Understanding the Data: The Warriors and Basketball Analytics

February 22, 2016 Mark Emmons


You can learn a lot about what happened in a basketball game from a basic box score. Which team won, of course. How many points, rebounds, assists that players accumulated. Shooting percentages, fouls and so on.

But for real basketball junkies, a box score is only the starting point of understanding what happened. It doesn’t tell the complete story.

“You can look at the box score and even watch a game, but you’re still not going to know what really is going on,” Kirk Lacob said. “You have to dig deeper.”

Lacob digs very deep. As the assistant general manager of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, Lacob is in charge of analytics and technology for what arguably is one of basketball’s most data-driven organizations. Yes, the Warriors have three of the best players on the planet (reigning MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green), great depth and a remarkable team chemistry.

But don’t underestimate how the Warriors front office also focuses on trying to understand why things happen in a fluid, often chaotic game filled with so many moving parts.

“I wouldn’t directly credit our success to analytics,” said Lacob, 27. “But a large portion is due to how we utilize things like analytics. We like information. We make good decisions because we analyze a lot of information. Sure, we could run our team without all of the available data. But why would we?”

Sales and marketing professionals probably see similarities between this analytical approach to basketball and their own business strategies.  In both, the goal is to reduce the “white space” by gaining insights into what has occurred in the past so you then can make the best possible decisions in the future.

“There are parallels — 100 percent,” Lacob agreed. “In fact, we operate the same exact way on our business side as we do with the basketball operation.”

SANTA CRUZ - DECEMBER 23: Kirk Lacob General Manager of the Santa Cruz Warriors addresses the fans prior to their game against the Bakersfield Jam on December 23, 2012 at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images)

Courtesy of Golden State Warriors.

That’s going well, too. Forbes magazine recently estimated that the Warriors now are worth $1.9 billion — a huge jump from their $450 million selling price in 2010. And that number is certain to rise significantly with the Warriors’ planned move into a new San Francisco arena.

The use of analytics in sports is nothing new. Baseball was the leader in this information age. The sabermetric approach was popularized in the 2003 book “Moneyball,” which detailed how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane consistently outwitted wealthier teams with quantitative methods.

Basketball was slower to adapt analytical principles partly because the sport is so different. The game is free-flowing. All 10 players impact every play in some way. There’s so much going on that it’s difficult to capture the context of why a result occurred.

Statistical formulas like “plus-minus” emerged to better understand an individual player’s impact on the outcome. They essentially measure quantity-versus-quality metrics and using that intersection to gauge a player’s true influence. (If a team scores five more points than the opponent while a player is on the court, he’s said to have a “plus-five” rating. If his team is outscored by seven points, he would have a “minus-seven rating.”)

“The truth is that every single metric has its shortcomings,” said Milton Lee. “No formula is perfect. They’re only supposed to help you by being another crayon to color in your overall coloring book.”

Lee, who left Wall Street in 2003 and later became director of basketball operations for the Brooklyn Nets, was among the smart minds trying to crack the analytics code. What changed everything, he said, was when SportVU tracking technology started being used in 2009. SportVU cameras capture 25 frames per second and provide an unprecedented amount of data to help determine the impact of each player.

“Suddenly there were thousands of data points that had never existed before,” added Lee, who now is the CEO of Keemotion Technology, a sports HD video company. “There was this massive deluge of data in the NBA and some very smart people with scientific and engineering backgrounds started getting ahead of the curve.”

Like Lacob and the Warriors.

Kirk Lacob2

Courtesy of Golden State Warriors

He has always been enamored with sports statistics. As a young boy he would grab the newspaper sports section every morning and pore over the agate page.

“I even got the nickname Rain Man, after the movie, from my dad and his friends because I could rattle off the statistics,” Lacob said.

His passion became his career. Today, he gets to crunch the most advanced basketball data available looking for trends and insights that will give the Warriors an edge.He joined Golden State as the director of basketball operations after graduating from Stanford with a degree in Science, Technology and Society. The son of team CEO Joe

Lacob, he quickly proved himself running the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA Development League and by championing the use of analytics. It’s why the Warriors were one of the first teams to install SportVU.

“We really didn’t know what we were going to do with that information, but we were going to figure it out,” Lacob said. “The last thing I wanted to do was get this two years after everybody else had already had it. You need to have a willingness to deal with new ideas and technologies. It took us awhile to understand the value, but we knew that was going to happen.”

For Lacob, analytics is simply using technology to look at the sum of every game. It’s an example of why, he said, computers were invented.

“Humans can only comprehend so much data,” Lacob said. “Analytics help us weed out our own biases and understand what’s really going on. So they don’t give us all of the answers. But they do help point us in the right direction.”

And once the Warriors’ inner circle, led by General Manager Bob Myers, has decided they found something that can help them on the court, there’s still another vital step: explaining that information.

“Communication is so important because we have to put everything into context and make them actionable items,” Lacob added. “The last thing we want to do is throw a whole bunch of numbers out and then have a coach or player say: ‘OK, but what do I do with them?’ You have to explain what they mean for us.”

Even though Lacob knows the limitations of box scores, he still religiously scans through all of them. He never misses one.

“It’s something I enjoy and helps me relax,” he said. “Besides, a box score is still a good indicator of where we should dig a little deeper.”

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