The New Orleans Pelicans and Basketball Analytics

Published: March 6, 2014

As I discussed in a couple posts earlier this week, I attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) in Boston, MA last weekend. Overall, it was a great experience, and I met a ton of very smart basketball minds. Most of the panels to which I was able to listen were fantastic, as it gave many students and media members the chance to see how the best and brightest in the world of professional sports think. A question that merits asking, though, is how important this conference really is for actual professional sports teams to attend?

From a basketball executive perspective, every NBA team sent at least one representative to the conference. The Pelicans sent exactly one person – Somak Sarkar, a basketball operations analyst in his first year out of undergrad. If an employee with less than one year of full-time work experience was the Pelicans’ choice to send to the conference, does that say anything about the team’s stance on basketball analytics? Does who they send even matter?

The short answer is no. Estimating the level of emphasis that the Pelicans place on basketball analytics cannot be done by looking at who attends the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference; to do so more effectively, one must look at who the team employs, where they come from, and what they do. Therefore, I moved on to the basketball ops section of the Pelicans’ 2013-14 team media guide. Based on that guide and some additional research*, I was able to put together some sort of framework as far as the basketball operations group is concerned, along with brief descriptions of relevant employee backgrounds.

  • Mickey Loomis, Executive VP of Basketball Operations – Top of the Basketball Operations food chain. Loomis is also the Executive VP and General Manager of the New Orleans Saints, which could cause concern over his distribution of attention between the two roles. There are certainly some synergies to be gained from joint management, but what is the associated cost?
  • Dell Demps – Senior VP of Basketball Operations and General Manager. Working with Loomis and focusing strictly on basketball is GM Dell Demps. On the surface, it seems like Dell is a pretty big analytics guy, as both he and former right-hand man Tim Connelly (now GM of the Denver Nuggets) are on the 12-person Advisory Board for the Journal of Sports Analytics. With prominent names on that board such as Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, it would be hard to argue that Demps doesn’t care about the subject.
  • Shane Kupperman, Director of Basketball Operations – Kupperman has worked for the team for four seasons prior to this one, moving up in the ranks through his analytics efforts. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Indiana and received his graduate degree at the University of Southern Cal – also working with their basketball team for two years – before joining the New Orleans Hornets’ organization. Currently, he focuses on salary cap management, roster management, and player evaluation (Memphis Grizzlies VP of Basketball Operations John Hollinger mentioned at the SSAC that he views salary cap management as the most important thing that he does). Kupperman was recently featured in Forbes’ “30 under 30” list within the sports industry, a very impressive honor. He is also a part of the 26-member Editorial Board for the Journal of Sports Analytics, joining Demps as the second Pelicans employee with an affiliation to the journal.
  • J.J. Polk, Executive Director of Basketball Administration – Polk is in his second season with that title after two years as Director of Player Contracts and Basketball Administration. The fact that the Pelicans had a position with “player contracts” in the title by itself indicates to me that the team knows how important it is to stay on top of the salary cap. Polk has a pretty well decorated educational background: he studied economics for a year at the University of Cal-Santa Barbara before moving to Rice to attain a dual degree in political science and managerial studies (class of 1997), and received a law degree from the University of Illinois in 2004.
  • Marc Chasanoff, Coordinator of Pro Player Personnel – Chasanoff moved up the ranks with the organization as a scout, basketball operations assistant, and video coordinator. He has a wealth of experience in basketball scouting video editing and analysis, interning with the Bobcats during the 2009-10 season before coming to New Orleans full-time the following season. Overall, Chasanoff’s history indicates that this position is more of a scouting/video role, but you cannot have strong analytics without the visual data to back up your findings.
  • David Booth, Director of Player Personnel – Booth is serving his first year in this position after serving as the team’s Director of Scouting last season. Based on titles and experience – he accumulated close to ten years of scouting experience before landing this position – it would stand to reason that Chasanoff and Booth frequently work together in their player evaluation initiatives.
  • Jared Ralsky, Basketball Operations Manager – A position title that would appear to report directly to Kupperman, Ralsky is in his second season with the organization after a year as a front office assistant. Ralsky studied journalism and communications at the University of Illinois (class of 2006) and has worked in the world of basketball ever since, but doesn’t seem to have much of a data analytics background.
  • Bryson Graham, Video Coordinator & Player Development Coach – Graham is a pure basketball guy, graduating from Texas A&M in 2009 (studying HR development) after playing for the Aggies throughout his college tenure. After a year w/ the Texas A&M team as a graduate assistant, he joined came to New Orleans as a front office intern during the 2010-11 season and has been with the team ever since.
  • Dan Purcell, Basketball Operations Assistant – Purcell received his undergraduate degree in business from Lake Erie College in 2007, afterwards with The National Basketball Academy for almost six years as the Director of Basketball Operations. He joined the Pelicans before the season and primarily serves as an assistant to Dell Demps.
  • Somak Sarkar, Basketball Operations Strategic Analyst – Sarkar graduated from Rice in 2013 and interned with the Houston Rockets during the 2012-13 NBA season in their basketball operations group. Though young, an internship with Morey’s group is at least one clear indication that he knows what he’s doing.
  • Matt Whinrey, Assistant Video Coordinator – Whinrey attented IUPUI from 2003 through 2009, studying math and psychology. During his time there, he spent almost three years as a student assistant coach, and then went on to become an assistant coach in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. After that, he spent nine months as a basketball operations assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers and then nine more months as a regional scout with the NBA. He joined the Pelicans before the 2013-14 season.

Excluding four scouts, six coaches, nine miscellaneous medical or administrative-related positions, and other full-time employees or interns who are not disclosed in the media guide, it appears as if Loomis and Demps have nine basketball employees working under them in various basketball operations roles related to either game film or statistical analytics. Based on employee backgrounds and titles, it would stand to reason that Kupperman, Polk, Ralsky, Purcell, and Sarkar are the numerical analysis guys, whereas Chasanoff, Booth, Graham, and Whinrey are the visual analysis guys.

So what does this mean? What can we infer from this information? Based on the publicly available data, I think it is apparent that Dell Demps certainly values the role of analytics in building a successful basketball franchise. The names above make up a decent sized group, especially after taking this comment from John Hollinger at the SSAC into consideration. While some teams may value analytics more heavily, New Orleans clearly isn’t ignoring the movement. It does appear that there is a wealth of basketball experience and not as much analytical experience, but if you employ smart people who understand the game, they can be taught how to perform the requisite statistical analysis. If you want to question the merits or qualifications of the employees themselves, that is a discussion worth having, but doing so intelligently is far from easy without knowing more about each individual and their specific roles. Ultimately, this information makes it difficult to entertain the notion that the New Orleans Pelicans are in any way apathetic towards basketball analytics. The ensuing question, then, becomes how the analytics are applied.


*Information given about the New Orleans Pelicans’ basketball operations employees was obtained through the Pelicans’ 2013-14 Media Guide and LinkedIn.


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