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How the Warriors use data, analytics to engineer more wins

Chase Center, the sleek, Bayside home of the Warriors, is a house that tech built.

The team owner, Joe Lacob, is a former tech investor at Kleiner Perkins. His ownership group bought the Mission Bay land where the Arena sits from Salesforce. Accenture, the IT services giant, helped finance the arena. And the dominant focus of attention in the arena is the Samsung-built scoreboard, the league’s biggest, with 26 million light-emitting diodes (the tiny, semiconductor light pegs we call LEDs) filling up 10,000 square feet of screen space.

Now that’s big tech. Let’s look at the Warriors’ little tech: Data points.

Just as the LEDs add up to a giant scoreboard, there are millions of tiny data points that add up to the one statistic that really matters: Wins. The Warriors have raced to the best record in the NBA early this season.

Pabail Sidhu, the Warriors director of basketball analytics and innovation, looks at all those data points. The Warriors track every shot – in games and even in practice. Video cameras capture every shot. Google Cloud tools process the data. Oracle, the database company that had its name on the team’s previous home in Oakland, displays the data. If Steph Curry hits 105 three-pointers in a row in practice – as he once did — the database knows that. If he is making just 15% of his three-pointers from the left corner – which also happened – the database knows that, too.

That data is put in motion when Warriors coaches play NBA games that never happened in real life with artificial intelligence algorithms run with Google Cloud. How would Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins play in the offense that the team won a championship with four years ago? Could you plug Wiggins in for the departed superstar Kevin Durant and get similar results? Let the AI algorithm check and see.

Pabail Sidhu, the Warriors’ director of basketball analytics and innovation, uses the Warriors Player Dashboard, an online shot-tracking tool built by Oracle, in the Warriors’ practice facility at Chase Center. The tool tracks all the Warriors’ shots in games and practice, and feeds the data into a historical database. (Oracle photo)

“It is a new ‘Moneyball,’” said Sidhu, citing the Michael Lewis book about the Oakland A’s mastering metrics to win on a small budget. The Warriors aren’t strapped for cash and struggling to get by on a limited budget. But they are using data to recapture the glory of the previous decade when the team won three NBA titles. “What we do is on par with a lot of tech companies,” Sidhu said.

What does that look like in a real game? On Sunday, Curry wasn’t hitting three-pointers in a game at Chase Center against the Toronto Raptors. Curry, one of the best three-point shooters in league history, was just one-for-four at the half.

So Curry stopped shooting, and started feeding teammates Wiggins and Jordan Poole, who shot the lights out, going a combined 14-for-19 on three-point shots. That’s a blistering 75%. Not even Curry does that on most nights. The Warriors won handily, 119-104.

What fans saw was that the NBA’s best team won again, despite a bad night by their best player. What Sidhu saw was that the right Warriors took the right shots from the right places on the floor, and that made him very, very happy.

The Warriors lead the league in the geeky statistic of efficiency field goal percentage. The stat measures the percentage of shots the Warriors take, but also gives extra weight to three-point shots. The field goal percentage of a team that makes 40 out of 100 shots is 40%. But if half those shots are three-pointers, the effective field goal percentage is 50%. The Warriors’ effective field goal percentage so far this season is 56.3%, the best in the league. The league median is 52%.

Sidhu said it all comes down to giving the team the data it needs to make the most out of the players’ talent. “Are we taking the right shot, with the right player taking their right shot?”

And on the other side of the ball? “It’s the reverse. Are we keeping them out of their spot?” The Warriors are also atop the league in defensive efficiency, measured by how many points the opposition scores per 100 possessions.

Last year, the Warriors were middle of the pack, finishing ninth in the Western Conference, and around the same for statistics on both offensive and defensive effectiveness. The year before, in 2019-20, Golden State had the worst record in the league, and was last in both offensive and defensive effectiveness.

So do the wins lead to good stats, or do the good stats lead to wins? Sidhu says the team uses data to plan. “We look at the expected value.” Win or lose, the coaching staff looks at whether its strategy worked. “We try to evaluate – was the process right?”

That doesn’t always mean Sidhu presents the team with data insights it doesn’t expect. Sometimes coaches ask for metrics to verify what they already see on the court. “They’re asking me for the data,” Sidhu said. “The coaches intuitively know it. They see it. We measure it.”

This month, the team unveiled a new “player dashboard,” that Warriors Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Kirk Lacob called “game-changing.”

“In the NBA, everyone is constantly driving innovation and looking for ways to get a competitive advantage,” Lacob said in a statement. He said the team would use the dashboard daily, and the team said data will be displayed on big screens around the Oracle Performance Center practice facility.

There are plenty of screens: Each player’s locker comes equipped with its own personal 32-inch television. And plenty of other tech: The performance center includes a super cold cryo treatment chamber and hydro room with float tanks, which can relieve stress.

Still, despite the occasional off night, does Curry really need any of this tech, data and stats on screens? His lifetime three-point shooting percentage of .432 is among the greatest of all time.

Curry is in another league, and the team tries to give him all the tools at their disposal, Sidhu said. “Steph is held to a different standard. Was it a swish, or did it hit the rim?”

And the Warriors use of tech is keenly followed by one of the only players ever to have a better lifetime three-point shooting percentage than Curry: Head Coach Steve Kerr.

“Analytics have become a huge part of basketball operations. For me, as a head coach, I’m constantly looking at different lineup combinations, different strategies, different statistics. Anything that can make our team better,” Kerr said. “There are more ways now to look at the game than ever before.”

jelder@sfexaminer.com

Jeff Elder

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