How the Warriors Became a Data Gold Mine

Somrat Niyogi

Somrat Niyogi
Former Employee

How the Warriors Became a Data Gold Mine

With Oklahoma City's upset in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, last night was a tough one for the Warriors. But it's not over yet — before they return to Oracle for Game 2 tomorrow, let’s step back and focus on all the areas where the Golden State Warriors rank #1:

  • 3-pointers
  • Regular season wins
  • Analytics 

Wait, what? Analytics?

A few weeks ago, the MIT Sloan School of Business named the Golden State Warriors the “Best Analytics Organization” at its annual Sports Analytics Conference. Beating the Houston Astros and Chicago Blackhawks to grab the win, the Warriors’ commitment should be a lesson for every organization on the planet.

And as the Warriors take on the Thunder in the playoffs, every NBA fan knows the Warriors are great — maybe the best of all time. But why?

There are simple answers, starting with spectacular shooting. Steph Curry’s downtown range is so good video game developers are finding their algorithms no longer work. Add two more All-Stars, unselfish teamwork, great coaching, and a deep bench, and a winning season seems to be in the bag. But the Warriors are not alone. Although no one shoots like Steph, the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, and even the second-place San Antonio Spurs step onto the court with formidable weapons for every game. Why haven’t those teams won with the same frequency and relative ease as the Warriors?

Winning Streaks Demand an Edge

Winning with the consistency that brings the all-time best home winning streak and surpasses Michael Jordan’s incredible 1995-96 Chicago Bulls takes an edge. It demands focus — near perfection — on the little things. The Warriors, led by Basketball Analytics Coordinator Sammy Gelfand, pay attention to data. They look to small data points to find big answers. They have a team-wide mentality that every decision — no matter how small — is worth getting right.

To care about every decision without being paralyzed — and to have confidence — requires evidence. And to have evidence, you need to collect it.

The Warriors were one of the first teams in the NBA to implement the SportVU player tracking system. Using cameras placed throughout Oracle Arena, SportVU automatically captures the positions of every player and the ball more than twenty times per second. No more pencil pushers scribbling down Curry and Company’s every movement. And with twenty data points per second, the computer knows a hell of a lot more about offensive and defensive flow than the scribes ever could (no offense intended to pencil pushers).

Assistant General Manager Kirk Lacob credits the Warriors’ early adoption of high-tech data collection to their proximity to Silicon Valley and its mindset. “We always want to be pioneers, first-adopters, because we believe that having the most information gives us the best chance of making the right decisions,” he said at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit last year. “I don’t understand anyone who says, 'I don’t like analytics,’ because they’re basically saying, 'I like to just guess.’ Analytics doesn't mean stats; it means using information or data to make informed decisions.”

Would any CEO of a successful organization disagree with a word of that?

SportVU is just one of the technologies that enable more informed decisions for the Warriors. As a direct result, they now sift through a motherlode of data to refine their plans and sharpen performance. Take it from Lacob:

“If this guy comes around a screen, he shoots 5% better when he creates that extra foot and a half of separation because so-and-so set a screen instead of this guy. This play works when we run it to this side and we create this space on average 10% better. This guy moves from this block to this block on weakside help five hundredths of a second quicker and that's the difference between tipping a ball and missing it.
Those are the type of things that will matter long-term.”

Armed with insight — predictive insight — into what works and what doesn’t, people tend to choose what does. And when you consistently choose what works, you consistently win more basketball games.

Not Just Basketball (or Baseball or Hockey — or Sales)

Of course, basketball players aren’t the only ones creating data. You and I might not be able to drop in a winning 35-footer, but we still leave a digital footprint in everything that we do. The explosive growth of everything from sensor data and GPS signals to social media posts and photo uploads means more than 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years alone. Phones like the one in your pocket already generate half of all IP internet traffic and that volume more than doubles every two years.

Should you care? Do you care how people move within your retail store? Do you care which of your ads — and which parts of your ads — catch people’s attention? Do you care how your best sales rep and your worst sales rep actually approach their work differently? Do you care how weather affects what your customers buy? (If any of this sounds far-fetched, Walmart sells 7x as many Pop-Tarts before a hurricane — do you think their buyers watch weather reports?)

So the data is there. The question is, what are we doing to take advantage of it? For most of us, not much.

In Data We Trust

According to a recent EIU report, 73% of respondents say they trust their intuition when making important decisions. It gets worse. The report also observes that 68% have the full confidence of their peers to make decisions not supported by data. 68%! I trust my peers too, but I trust and expect them to use data to inform their decisions. As the late, great statistician Edwards Deming (supposedly) said: “In God we trust. All others bring data.”

Think of your own organization — your entire team, the varied roles, the staggering number of decisions made daily to help your organization grow. Sometimes well-considered decisions have poor outcomes. It happens. But we now know almost three fourths of those decisions are made more on intuition than data. Imagine the improvement if we could eliminate just 10% of the poor outcomes by inviting more evidence into the process.

The folks in the Warriors’ front office are people too — flawed humans just like the rest of us. But they chose to do something about it and pad their imperfect judgement with truth-telling technology. The same goes for Sales deals. In Sales, we can automatically track what our players (the reps) are doing; the technology exists. When we know what the reps are doing, we can find out what’s working. And when we know what’s working we can make better decisions, and start winning more deals.  A couple of better decisions per game often means the difference between winning and losing. When the Warriors take the court again tomorrow night, we could all take a page from their playbook.

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