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How Monte McNair views analytics and how it could change the Kings

Let's review some of McNair's history and comments about analytics.

Most sports fans are aware of “Moneyball” the famed story about how the Oakland A’s and general manager Billy Beane introduced the usage of data to build a competitive team on a low payroll. As a result, the A’s and Major League Baseball are largely credited with helping push analytics into professional sports.

The Houston Rockets, behind general manager Daryl Morey, have relied on data to build a formula that goes against the grain in the NBA. Sometimes referred to as "Moreyball," it is largely based on taking only three-point shots, layups and dunks because the data behind the method suggests it makes more sense mathematically to do so from an efficiency standpoint.

Both Moneyball and Moreyball have given rise to the debate in front offices across different leagues about analytics v. traditional strategies to building teams. The Rockets, on the back of James Harden, have had a fair share of success over the last decade – eight straight playoff appearances, two Western Conference Finals appearances, but no Finals appearances. As a result of the playing style, the team also has set records for the most threes made.

Morey’s right-hand man in Houston since 2018 is now the general manager of the Sacramento Kings.

Monte McNair is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in computer science and began his career as a sports programmer. He spent 13 years with the Rockets, holding a variety of positions. In 2007, he joined the franchise as a Basketball Operations Senior Analyst, moving up from there to Director of Basketball Operations and Vice President of Basketball Operations, before being named Assistant General Manager in 2018.

Based on McNair’s Rockets tenure it could be assumed that Vivek Ranadive and the Kings are going to put more of an emphasis on analytics and using data to find a competitive advantage moving forward. This isn’t new to Ranadive, of course. After all, he has a background that includes being credited with digitizing Wall Street in the 1980s. And he joined the NBA as a majority owner just as analytics were becoming more prevalent in the league. The year that Ranadive took over the Kings, the league installed SportVU player tracking capabilities to deliver more data to teams. He has always been driven by disruption and innovation, and some of his reported ideas have raised questioning eyebrows –  there’s the reports of wanting try playing 4-on-5 on defense and the test experiments with the Reno Bighorns/Stockton Kings.

The Kings hired analytics legend Dean Oliver in 2014, but Oliver was let go in 2015 as former general manger Vlade Divac reportedly expressed opposition to utilizing analytics for player evaluations.

Now, Ranadive may have more of a partner in out-of-the-box thinking. Due to his background in analytics with the Rockets, McNair has been featured as a panelist a few times at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. In 2016, he appeared in a panel on coaching with Mike Brown, Vinny Del Negro, Scott Brooks and Brian Scalabrine as the moderator.

McNair was asked about the challenges of trying to get an NBA coach to buy into analytics.

“I think the initial kind of thrust to try to get them to buy in is tough, but once you get a few wins and they see that what you are doing helps them and works it just makes it easier to keep going down that path. I think the other thing is getting over the initial kind of us verse them mentality, which especially there was when I was upstairs and they’re downstairs. So being around the coaches more, them knowing that we’re on the same team trying to do the same thing allows them to at least get straight to the merits of what I’m trying to tell them instead of them trying to think, well does he have some other agenda here he’s trying to push?”

He was also asked if coaches should change their game plans based on analytics.

“Certain things they’re [analytics] going to be more helpful on. So, I don’t think you’re ever going to change your entire scheme or use just that. It’s a tool. For instance, a guy’s three point percentage is probably a little more useful from the analytics perspective, whereas something like how a team does against pick-and-roll coverage, I might be able to, actually J.B. [Bickerstaff] and I just had this conversation the other day, I said there’s nothing conclusive here, but here’s where it leads and here’s some video to go watch. So it might point to a direction on other things, but it’s not going to change big-picture stuff.”

Earlier this year, McNair returned to the Sloan Conference in a panel with Robert Eenhoorn, Joe Sill, Luke Bornn (who coincidentally is the Kings vice president of strategy and analytics) and Tom Haberstroh about learning across different sports.

McNair discussed how the Rockets front office has visited with outside non-sports organizations that are doing interesting things, such as hedge funds.

“The hedge funds are looking for the black swan to avoid it, and we’re looking for it to get it. We need that variance and so it’s like let’s just apply what you do, but instead we’re just going to take the opposite.”

McNair and the Rockets, therefore, sought the outliers despite the risks as way to gain a competitive advantage. McNair also was posed a question about NFL teams going for it more on fourth down as a way to gain an advantage, but how coaches may be hesitant to do that because of job security.

“Obviously, credit to coach [Mike] D’Antoni who has been innovating for decades at this point. But yeah, organizationally it helps to have that philosophy that hey, we’re going to try stuff until it works and I think you can look across other sports and see what they’ve done to innovate. The [Philadelphia] Eagles had two huge fourth down conversions in their Super Bowl victory, and to see teams that have done that and reap success, it just gives you a little more confidence to kind of go for it.”

But what about the small sample size there is when you are choosing methods that aren’t common?

“Somebody has got to be the first mover. But yeah, again, that’s why maybe you are going to have to be the first mover in your sport, but if you’ve seen somebody else in another sport do it, you know that you at least have a little bit of, like Luke [Bornn] said, you get a little bit of cover there.”

Bornn followed McNair’s comment up with:

“There’s also another lesson there, which is that if your objective function is championship and that’s all you want, you should be chasing volatility. If you follow the traditional path to try and get there, with actually more constrictive resources because if you are good consecutively, you don’t get good draft picks all that kind of stuff. The way to get there is to sort of add randomness and hope it works. And if it doesn’t you quickly pivot, but you have to sort of do things to try to continue to leapfrog.”

McNair also discussed how the amount of data available in basketball has increased and the infrastructure you need in place just to manage it.

“We used to get 200 events per game in the play by play, and now we’re getting thousands of events per second. The data is just enormous and you simply need the infrastructure, and that’s another one where we’ve learned from other sports who have had more data or even other industries like retail, or finance where they have tons of data and how do we actually get this in a form that we can pull it out and give it to our analysts. Then you’ve got people who have worked with imaging and more spatial areas as opposed to a lot of the regressions that we’ve kind of started with. We had a physics major with us at one point and doing some shot arc stuff and things you would never have to do before. … You need people with different skills and it’s great, it’s another place to find an advantage.”

The NBA has certainly become more data driven and the Rockets have proven to be successful over an extended period of time. Granted they have Harden and haven’t won a title, but consistent winning is a success in its own right, and Morey has given McNair a great deal of credit for that success. Based on comments from Morey, McNair assisted the Rockets with everything from free agency, the draft, trades and player evaluation. So it would seem he is more than just a data guy.  It is good to hear he believes in having strong relationships with coaches as well.

The Kings have analytics people already and Ranadive obviously believes in it, but up until now it has been a little unclear how dedicated basketball operations has been to it, at least during Divac's tenure. McNair could be the person that believes in fully adopting it with more of a strategic plan.

The Kings will introduce McNair during an introductory press conference on Wednesday at 11:30 am.

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Kosta
2 months ago

This is so backwards

from what Vlade was doing

Klam
Nostradumbass 18
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Nostradumbass 18
Nostradumbass 19
2 months ago
Reply to  Kosta

NBA 0.3

Adamsite
Nostradumbass 14
Nostradumbass 14
2 months ago
Reply to  Kosta

Yup, I was thinking the same thing. Someone needs to get a question regarding that to Vivek. I would love to hear his response.

Kosta
2 months ago

…Great write-up, Blake!

I feel pretty good about McNair after reading your article, even if I’m skeptical about Vivek.

Last edited 2 months ago by Kosta
BeTheBall
2 months ago

This was a great read.

Side note, I honestly don’t think it’s a surprise that the Rockets “have Harden and haven’t won a title”.

RobHessing
2 months ago
Reply to  BeTheBall

It’s pretty rare air, right? Kawhi, Curry, LeBron. Do we count KD?

Greg
Admin
2 months ago

I really enjoyed the video of that Sloan discussion. It was nice hearing McNair talk about analytics.

9sac8
2 months ago

Well logically fire Walton and analytically bring in Donovan.

G-naps
2 months ago
Reply to  9sac8

That works for me. And Ill even justify keeping Walton on for 1 more season due to the fact that he will have lost the locker room by the close of training and then let the tank a thon begin.

G-naps
2 months ago

but Oliver was let go in 2015 as former general manger Vlade Divac reportedly expressed opposition to utilizing analytics for player evaluations.

Its going to be a long time before the stink of stale Vlade smoke is gone from this franchise.

Wonderchild
2 months ago
Reply to  G-naps

It doesn’t have to be. We already have Bornn, and I’d assume he is retained if he wants to be here still. I’d imagine McNair would utilize his services adequately.

2 months ago

So would he announce a new coach for the team on his introduction cos’ that would be so BOSS.

Kfan
2 months ago

Great read!

Timmy_13
2 months ago

I’m so glad Vlade is gone.

The Kings hired analytics legend Dean Oliver in 2014, but Oliver was let go in 2015 as former general manger Vlade Divac reportedly expressed opposition to utilizing analytics for player evaluations.

What a fucking idiot.

Timmy_13
2 months ago

Hey Blake, love you guys.

You guys made me somewhat cautiously optimistic about this whole ordeal — even with Dumars around. I really just hope Vivek has changed for the better.

RikSmits
2 months ago

“Moreyball,” it is largely based on taking only three-point shots, layups and dunks because the data behind the method suggests it makes more sense mathematically to do so from an efficiency standpoint.

Assuming McNair is a believer of something akin to Moreyball (dibs on the term: Monteball), you have to wonder how much time Fox has to show he can hit the 3 consistently.

Last edited 2 months ago by RikSmits
rockbottom
2 months ago
Reply to  RikSmits

Seems that strategy has never worked as Dubs great at taking High Pct 2 point shots as was Toronto and Cleveland ! Searching for 3’s at the expense of easy 2’s has killed the Rockets in playoffs !

BestHyperboleEver
2 months ago
Reply to  rockbottom

They don’t search for 3s at the expense of easy 2s. They search for 3s and easy 2s at the expense of moderate and low percentage 2s.

G-naps
2 months ago
Reply to  RikSmits

Geez Daddy Bags is down voting everything these days.

Wonderchild
2 months ago
Reply to  RikSmits

I’d imagine Monte will be working on clearing the lane so Fox can get more drive and kick opportunities for his teammates. It doesn’t have to be Fox taking all of the shots, though he does need to get back at least to his 2nd year percentages.

Hozr
2 months ago
Reply to  RikSmits

you have to wonder how much time Fox has to show he can hit the 3 consistently.

Westbrook is not a great 3 pointer shooter so I doubt it will be a huge deal.

Hobby916
2 months ago

Right around the 33:20 mark of the video, Luke mentioned data on making and missing shots, FG%, and how to better measure a player’s shooting ability. He then made a sly comment about how “why aren’t we using this?” a different panelist made a remark of “who says we arent using it” and Luke said “well you guys might be”.

Sounds like he has the info and data available for the player on the Kings, and it is not being used. Hopefully he and McNair can start to implement the data that they have in order to better evaluate player talent on this team.

Greg
Admin
2 months ago
Reply to  Hobby916

There’s a reason he moved on and away from the day to day workings of the team. Maybe with Monte in charge he’ll be more actively involved again.

Jman1949
2 months ago
Reply to  Greg

If I recall correctly, he originally expressed his desire to spend time on the bench during games to provide real-time analytics to the coaches. Of course, that would have had to be balanced against the HC’s need to review the tapes!

markdog333
2 months ago
Reply to  Hobby916

I was going to post the same. I was wondering if it was a lack of resources to mine the data, or just Vlade saying up front that he doesn’t care.

Wonderchild
2 months ago
Reply to  markdog333

I’d imagine a bit of both.

2 months ago

Given who McNair is and what he’s done already for basketball as well as the rockets organization, Vivek would have to be severely mentally impaired to not back him at any possible juncture right now. (IE possibly taking Dumars side over Monte) but I’ve seen crazier things happen in the Vivek era

Gallo
2 months ago

Who are we?” says Evan, wondering who they are.

“We are what we are,” says Lyle, who is always hungry.

“Perhpas we are a figment of man’s imagination,” says Roger, who doesn’t like to be left out of conversations.

“I hope he will write that were are ‘immutable,’ ” says Evan. “I like that word.”

“Who says a ‘man’ determines our adjectives?” asks Roger, annoyed.

“You said we are a figment of a man’s imagination,” says Lyle, whose eyes probe the passing landscape for a diner. He likes diners more than anything.

“I said ‘man’s imagination,’ ” says Roger.

“Well then, I hope she will makes us ‘immutable’ and will write that we will stop at a diner soon. I am hungry,” says Lyle. “And I hope she will insert the word ‘filament’ somewhere in the story. I like that word.”

“Who are we?” says Evan. He whispers it to himself so the others cannot hear. Inwardly, he hopes that whoever has imagined them will treat them gently, justly. He hopes for a sign. Out of the car’s window he sees a red fox chasing its tail amongst dried grass. It reminds him of a very small, well-contained grass fire. “Thank you, mam,” he whispers. 

Ialmostmissthemaloofs
2 months ago
Reply to  Gallo

Ok. I’ll bite.
I am certain that there must be a clever or very valid point hidden in this passage… but alas, I am not well read enough to decipher it. Since I am unfamiliar with this dialog, if you would be so kind as to cite the original source, I would like to test my own ability to deduce the point from there.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ialmostmissthemaloofs
markdog333
2 months ago

I think you are responding to the original source.

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