The GSW – Data & Talent = Heart !
The Warriors and …. Data?
They Golden State Warriors (GSW), have won 2 NBA championships in the last 3 years, made it to the NBA finals every year consecutively for three of those years and in the process set a new regular season record with 73 wins, (dethroning 1995-1996 Bulls’ record). But how did the GS warriors reappear in the NBA finals after a dormant 40 years?! The recipe is still being analyzed and debated by media talking heads and analysts, while all agree on one ingredient – data science.
The GSW ‘Data-era’ is rumored to have begun with the change of ownership in 2010. Many cite the ownership’s venture capital and tech savvy background as the engine behind the adoption of a numbers strategy, (which may or may not have led to the team’s tagline: “Strength in numbers”). The franchise began experimenting with a data analytics focused approach and was one of the few early adopters of a new camera based technology called SportsVU, (cameras situated above the arena capturing plays frame by frame). To avoid ‘betting the team’ the franchise began experimenting on the Santa Cruz G league. Assistant GM Kirk Lacob led a data focused approach to analyze the team’s data: games, practices etc. The strategy was later adopted by the GSW front office.
Creating and capturing value?
NBA analysts and journalists agree that the GSW posses great players talent, strong coaching and medical staff, and a dedicated front and back office. But even the official franchise position has been that they aim to be early adopters in the field of data insights. Lacob has stated that the reason they wanted to be pioneers in this field was to use data insights as an enhancer to their decision making processes. Among others, the GSW franchise has used data to gain insights from box score, geospatial analysis, and most recently wearable technology. A few examples that have been publicly discussed are:
- Defending opponents three point shooting: The franchise worked with MOCAP Analytics, and shared their findings on their perceived root problem with the coaching staff. These included heat maps, and measurable quantifications of indicators such as ‘pick and roll’, ‘ball touches’ etc.
- Optical tracking has been used to create customized workout for players. Models generate an Estimated Possession Value, (EPV), at any given moment based on all 10 players’ position and possession of the ball. This has also been effective when engaging in trade negotiations to illustrate and prove value.
- Rest – The GSW used reliable data to manage players minutes as evident in the 2017 season. Lebron James and Kyrie Irving led the chart in total season minutes at 1st and 15th places. The first Golden State Warrior player, Klay Thompson, only shows up at 28th while Steph Curry and Kevin Durant only show up at 38th place. This was instrumental in their finals series.
- Wearables and readiness – The coaching staff is presented with a readiness rating for each player, which is an synthesis of quantitative and qualitative health indicators. These include daily surveys and workload measured by wearables. Among the input sources are SportVU, (mentioned above), Catapult data for practice workloads and Omegawave heart variability data to test neurological stress.
- The Three point decision: Many have dubbed this shift as simple math and that the real innovation here was acknowledging it, and more importantly following through to execute consistently. The new franchise owners focused on what some have called the ‘3-point line market inefficiency’ – shooting percentage for players right within or without the line were almost identical. The average shot value of a shot beyond the line was worth 1.09 vs. a value of 0.76 within the line, leading to a ~43% rate of return for players shooting the 3pt shot. The rest is ‘Steph and Klay history’.
Smooth Sailing From Here On Out?
Internally, I think the GSW have proven to be adopters of early technology and that they are constantly on the look out for an analytical edge. However, looking at the league wide adoption of SportVU and teams like the Houston Rockets leading the league in 3-point shot attempts, I see a catching up trend the Warriors should be worried about. Could the rest of the NBA be soon a leveled playing field? Or will talent, coaching, injuries and luck all make it very hard to judge this exact question and also serve as distractors for teams to fully adopt the analytical approach? Time will tell.