How Data Science is Transforming the Game of Basketball

“Analytics are part and parcel of virtually everything we do now.”

One of the world’s foremost thinkers on business and social science, Daniel Pink is the author of several bestselling books on business, work, and behavior. Adam Silver has served as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) since February of 2014. The two recently sat down for a conversation about 3-pointers, diversity, and how data science is transforming the NBA.

Daniel: How have analytics reshaped the NBA?

Adam: Analytics are part and parcel of virtually everything we do now. Analytics have become central to scouting, to determining playing time. Everything is tracked, not just on the court during games, but during practice—biometrics and wearables are critical. The vast majority of our players are wearing sleep monitors, quantifying everything that goes into their bodies.

We have a partnership with a company called SAP and so we’ve become very transparent in terms of that data as well. You can go on our website or app and crunch virtually any data out there. Part of the result is, for example, the plethora of three point shots now. They’re smarter about the positioning on the floor.

On the business side, ticket pricing [has changed], for example. When we were kids, it was the exact same price for every game. Now, it’s like airline price optimization: a different price often for every game, but also depending on when you buy that ticket. What used to be called ticket scalping is now a sophisticated secondary market [involving] companies like Stubhub. Games are hardly ever sold out anymore, because there’s presumably some price at which somebody’s willing to sell a ticket even if they were otherwise planning to go. It’s very transparent, very robust, in terms of a marketplace for tickets.

Daniel: How does what we see on the court today differ from what we saw 25 years ago because of analytics?

Adam: The so-called resting issue has been very topical. Resting gets a lot more attention today because every game is now a national or global game. When I first got to the league, our big national television package was with NBC. Coaches and players would circle those NBC games. We knew, Saturday or Sunday afternoon, that game’s going to be on NBC, they’d never miss it.

Now, in addition to ABC, ESPN, and TNT games, you can get an app and watch in high-definition streaming every single game that’s out there. The scrutiny is much greater. It’s coming back to bite us a little bit in terms of the resting. What’s lost sometimes with the resting issue [is that] it’s being driven by the coaches and the GMs. It’s not players raising their hands saying “Please rest me.”

Daniel: The controversy here is that in the last month or so some very well-known players have sat out certain games. If you buy a ticket to a Cavaliers game and Kyrie Irving, point guard, and Lebron James, the soon-to-be hall of fame superstar, are not playing, you feel like “Why did I come to see the Cavs?”

“Every game is a national game now.”

Adam: Coincidentally, the other day I was meeting with Magic Johnson, who just came back into the league as president of the Lakers. [Someone] said, “Magic, no one ever rested in your day.” He’s like, “Actually, we rested. There were games when Pat Riley used to rest me, but it was more strategic—it wouldn’t have been a national game.” Every game is a national game now.

The issue today has been a function of resting multiple players together. If I’m going to rest a star, I might as well rest other marquee players in the same night, because we’ve already dramatically decreased our chances at winning that game.

It’s not the right result you want to see as a league, and it’s something we’re talking to our coaches about, but as frustrating as it may be for that fan who’s come to see star players, if you knew that as a result of resting a player three days after playing 30 games, there would be a 40% greater likelihood that he would not be injured, you would be making that player available for even more fans.

Daniel: The three point shot—that’s been around for a long time, but it didn’t really take off until recently. Why do you think that is? Is there a risk aversion in certain professions that makes them less likely to adopt those kinds of innovations?

Adam: Yes. It was frowned upon. Especially because it had come from the ABA [American Basketball Association], it was viewed as a gimmick, a novelty. I’ve seen some early quotes from the great Celtic coach, Red Auerbach, when the three point shot came into the league—he was very critical of it. As teams then got more sophisticated about the analytics, analytics showed it was better. Then it became more precise. If you notice, the three point line is not equidistant from the basket. It’s closer from the corners, so the three point corner shot has a greater value to teams than the center court three point shot.

Then what happened, and maybe it takes a generation to adapt, is that the skills of the players changed. Even as the explosion began in three point shooting, big men never took three point shots. Now you look at Kristoff Porzingis, a second year player for the Knicks—he shoots it like he were a guard.

Daniel: He’s seven foot three.

Adam: Yeah, and now big men are learning to shoot. It takes a while for the players to adapt to the rules, but that is a result of data analytics.

Daniel: The generation point is an interesting one. You have a kind of cascading effect. You have a rule change, and it changes the strategy of the firm: in this case, the teams. Then it changes who you hire. What you see now are a surprising number of players who are fairly short.

What are the lessons there for people who are looking for ways to hire? How do you follow that cascade from a rule change, to a different skill set, to looking for new talent?

Adam: In certain cases, even when the data’s showing one thing, it still requires thought leaders. In this case, a lot of credit goes to Greg Popovich in San Antonio and Phil Jackson before him.

What happened, about 10 years ago, was other rule changes made the game less physical. If you think back to some of those old Knicks teams, part of their strength as players was that they were physically intimidating. [It] became hard to drive towards the basket and there was a [feeling] in the league that we diminished our product. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing as a game, and through ratings and ticket sales, [we could see] we were losing part of our fan base.

The owner of the Phoenix Suns had a task force that led to some rule changes. You could no longer hand check the way you could. It gave players the opportunity to celebrate their skills in a way they hadn’t been able to. I’d say there’s a direct line that leads not just to Isaiah Thomas, who plays for the Celtics, but to Steph Curry.

Daniel: Steph Curry, a two time MVP who’s one of the stars of the Golden State Warriors.

“In the case of those decisions, I recognize that there is a segment of the population that could view them as political. To me, I was upholding the longstanding values of the league.”

Adam: Steph is roughly six three, 175 pounds. Big, but not by traditional seven-foot NBA standards. Players like Steph Curry could come in and showcase real basketball skills. [This] is maybe a bit of a cliché, but the little men try harder. From a data standpoint, you can chart it. In terms of the population, the bell curve of height, when you get over six nine, it’s a very small percentage of the population. The vast bulk of people are going to be closer to five nine, five ten. But at six three you still have a large pool of players. To break through, it’s much more competitive. Somebody like Steph Curry or Isaiah Thomas, their skills are off the charts. The league is being rewarded by fans as a result because they love seeing highly skilled players.

Daniel: You’ve taken a somewhat different role from other sports commissioners; you’ve been more political. There was an owner with some horribly racist comments, you got rid of him and banned him from basketball. You embraced Jason Collins as the first openly gay athlete in one of the four major sports, saying it was good for basketball. You moved the All-Star [Game] from North Carolina because of HB2, the so-called bathroom bill. What’s going on in your mind in all of that? What kind of blowback did you get?

Adam: I’d like to think of it as value-based as opposed to political. It goes back to the history, the heritage, of the NBA—not just commissioners that have come before me, but also the tradition of great players who were civil rights leaders. There’s a tradition in the NBA of being a progressive sport.

In the case of those decisions, I recognize that there is a segment of the population that could view them as political. To me, I was upholding the longstanding values of the league by making those decisions. In terms of blowback, sure, the internet gives everyone an opportunity to express themselves and certainly lots of people send me emails. Ultimately, I felt [these] were not personal political decisions, but decisions that were made consistent with the NBA as a brand: no different than your expectation would be if it were Apple or Facebook.

Daniel: How do you reckon with the following: you have a league where roughly 75% of the players are African American and, if I’m not mistaken, one of the owners is?

Adam: Right, Michael Jordan. The owner of the Sacramento Kings, Vivek Ranadive, he’s a person of color. And 25% of our players were born outside of the United States.

Daniel: But it’s not a very diverse ownership group. How does that affect how you lead? It seems like it would be tricky. It’s a bit uncomfortable when you have this overwhelmingly white ownership and overwhelmingly African American players.

Adam: In all seriousness, I think it would be the same if you were looking at Fortune 500 companies and saying, “Look how many of them are run by men.” Or “Look how many aren’t diverse.”

“It’s ridiculous to suggest that women won’t coach in the NBA. Great coaches are great coaches.”

Daniel: Look at how many are run by women— it’s the same issue. What I’m saying [is] for this values-based stuff, 75% of the players are African American. Do you feel responsibility, especially after Donald Sterling?

Adam: Yes, absolutely. Our league is a partnership with the players, and so that very much influences my decisions. But we have a very diverse management group at the NBA, as well. My deputy commissioner of the NBA is African American, the president of the WNBA is African American, the head of the player’s association is an African American woman. It’s not me alone making decisions. Having different points of view in the room has been extremely important as we’ve made difficult decisions. It’s not a bunch of white men just sitting around.

Daniel: Let me just pick up on that, about white men making decisions, something I know quite a lot about. You said earlier this week something I thought was incredibly provocative, that you wanted to see a woman as an NBA head coach “sooner rather than later.”

Adam: I said that in response to a talk radio host in New York who had said that there’d never be a female head coach in the NBA.

First of all, there are three women who are assistant coaches in the NBA right now. Becky Hammond is a former WNBA player, assistant coach to San Antonio under Coach Popovich. She’s on track to be a head coach one day. Obviously there’s physical limitations on women playing in the NBA—men and women have different physical capabilities in terms of muscle structure, height, weight, jumping ability—but when it comes to coaching, that shouldn’t be a limitation.

In my early days in the league, people used to say there will never be head coaches who aren’t former NBA players. Of course, that’s not the case anymore. To me, it’s ridiculous to suggest that women won’t coach in the NBA. Great coaches are great coaches.

Having said that, I think we have a responsibility as a league to ensure that there are women in the pipeline, because you still need experience to become an NBA head coach. That’s something I want to focus on. I commend those teams that have added women in the coaching ranks. It’s not an issue with our players. If you talk to the young players, it’s not as if they have any resistance to being coached by women. There’s a little bit of an old boy’s network, as there are in a lot of businesses, and you have to shine light on that and make sure people are focused on those decisions.

Daniel: When thinking about recruiting, how are teams rebalancing the use of scouts to observe players versus looking at the data?

Adam: There’s a need for both. Traditional intuitive skills that scouts have shouldn’t be lost—the touch and feel of a scout’s ability to size someone up, to watch them play on the court, but precisely balanced with analytics. Different teams collaborate in different ways; some teams lean much more heavily towards the analytic side. Certainly, any team that wasn’t in the business of analytics 10 years ago is now, and they have large analytic staff.

Daniel: It’s hard to imagine that they’re not. It’s a sea change, the same as any other business. When you look at job interviewing for a Fortune 500 company, a lot of research has shown that job interviews are essentially meaningless, or confirmation bias engines.

Adam: A Fortune 500 company may make a hiring decision, and worst case scenario that person gets let go and they hire someone else. In the case of the NBA, you live in a cap/draft system. You live with those mistakes for years. They’ll take any edge they can get, any piece of information.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.