CMU in Sports: Greg Peim's Journey from Dark Matter to the NBA

By: Aashai Avadhani

Physics, the study of matter, motion and the behavior of the world around us, is the most sophisticated level of science humans have been able to conduct years of research on.  Physics helps us understand the relationship we establish with the world. Greg Peim, a CMU graduate, has been able to use his curiosity with physics to help the Los Angeles Clippers gain a competitive advantage in the NBA through analytics.

From his time as an undergraduate student Carnegie Mellon, physics was the focus of his educational career. According to Peim, “Physics and Math were always interesting, and I enjoyed working through complex problems.” He especially appreciated CMU’s “willingness and encouragement for undergraduates to do research in their field(s) of interest.” There his interests ranged from Mathematical Physics and Abstract Algebra, to the quarks and mysteries of Quantum Physics. Though he never thought about Sports analytics, his physics background started to form his approach to solving technical problems. As a physics major, he told me, “that’s really the first place you do a deep dive into probabilistic theories and interpreting them.”

Peim would later pursue graduate studies in Boston. But towards the end of his physics PhD program, while he considered positions tied directly to physics, he also looked for careers where he could apply his expertise in solving complex, analytical problems. One such area, he found, was sports analytics, so he attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to explore the field of Sports Analytics. There he struck a conversation with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and, interestingly enough, discussed “dark matter (not basketball).” This turned out to be a key connection, as Peim then became a summer intern for the Rockets’ Analytics Division. He would work to develop a system to help track the locations of players on the NBA court. The internship opened doors to amazing connections in the NBA that have led to his current role as Director of Sports Analytics Research for the Los Angeles Clippers.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Peim, who offered words of wisdom for anyone looking to break into the sports analytics industry.

Q: How did the internship with the Houston Rockets form your career in Sports Analytics?

A: “It pretty much formed my career.  So I was working for Houston and got my first real taste of how people are taking complex information and synthesizing it to help guide more informed decisions.  And man was that addicting. Once my internship was over, Houston didn’t have a full-time position.  But, at the same time Mr. Ballmer took over the Clippers, Coach Rivers and Mr. Ballmer wanted to form a full-time analytics department so they hired Jud Winton to run the department and then were looking to hire another person.  Daryl, who worked with Coach Rivers in Boston, recommended me for my current position, which I eventually got.  It’s been great working with Jud.  He has a rare ability to be able to bridge the ability to speak hoops at a high level and science at a similarly high level. “

Q: What inspired you to be involved in the sports analytics industry?

A: “I always liked sports and was always interested in applying my Physics background/skillset to complex problems.  I was in Boston in my last few months of my PhD program and had money that I could use for conferences so it seemed liked the MIT Sloan conference could be an interesting place to go.  I was already planning on continuing my dark matter research as Post-Grad.  I met Daryl Morey (GM of the Rockets) at the conference who is a complete science geek.  We talked about dark matter (not basketball).  Later that summer they had an internship open to help analyze the (at the time) new player tracking data. So it seemed like a natural fit and a little more interesting than studying dark matter.”

Q: What skills (technical and non-technical) are the most important if a student wants to become involved in the sports analytics industry?

A: “The non-formal ones would be time management and the ability to take a complex problem, simplify it and then work it and be able to articulate the findings. The more formal skills would be frontend/backend development, computer programming, data visualization, Game Theory with its applications, data analyst/science, combinatorics, statistical methods, and the ability to work with large data sets.”

Q: How did Carnegie Mellon prepare you for your current position?

A: “I think first and most importantly it taught me time management, which is extremely important in sports.  The next would be how to work/solve a complex problem.  Then how to communicate the solution to the complex problem to a varying degree of audiences.”  

Q: How do you think the game of basketball is changing due to analytics?

A: “I guess the easy thing is look at a shot chart.  I think teams are just using basketball information better to make more informed decisions and part of that information is analytics.  But, analytics is a tool to help ask more informed questions.”

Ultimately, though Peim no longer deals with dark matter, his physics education at CMU and in his PhD program has provided a strong basis for how he tackles questions, analyzes data and shares his findings with peers.  

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