozens of players who have made names for themselves in the postseason, but I chose Robert Horry because I couldn’t think of anyone whose success was more closely tied to the playoffs than Big Shot Bob. And yes, I know Horry is not dead.)

So here is my 2013 Robert Horry Memorial* Playoffs All-”Rising Stock” team:

Stephen CurryStephen Curry – Guard, Golden State Warriors

Do you remember the first round? It was a while ago. In the first round, Curry was THE guy in the NBA. Nobody was more exciting for the first six games of the playoffs (plus that ridiculous 18-35 performance in 58 minutes in game one against the Spurs before he got worn out and/or injured). Curry averaged almost four three-pointers a game while shooting 44% from beyond the arc, 47% from the floor, did not miss a free throw in the Denver series, and almost managed to dish out almost 10 assists per game.

Mike Conley – Guard, Memphis Grizzlies

This was the playoffs where everyone realized that Memphis may not have wildly overpaid when they signed Conley to a five-year, $40 million extension a couple of years ago. We came to appreciate his defense, and the way he works the pick-and-roll. He didn’t set the world on fire with his shooting in the postseason, but he also didn’t turn the ball over, distributed nicely, and rebounded. Fans of franchises without all-star PG came out of the playoffs dreaming of this guy.

Danny Green – Guard, San Antonio Spurs

You’re sick of the Danny Green story by now: cut numerous times, played in the D-League, etc. But for five glorious games in the NBA Finals, Green was the best outside shooter in the NBA. At one point, he was 25-38 from three in the series. We knew Green was dangerous, but trending-on-Twitter-multiple-times dangerous? No chance. The only question is: do you now claim to have known Green had this in him before the series started, or are you honest?

Nate Robinson – Guard, Chicago Bulls

It was a playoffs full of amazing individual games, and until game six of the finals, perhaps none was more amazing than Chicago 142, Brooklyn 134 in triple overtime. This was “The Nate Robinson Game.” 34 points on 14-23 FG and a completely silly flying bank shot. Robinson, along with Joakim Noah, epitomized the underdog Bulls. 17 points on 51% shooting in round one meant that we all wanted to see what highlight-reel play this diminutive point guard would make next.

Kawhi LeonardKawhi Leonard – Forward, San Antonio Spurs

By the end of one of the best NBA Finals ever, was Kawhi Leonard the most dependable player on a dependable team? I say yes, despite the infamous missed free throw in game six. He averaged a double-double while guarding LeBron James for much of the series, and seemed to pour in big shot after big shot after key defensive play. A second-year SF who averaged 55% from the floor and 40% from three in the playoffs, plus 8.7 RPG? Yes please.

Paul George – Forward, Indiana Pacers

It’s possible that nobody’s stock rose higher in this playoffs than George’s. Even though George was an all-star this past season, playing in Indiana limited his exposure. But in taking the Heat to seven games, George was, in a word, ridiculous. He hit from anywhere and everywhere, going for 48% FG and 44% 3P in the Heat series (twisting the knife for many Jazz fans). It’s the best when a young guy already on a star trajectory makes “the leap” on the biggest stage.

Chris “Birdman” Andersen – Forward, Miami Heat

I know this is the choice you all are going to hate. Birdman is the oldest guy on this list by far, and it isn’t so much that his stock rose as an asset, but he definitely became something of a household name. In part, this is because everyone on the Heat is a celebrity (especially those with tattoo turtlenecks), and a bunch of casual fans now know this guy. But it’s also because Andersen at one point made 17 straight field goals. Miami definitely doesn’t win game one against Indiana without his physical play at both ends.

Roy Hibbert – Center, Indiana Pacers

Hibbert is another guy who, like Conley, engendered skepticism when he signed a four-year, $58 million extension last July. It didn’t help matters that Hibbert was then lackluster for much of the regular season. But he upshifted when it mattered most, averaging more than three blocks per game against the Knicks, then turning in a 22.1/10.4 line against the Heat. His block on Carmelo Anthony late in game six against New York and the charge he drew by going straight up against LeBron in game six of the ECF were things of beauty. With Dwight Howard falling apart physically and mentally, is Hibbert the best defensive center in the NBA?

Marc Gasol – Center, Memphis Grizzlies

It was a great postseason for Memphis overall, but perhaps nobody rose in prominence more than the large Spaniard. The fact that “Did Memphis end up with the better Gasol brother after all?” was a legitimate question among NBA fans by the end of the second round should tell you everything you need to know. 17.2/8.5 for a big man with range who can block shots is a solid postseason effort.

Honorable mention: David West (IND; great playoffs but overshadowed by George and Hibbert); Klay Thompson (GSW; overshadowed by Curry), Chandler Parsons (HOU; had a good series, but didn’t stick out the way that others on the list did), Kirk Hinrich (CHI; because people realized that the Bulls don’t win without him), Chris Copeland (NYK; ridiculous from three, and a fan favorite, but his team lost the only series where he played significant minutes), Boris Diaw (SAS; against all odds, had a decent NBA Finals and avenged himself from all of those “Fat Boris Diaw” jokes). 

So that’s the team. The fact that there was Did I miss anyone? Let me know in the comments.

 

Staying Home

It happened again. Another loudmouth on Twitter proclaimed himself the Commissioner of Being a Good Sports Fan and declared, essentially, that none of us has any right to complain about our teams if we are not going to the games. Because, of course, “true fans” go to all the games.

True fans do this, true fans do that.

It’s not quite the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, but it’s close. And people keep saying it.

First of all, I am not aware of a cabinet-level position that gives anyone the right to decide what makes a true fan. So please do us all a favor and stop pretending that what you say matters (although, to your credit, it did inspire this blog post, so you’ve got that going for you).

But, second, let me tell you all the reasons I typically avoid LaVell Edwards Stadium like the plague despite being, I think, a pretty huge BYU football fan:

  • At home, I have an HD TV.
  • At home, I have a remote control so I don’t have to watch freshmen make fools of themselves trying to kick field goals during commercial breaks.
  • At home, I have free food that is better than anything you pay $45 for at the stadium.
  • At home, I have a couch, which is extremely comfortable and inviting unlike the metal benches (with the roughly 36 square inches of space they allow you).
  • At home, I do not have to be surrounded by idiots yelling at the coaches, players, and officials at the tops of their lungs despite the fact that nobody who can hear them cares what they have to say.
  • At home, I can show up for the game whenever I want with no traffic, and when the game is over I don’t have to sit in the mass exodus for an hour.
  • At home, I actually get cell service so I can talk to a theoretically unlimited number of friends about the game while I am watching it.
  • At home, I have every stat in the world at my finger tips; I can analyze the game from every angle that you can in the stadium and then some.

So what’s the argument against staying home? The “thrill” of being surrounded by 74,000 of your closest friends? Yeah. . . no thanks. Not only does that not do it for me, but it also has nothing whatsoever with being a “true fan” (if there is such a thing). But hey, knock yourself out, Mr. Commissioner.

Arbitrariness. Such a confusing thing.

Good GM, Bad GM: Late Bloomers and Draft Prowess

I don’t expect to receive an answer to this question since I know there only three of you out there reading my blog, but I’m going to ask it anyway.

Let’s say you’re evaluating an NBA GM’s drafting/scouting ability. Should he get credit for picks who ultimately turned into solid players, but did so only after leaving the team that drafted them? Take, for example, Kris Humphries. I know you think he’s overpaid, but don’t forget that after his two seasons with the Jazz, everyone believed he was a total bust. He notched just 0.1 total Win Shares during his first two seasons in the NBA. But fast forward a few seasons and Humphries has tallied a totally respectable 10.7 Win Shares while averaging a double-double over his past two seasons with the Nets. So should Kevin O’Connor get credit for drafting Humphries, a serviceable NBA starter, even though the Utah Jazz never benefited directly from that pick?

This is vaguely similar to questions digital marketers face around multi-touch attribution. If a user arrives at your site by clicking a paid search link in Google but does not purchase, and then a month later arrives at your site by typing your address into his browser and this time he does purchase, should that original paid search click-through get credit? If so, how much? It’s a little different because most NBA players would have been drafted eventually anyway; if Kevin O’Connor hadn’t picked Humphries, someone else would have, and we’d be wondering whether that person deserves credit.

I can see arguments both ways. A GM who picks a player who only pans out later in his career might have correctly read the player’s potential, and we should reward that GM for his vision. But a GM’s job is to deliver concrete wins to his team via the draft, and a late bloomer does not help his cause. In case anyone is out there reading, leave me a comment: what do you think?

Pickup Basketball Purism

I tweeted about this last night, but 140 characters just wasn’t enough for me to state my case regarding the scoring in pickup basketball. (I only tackle the really important issues on this blog.)

pickup basketballI love pickup basketball. In fact, the widespread availability of pickup basketball is one of the best reasons to live in Utah. Not only do we have YMCA-like fitness centers in every town, but on any given weeknight or weekday morning there is an 87.9% chance that there are four churches where guys are playing ball within a one-mile radius of any given location along the Wasatch Front. I love that every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 6:00 AM I drive for two minutes and I’m at basketball. Same thing on Thursday nights. Oh, and sometimes I play during lunch at work. (Despite all of this, I’m pretty terrible.)

What I don’t love is keeping score by 1s and 2s. You know, what would normally be a two-point field goal in high school, college, NBA, or really any organized form of basketball becomes a one-pointer, and a three-pointer counts for two.

Here’s my argument:

  1. Basketball—real basketball—has what I consider to be a fairly simple scoring system. If it were, say, pickup figure skating, or even pickup tennis, I could see wanting to simplify the score-keeping. But honestly, how hard is it to credit each team with two points for any basket inside the three-point line, and three points for any basket outside it? Am I missing something here?
  2. More importantly, counting by 1s and 2s fundamentally changes the game. By making a three-pointer worth twice as much as a two, instead of 1.5x, you’re possibly incenting people to play outside; you’re giving them a good reason to play bad (i.e., not very fun) basketball. When a three is a three and a two is a two, the upside of jacking up a bunch of threes probably doesn’t outweigh the upside of good ball movement and working for a decent shot inside. But when you’re counting by 1s and 2s, suddenly it might make more sense to play three or four guys around the arc and hoist up three point tries all game. Three-pointer after three-pointer is great for the shooter(s) when he’s hitting. . . and completely annoying for everyone else. Everyone hates the guy who brings the ball up the floor and then calls his own number by pulling up for a three. I’m not saying people consciously decide to play differently when counting by 1s and 2s, but the possibility is there (and it doesn’t need to be; see point #1).
  3. Along these same lines, remember, there are no free throws in pickup basketball, so even if you’re counting by 2s and 3s in a pickup game, the incentive to shoot a lot of threes is already higher than it is in organized basketball. Let’s say I’m an NBA player who shoots 50% generally from inside the three-point arc and 40% outside of it. Some fans look at this and say, 40% * 10 three-point tries = 12 points and 50% * 10 two-point tries is = 10 points, so shouldn’t you always take the three? The answer is no, primarily because this faulty analysis ignores the fact that in organized basketball you are far more likely to get fouled and produce valuable free throws when shooting inside the three-point line (driving to the basket or helping to create shots for teammates), so your two-point tries are more valuable than they seem on the face of it. The possibility of creating free throws does not exist in pickup basketball, whether you’re counting by 1s and 2s or whether you’re counting by 2s and 3s, so you’re already more incentivized to play outside than you normally would be; why make things even worse by increasing the value of a three-pointer unnecessarily?

As you can tell, I’ve given this some thought. And maybe that’s because I’m too much of a purist; the NBA and college ball have been playing with 2s and 3s since the early 1980s, and the ABA had it even earlier. It just seems silly to change something that works so well.

So now I am counting on you, all three of my blog readers (hi mom!), to tell me what I’m missing. Who invented counting by 1s and 2s and why did they do it? Do you have a preference and why? Did I miss something important?

NBA Team KPIs

Bear with me for a minute, basketball fans.

If you work in digital analytics, you are familiar with the concept of the Key Performance Indicator (KPI). A KPI is a piece of data, shown over time, that gives you immediate insight into how your business is performing against your goals. Sometimes they are very general (such as Orders per Visit, a.k.a. Conversion Rate) and sometimes they are more specific (for example, Bounce Rate for visitors coming from search). These things are lifeblood of some business goal you’ve set. A business typically has several KPIs that they monitor every day. And not every metric is a KPI; a common rule is that it isn’t a KPI unless it’s something that, if decreasing below acceptable norms, would cause your business to take immediate action to rectify.

If you don’t work in digital analytics, but you are an NBA fan, we can finally explain KPIs to you using NBA statistics, a language you probably already speak. Here it is, courtesy of basketball-reference.com:

How do basketball teams win games? While searching for an answer to that question, Dean Oliver identified what he called the “Four Factors of Basketball Success”:

Shooting (40%)
Turnovers (25%)
Rebounding (20%)
Free Throws (15%)

The number in parentheses is the approximate weight Mr. Oliver assigned each factor. Shooting is the most important factor, followed by turnovers, rebounding, and free throws.

The article goes on to explain that each of those four factors is expressed in a rate: Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Rate, Rebounding Rate, and Free Throw Rate. These have all the markings of good KPIs. I want to be as good as I can be in each of those four areas, and if I succeed, I’m almost definitely going to win basketball games.

If I were compiling a basketball team, or coaching a basketball team (or advising a basketball team on how to begin analyzing itself), those would be my first KPIs. Those are the metrics that I would use to gauge success. And while basketball, like business, has one metric that trumps all others (for basketball, it’s wins; for business, it’s profit), these are strong leading indicators of a team’s ability to win.

So, basketball fan, think of your digital analytics friends as something like basketball coaches who are looking at effective field goal percentage and benching that wing player who won’t stop taking threes early in the shot clock, or a GM who sees that his team is weak in rebounding and therefore targets an athletic big man in the NBA Draft. It’s clear to an NBA fan, looking at how his team is performing in each of the Four Factors, how a coach or GM might address a deficiency in these areas, just as analysts are great at coming up with recommendations when a KPI is struggling and needs to improve.

In fact, that’s the great thing about KPIs: they provide a really nice, simple jumping off point for analysis. Why were the Jazz so bad at eFG% this past season? We can begin to answer that problem for management with some very specific advice, especially when we add in analysis of shot location and lineups/rotations. Why are my web site visitors who arrive after performing a Google search leaving so quickly? We can look at that user segment and see what they’re doing and where they are running into roadblocks, or look at our landing pages and analyze them for effectiveness. Same thing.

So now you’ve got something to talk about with your digital analyst friends. And digital analysts, you can ask your NBA friends how their team’s turnover rate has been trending lately. Your next cocktail party is sure to be a smashing success!

Intruder

Last night I woke up in my hotel room at around 3:00 AM. I got up to go to the bathroom. The bathroom door has a full-length mirror on the outside of it. Thus, as I approached the door in the nearly total dark of my room I saw a figure coming toward me.

It so terrified/startled me that I briefly lost feeling in my left foot, and did not get back to sleep until 4:00 AM.

C’mon, Marriott. There has got to be a better place for that mirror.

FAQ

Eight months ago, on this blog, I described with excitement my decision to leave Adobe and join ESPN as an analytics manager. At the time, I knew that I was embarking on a tremendous learning experience, and I thought I even knew how everything would go. Sports, analytics, and New England; how could I lose? Call it a youthful sense of invincibility, if you will.

Well, as of this past Monday, I have rejoined Adobe, and I am thrilled, excited, and grateful for the entire turn of events. The Adobe Digital Marketing Summit took place this past week in Salt Lake City, and as I wandered the halls of the Salt Palace among colleagues, customers, and industry folks, a few things happened.

First, I felt like I was home, immediately. Second, I answered a barrage of questions about the past eight months. I took mental note of these questions and I’m going to answer them here, in good old FAQ form. So here we go.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT BEN’S RETURN TO ADOBE

Q: So. . . what happened?

A: This is actually a tremendously complicated question, but I will simplify it by saying that once I started at ESPN, I quickly started to realize that making software is what gets me out of bed in the morning. When one of the engineers at Adobe asked me this question, I told him that I was sure he could go be a fantastic analyst, but he probably wouldn’t enjoy it—he needs to be programming and solving problems using code. That’s just in his DNA. I certainly could have stuck it out—and, in fact, tried to stick it out—but it wasn’t for me. If I needed to spend this time in order to learn that lesson, I can’t say that it wasn’t worth it. I’ve got a strong sense of direction for the foreseeable future, and that’s valuable.

Q: How were the people at ESPN?

A: They were great, and I consider many of them friends. In fact, I saw them at Summit and it wasn’t weird. . . well, it wasn’t too weird, at least. I’m so grateful that they gave me a chance. They’re brilliant and they are doing cutting-edge things with digital analytics. If you ever have a chance to them talk about cross-platform analysis, as my former VP Dave Coletti did at eMetrics NYC last October, you will know what I mean.

Q: What will you be doing at Adobe?

A: I’m returning to the Product Management team, working on analytics products—SiteCatalyst and more. When I originally joined that team almost two years ago, I wrote that I felt like a minor-league baseball player getting the call-up to the majors to play with his heroes. I still feel that way, and am excited to be part of such a bright and talented group. It seems that Adobe’s recent acquisitions have only added to the brainpower and passion. I hope that I now bring at least a little bit of unique insight having been an analytics practitioner for most of the past year.

Q: Are you staying in Connecticut, or moving back to Utah?

A: Actually, we have really enjoyed our time in Connecticut. The area is beautiful and our neighborhood is full of kids who want to play with our daughters almost constantly. But we still own our home in Utah, and rented in Connecticut, and it’s time to get back to the family and friends that we’ve missed so badly. But we had a great quality of life in both Utah and Connecticut. We will definitely miss Connecticut and hope to visit our friends there in the future.

Q: Why did you go back to Adobe?

A: First, as I mentioned above, I need to be in tech/software. That’s a given. Second, I believe in what Adobe is doing in digital marketing and I want to be a part of it. Third, there is a reason that Adobe consistently appears on Fortune’s “top places to work” list. It really is a fantastic company in too many ways to list here, but I especially love the way Adobe trusts its employees and values input from all over the organization. At least, that has been my experience, and I hope it will be again.

A personal appeal to Jazz fans

I loved this quote from Bill Simmons’ recent 2012 NBA Trade Value column:

On TV a few weeks ago, Chris Webber said something that made me say, “I wish I had thought of that first.”They were talking about trades, and C-Webb pointed out that championship teams are always stubborn. In other words, instead of caving to the whims of their fans, the pressure of the media, the ebbs and flows of a season (or even someone’s career) or especially conventional wisdom, they say to themselves, “Screw this, I know what I have, I’m sticking with it.”

So, Jazz fans, you want a GM with a championship mentality, or one who wavers and waffles?

I know you hate Kevin O’Connor’s strategy: get very young, develop talent, suffer through a few seasons in the lower half of the conference, then emerge with a core that can contend for a top spot in out west. You want to win now. If you could trade Paul Millsap or Derrick Favors for a wing who can shoot, you would do it in a heartbeat, even though it would only make the Jazz a seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs, right? It’s almost like you expect not to be alive in two or three years, and all you want to do before the heart attack comes is see one more Jazz playoff series, at any cost.

You’re being ridiculous. Here are two people who are on record saying that they see O’Connor’s vision and they like it: John Hollinger and Chad Ford. It’s cute that you have 1,300 Twitter followers, but you don’t know the NBA as well as those two men do. I’m sorry, but you don’t. (I certainly don’t, either.) When they want to understand what the Jazz are trying to do, they can actually pick up the phone and call people around the league to discuss. Or they use (or invent!) advanced statistical measures that give us more an accurate, data-driven sense of what is really going on. In most ways, we can’t compete with that. We see C.J. Miles jacking up threes early in the shot clock and we cannot understand why that guy is on the Jazz roster, without bothering to understand that C.J. has actually been a more efficient offensive player this season than Kyle Korver. (I’m not defending wasted possessions, just pointing out that our view of the world is heavily skewed sometimes. It’s confirmation bias: we tend to see evidence that supports our position. We see the worst in C.J. because we’ve already decided that we dislike him.) This is all that Hollinger and Ford do. (Well, Ford also teaches at BYU-Hawaii, actually.) This is their life! They’re certainly not always right, but are any of us? I’ll take my chances with two smart, accomplished, respected NBA analysts, and they’re taking their chances with a stubborn Kevin O’Connor.

Look, if we were talking about a perennial bottom-dweller then I would say sure, let’s talk about firing KOC. You’re so used to winning that you have no idea how weird life could be under David Kahn or Bryan Colangelo. Growing up in Boston during the M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino eras, let me tell you: I know what a franchise devoid of direction looks like. Stubbornness is most definitely a positive trait.

You’re welcome to hate this team, hate the coach, hate the GM. But by ignoring your persistent whining and demands that KOC mortgage the farm for Rajon Rondo (who, by the way, is a HORRIFIC outside shooter) or Wesley Matthews (he’s not coming through that door, to borrow a line from the aforementioned Pitino era in Boston), O’Connor is actually displaying a trait that demonstrates one reason why he is general manager and we work elsewhere.

So here’s hoping that KOC ignores us all and sticks to the plan.

(I will now record a YouTube video in the style Chris Crocker called “LEAVE KEVIN O’CONNOR ALONE!” Where did I put my blonde wig?)

Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: Day Two

As I have been tweeting, blogging, and updating Facebook about the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I keep hearing comments like: “I wish I could go, but I will never be able to” and “this is definitely on my bucket list now.” A few things about this. First, at $500 for non-student admission, it’s a bargain; even with hotel and airfare I’ll bet most of you could do this conference for well under $1,500, and it will be a truly memorable experience. So start saving a few dollars a week in a cookie jar today. Second—and I don’t think people realize this—anyone can attend. You don’t need to work for ESPN or an NBA franchise. My sister has a friend who does Account Management for Google, but he loves sports and analytics so he pays his own way to fly out every year from the Bay Area. All are welcome.

The other thing which pleasantly surprised me (I touched on it yesterday) is that you do not need to be a Ph.D. candidate in advanced statistical modeling or econometrics to thoroughly enjoy the conference. There were some sessions that really stretched that area of my brain, and others that were accessible even to non-sports fans, let alone non-academics. So don’t let that scare you away.

Highlights and thoughts from day two:

  • There was a request on Facebook to hear more about Bill James. As the godfather of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he was definitely one of the stars of the show. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like he shared much new information about himself or his work. Simmons did a live BS Report with James at the end of day one, during which they rehashed his rise from unheralded part-time stats geek to patron saint of sports nerds, but it’s all stuff we read about in Moneyball. Day two featured a “Boxscore Rebooted” panel with James, John Thorn (MLB historian), and John Dewan (baseball info solutions), but most of it is so widely accepted in these circles at this point (“Wins for a pitcher is too arbitrary! The Internet makes analytics easier!”) that I barely took notes. To be honest, it felt really strange to be so nonplussed by this guy who quite literally invented advanced baseball analytics. In talking to a few other attendees, I got the sense that I’m not the only one. We all have tremendous deference for what Bill James has given the world, but he does not seem to be on the bleeding edge of sports analytics anymore.
  • The conference (at least this year) leaned heavily toward basketball, probably because the millennials who dominated the conference are in a demographic where the NBA is excelling, whereas I believe I heard that the average baseball fan is between 45 and 55 years old.
  • I reviewed three basketball-themed research papers in yesterday’s post, but the best was yet to come. The two best research papers by far (in my mind) dealt with “spacial analytics” in the NBA, meaning the study of where the 10 players and the basketball are placed on the floor (or in the air) when key events occur, as opposed to pouring over isolated numbers to obtain insight. Jared Dubin of Hardwood Paroxysm did an excellent job reviewing these two presentations (he even has screen captures), so I won’t go into too much detail.
  • I will add that I thought the rebounding study was not fully matured—it presented a ton of potential to help teams understand how to position players in rebounding situations, but it wasn’t quite there yet. Key Insight: Teams’ offensive rebounding percentage decreases significantly the farther the shooter is from the basket, until you get to the three point line. Behind the three point line, offensive rebounds are more common than for mid-range jumpers. Especially considering that neither a mid-range jumper nor a three is likely to generate a lot of free throws, it stands to reason that mid-range jumpers are the least effective shot on the floor (which we’ve all kind of known for some time, but it’s nice to have data to back up the theory).
  • My absolute favorite research paper was Kirk Goldsberry’s creation of the “Range %” number, a statistic which tells us the percentage of spots on the floor where players are effective scorers (defining “effective scorer” as “one point per FGA”). The average NBA player is effective from 17.2% of the 1,284 spots on the floor that Goldsberry measured by breaking the floor into a grid. Even though Tyson Chandler leads the NBA in FG%, he is far below average in Range %, scoring effectively from just 4.3% of the floor (not that anybody thinks Chandler’s high FG% means he is a great shooter). Dubin recaps the top few players in Range %. I was mildly surprised that Steve Nash beat out Ray Allen for the top spot (using data from 2006-2011), but mostly the data confirmed what you would expect in terms of the most comfortable shooters and least comfortable shooters. Key Insight: I can’t express this in terms of a specific recommendation, but Goldsberry’s most immediately applicable contributions are “heat maps” which show exactly where players are effective scores, as well as where they are less effective but still love to try. If I were a coach, I would buy Goldsberry’s technology (he did have a chance to share his methods with Mark Cuban at the end of the conference, so I assume the Mavs will be employing it shortly) and try to get my defense to force opposing scorers to the spots on the floor where they can be coaxed into shooting despite low effectiveness. Similarly, I would design plays that put my players in the best position to score from spots on the floor where they shoot well. It’s not rocket science, but I believe it would work. Isn’t this the kind of thing that Shane Battier has been doing for years? (And where has he been getting his data? Presumably just from video scouting. Goldsberry’s method is more complete.)
  • Best panel of the entire conference in my mind was Saturday’s “Fanalytics” featuring Bill Simmons, Jonathan Kraft, Tim Brosnan (EVP Business, MLB), Nathan Hubbard (CEO of Ticketmaster), and John Walsh (EVP, ESPN). It was supposed to have Mark Cuban on it as well, which would have been even better, but Cubes was running late. The whole thing was about improving the fan experience through technology. This one deserves sub-bullets:
    • The NFL is improving in every possible metric except for fan attendance. Today’s fan needs to be able to use the Internet on mobile devices (for Twitter, fantasy football, live video of other games, etc.) or they won’t come to the game. Mark Cuban doesn’t want people using their cell phones at NBA games, but the NFL recognizes that its whole fan experience model is different because of the pace of the game (frequent stops and starts) as well as the nature of the NFL (everything is happening all at once, on the same day of the week).
    • Kraft: “We’ve spent $2-3 million [to upgrade WiFi infrastructure at Gillette Stadium] in the last couple of years.” He continued, saying that to allow 70,000 people to stream video over WiFi at Gillette would cost “literally tens of millions of dollars.”
    • Simmons asked whether it would be feasible to charge different prices for tickets not just by section, but by individual seat. For example, one section at an NBA game might stretch from the baseline to almost mid-court, and why are those tickets priced the same? I had wondered this, since obviously the technology to price tickets on a seat-by-seat level exists. The answer is that if a fan sees that the guy next to him has a different face value on his ticket, he is likely to get resentful and angry. So they do it by section and live with the fact that this isn’t fully optimized pricing.
    • On the night of the AFC Championship Game, when Kraft wanted to relive Billy Cundiff’s missed FG, he went not to NFL.com, but to YouTube. This is surprising since the NFL maintains strict media rights, and the video was available on NFL.com. Why YouTube? Because a guy sitting in the endzone had the perfect angle to film the kick sailing wide left, and had uploaded the video. It was the best angle Kraft had seen. The lesson regarding NFL media rights and fan-shot video? “You can’t stop it, so you better start learning how to use it.”
    • TicketMaster operates both a primary ticket vendor and a secondary market vendor (TicketsNow), so they can use Omniture (nice shout out for my friends) to analyze ticket re-selling and compare with original sales. According to Hubbard, “Technology is showing us that our tickets are worth more than what we’re selling them for.”
  • Weird recurring theme of the conference was presenters’ inability to pronounce player names. The professionals did not have this problem, but the student researchers did. The two most egregious (and there were others) were the old classic “Da-RON” Williams instead of “DARE-in” and the even-less-excusable Kevin “Dur-ONT” instead of “Dur-ANT.” I mean, Kevin Durant is a top-three player. How can you be presenting on the NBA at a conference of sports nerds and not pronounce his name correctly?

I could keep going, but I need to stop somewhere. Suffice it to say, SSAC was an absolute blast. I can already see myself looking at certain aspects of game action and the sports world at large a little differently, in a good way. As I said to people numerous times during the conference, I will definitely be coming back, even if I have to plunk down my own money to do it. Sports and data, together at last. I think it’s a beautiful thing.