Monte McNair, the VP of Basketball Operations for the Rockets, participated in a panel with Scott Brooks, Mike Brown, and Vinny Del Negro at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
The presentation, "Modern NBA Coaching: Balancing Team and Talent," was moderated by former NBA player Brian "White Mamba" Scalabrine, who is a legendary locker room guy but a novice panel moderator. Scalabrine's comic relief shined through, but he struggled sharing the wealth. The free agent coaches hogged the mic and McNair only had the opportunity to answer two questions in the one-hour event.
Although he didn't have much spotlight, he had the highest PER of the panel. I chatted with him after the conference as he munched on a complimentary chocolate chip cookie.
The Dream Shake: Your title of VP of Basketball Operations is somewhat vague. Can you explain what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Monte McNair: Basically Eli Witus and myself work under Daryl to head up our analytics efforts. A lot of that focuses on the traditional front office side: draft, free agency. We also work on the coaching staff and the salary cap, although Eli is our main salary cap guy. Just general technological or analytic advancements.
TDS: And is your background in analytics?
McNair: Yeah, I was a computer science major, so I come more from the programming side; that's how I got my start. Whereas guys like Eli have more of a statistical background.
TDS: How important are analytics when evaluating draft prospects?
McNair: I think, as with anything, it's a tool. It's a bigger tool in certain things than others. It's a pretty big part of our draft process, but we definitely rely much more heavily on our scouts. If we had to choose one, we would definitely choose our scouts. What it mostly helps with on the draft side is, kind of, adjusting within a range. We'll have our scouts give us their thoughts and then we'll use the stats to bump guys up or down. There's so much the numbers can't capture, especially with young draft prospects.
TDS: With defense being a main weakness this year, why did you target guys like Michael Beasley and Andrew Goudelock for the last roster spot?
McNair: Obviously defense is a focus, but we're just trying to score points or stop them from scoring points. With Michael and Goudelock, we were trying to look for whoever was the "best bet" for that roster spot, not just now but also going forward. We have a future with both of them.
TDS: Do you ever get frustrated when you bring in a guy and he doesn't play that much, for example K.J. McDaniels?
McNair: I wouldn't say frustrated. We always try to work with our coaches but we bring in guys to give our coaches options. Frankly, we're stacked at the wing right now. Obviously, James [Harden] is great, Trevor [Ariza] is a top starter, and Corey Brewer is a starter on a lot of teams, so it's hard to crack that group. K.J. now is starting to carve out a role as a defender, runner, and rebounder. I think it's more that we have so many good players at his position.
TDS: With free agency, how do the numbers affect who you want to go after and how much you're willing to pay them?
McNair: I think it's the same thing as the draft. Maybe a little more in the NBA because they've obviously played in the league so the numbers are more useful and pertinent. But it comes down to a lot of other things, too: salary, what we need at the time. Free agency plugs holes a little more, whereas the draft is meant to develop guys and we don't care as much about fit or need at that time.
TDS: This year is definitely a step back for the Rockets. Do you have any big personnel plans to turn it around?
McNair: Our goal is always to win a title, so this year has been a little frustrating. But we're still excited for the rest of the year. Hopefully we'll make a run in the playoffs and then we'll do what we always do in the summer and that's try to make this team a championship contender.