The Math Wizard Behind the Golden State Warriors’ Record 73 Wins
Kirk Lacob tells us how Silicon Valley is disrupting the NBA
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There are some sports records that seem unbreakable. Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive games with a hit. UCLA’s 11 straight men’s basketball championships. And until this season, no one thought an NBA team could top the 1995-95 Chicago Bulls’ win record — led by Michael Jordan, the team won 72 games during the regular season (and ultimately a fourth championship in six seasons).
But then came the “Splash Brothers” Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Their up-tempo style of play left opponents with their hands on their knees. And their penchant for small lineups and copious three-point shots have revolutionized the NBA. After winning a title in 2015, Curry and Company railroaded the rest of the league this season, and after the season finale win against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Warriors have topped the Bulls — 73 wins, a mark that should be unbreakable (it’s really difficult to lose fewer than nine games over an 82-game slate).
Popular Science spoke with Kirk Lacob, who, as the Warriors’ analytically-minded assistant general manager, helped built this record-breaking team, and he details the present, and future, evolution of the NBA, as seen through the lens of the Western Conference juggernaut.
Popular Science: Data integration is a hallmark of Golden State — since there are some teams that have yet to fully buy-in when it comes to analytics, does the NBA collectively reach a point where a team has to have an analytics staff to survive?
Kirk Lacob: It is tough to say if our approach, or even just having a dedicated analytics staff, will be gospel—or if all the teams will agree. There are different ways of receiving information and operating. But the reality is that the use of the type of data we have will become so ingrained in our everyday life, that it’ll be silly to not have it ingrained within an NBA team, or any professional sports team.
I believe that the things we are doing, and other sports teams are doing, really help to promote what is going on in real medical fields. We are almost a testing ground, and as technology continues to improve and prices drop, you’ll see these changes in everyday life. There is no excuse to not use that data in sports. It is a part of the game and a part of the players’ lives.
It’s interesting you mention the NBA as a testing ground. Is this something that is the unofficial guiding mantra of how the team operates?
I can’t tell that what I am saying is correct — this is more of my hypothesis — but the reality is that sports have become a big business. It’s like having a national defense contract. There is so much money and interest in the NBA that front offices can pursue pie in the sky R&D projects. Now, there isn’t as much money as people think there is. We are not a billion dollar revenue corporation. But there is no question that there is an impetus to work on new technology just because of how public is is. There is a lot riding on improving this technology and the use of it and transforming that into actionable items.
Is there an example of a technology that has gone mainstream in the NBA?
Well, think about SportVU [a camera tracking system introduced to the NBA several years ago that records player movement]. The technology behind SportVU was designed by the Israeli military for the purposes of tracking. Israel is a great place for innovation — the country has to think of ways to improve lives and protect themselves. There is such a military-centric focus there, and I believe there is so much more innovation to come out of Israel. This space tech was previously used by the military and it now infiltrates our daily lives.
Separate from Israel, it seems like Australia is another country that the NBA owes a huge debt towards, in terms of changing attitudes league-wide.
Yes. Like Israel, Australia has a reason for really improving technology and understanding the way our bodies work. It is a much smaller nation, and is loped off from the world. The country also has a homogeneous population, and not a huge one, and they are preparing themselves for mostly Olympic and national team sports. This is my hypothesis, but the United States is too individually focused.
We have AAU sports, and the central focus in Australia is the national and Olympic teams. That is how they can get better as a whole or unit, because by definition, the country is not going to have the levels of athletes that the US has because of the small population. We have so many more people, and have a much less homogeneous group that we have the opportunity to do more with our athletes.
And along with Australia’s centralized system, they have the Australian Institute of Sport [AIS], which is their national program that focuses on creating better athletes than even the ones we have. They are ahead of us out of necessity.
Israel and Australia have had to lead the charge out of necessity. US sports are big companies, and what we have been doing for some time is giving start-ups free space to innovate. That’s the reality — we are a big corporation, and once the start-ups figure out the space and the issues, then we go on an acquiring spree. “You created Catapult [wearable GPS technology that the Warriors, and other NBA teams, use during practice] — we want it.”
So does the NBA reach a point where that R&D and technology that has previously been acquired will be created in-house?
I think it’ll be both. With regards to the Warriors, we are not a tech company, and we will outsource, but hopefully we can create our own tech and algorithms one day. We don’t have an in house R&D, and neither does the NBA as a whole, but it doesn’t mean we can’t better those technologies.
The NBA has a huge advantage. In Silicon Valley, companies don’t treat themselves like just a basketball team — they treat themselves like a larger entertainment company that can branch out into larger spheres. And while we can innovate more than other teams, it is a sliding scale. It’ll be five to 10 years before even we have the ability to develop systems in-house. We won’t just grab designs, but we’ll begin to actively partner with companies to help design technology.
I am assuming Golden State’s location in Oakland also helps.
Companies constantly pitch us. They’ll ask if we can help them by beta testing their products. And we become one of the early adopters to see how to place the tech in the market, which is valuable for us. I do see at some point, a decade from now, when there will be much more in house structure within not just our team but the league in general. And I hope we are at the forefront of it, because we do have this natural advantage of being so close to Silicon Valley.
The NBA, like ourselves, has done a good job with early utilization of tech, and the league has shaped how the tech is used — as a brand and a platform to bigger things. We have the greatest live content in the world: how do we leverage that to be something more? The Warriors work like that, but on a smaller scale. We leveraged our brand and product to build this new arena structure [The Chase Center, to be opened in 2019], which is more than a basketball arena in San Francisco. It has retail and shops, anchors that lead to other things like convention shows. It’ll bring a new area of the Bay Area to light even more so than it has been.
The NBA’s analytics revolution started with the box score. Have the Warriors, and the league as a whole, moved beyond that?
Gaining insight from box scores is a pretty mature area at this point. There will always be tweaks and advancements, but geospatial is the focus now, along with wearable tech. We want to take it a step further with biodata — this is a super interesting area, and it is a chance for us to test for the rest of the world.
My mom always tells me that she doesn’t think I am doing anything too great — I am not out there curing cancer. And my response has been joking, “When we win, we make hundreds of thousands of people happy.” But now, I can say, “What’s to say we can’t help with companies to cure cancer?” Wearable tech and other ways to understand the human body could help drive modern medicine. And maybe one day down the road, we’ll understand so much about the human body that we can fix it in unprecedented ways.
Are there any wearables in particular Golden State has been testing?
We’ve partnered with a compression wear company called Athos — it is basically normal compression gear with EKG sensors embedded a 1/2 inch deep that reads the muscles in real time. One of the investors is my dad [Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors]. We have beta tested it in Santa Cruz [home of the Warriors’ D-League team], and tested it over the summer. Hopefully we will move it to the big club.
It tells you to a much more exact level when the body is working well and when it is not. Athos connects to your phone, which can tell you that when you do squats, you are using 70 percent more force on your right leg than left. It can help predict injuries and help rehab from injuries. Normally, this takes an unbelievable expert, but last year we tested this with Santa Cruz, which was also a beta test for the NBA. Athos has a chance [to succeed], but if not them, that sort of idea that gives us a real time understanding of our bodies [will], and there is a lot of tech in that space.
There will be more data that is not only reachable, but also a lot quicker and more actionable. We won’t have to send the data to a lab, and have experts look at it. It’ll be real time that we can use throughout the year. This will give us an overall look. I don’t know if we’ll wear it in games, but it will be noninvasive, and it won’t be something a player has never worn before. Everyone wears compression gear. It won’t make players feel uncomfortable, and that is key. There is a lot of distrust, and I get why players might distrust the league or their own team. But we are open — if a player wants to know the information we are collecting, we’ll share it with him.
We’re not too far off from getting into deeper type of testing for people’s bodies, which does open the door to ton of issues with blood testing, HGH, and starting to learn about them.
That has been a contentious issue with Michele Roberts [head of the players union]. Is that something you predict is the next sticking point in the NBA?
I am absolutely never surprised by the negative aspect. Or the fear. It keeps us on our toes. If you sleep with one eye open, you are a little more prepared for something to go wrong. If you think about the issues people have with issues like this, you can do a better job. Growing up in Silicon Valley, where there is disruption and innovation every day, there are naysayers and they are the loudest. And that older guard, which most definitely exists in sports, is not surprising.
I believe that as it becomes commonplace, people will stop questioning it. One example is self driving cars. They scare a lot of people. What if they lose control? How will the machines control the car? In a few years, though, people will ask why did we ever drive. This has already happened multiple times. Why do we have this big screen in a car that shows us where to go? Now, without center consoles, it is like you have a buggy from the 1800s. People don’t like change — it is easy to keep doing what you have been doing, and it is comforting. To change is scary, but it is exciting to me. I get bored by sitting around, by not advancing.
There is no question that people will have significant worries, and it will affect their ability to buy in. But look at analytics in the NBA — we are not talking about new data, we are just talking about math. Now, as we get new data, people will begin to question its accuracy, which I laugh about. One example: an article came out a few years article on Steph shooting a lot of three-pointers, and the article posited what happened if Steph shot 10 threes in a game? There was a widespread negative to that. Why would you shoot 10 threes? How would get get that many shots off? Now, Steph shoots more than 11 per game, and we are winning.
Going forward, are there any proprietary changes that NBA teams will begin to implement to evaluate their play?
Well, I think back end analysis, rather than front end actual input, will get much better. That will happen soon. Programming will get smaller. Like Google’s Alpha Go — that, to me, is the future. We can program something that can think and improve upon itself. The hardest thing to do in sports is to question.
We have answers of how to play basketball, and we have a lot of great information, but we only move things forward when we ask the right questions, and it is hard to ask the right one. It’ll be interesting as we build things that helps us ask those questions, as we look through all the data and start to develop our own hypotheses rather than just scanning data to look and support previously held theories.