The NBA’s Adam Silver: How Analytics Is Transforming Basketball

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What if you put on the TV to watch Game One of the NBA Finals Thursday night, or even bought tickets to the game, and discovered that LeBron James or Stephen Curry wasn’t there? Fans were not exactly thrilled earlier this season — and expressed their sentiments freely on social media — when several top players on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs were kept from playing in some televised Saturday night games.

This practice of “resting” healthy players so they can regain their energy and reduce the chance of injury isn’t new, said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during his keynote at this year’s Wharton People Analytics Conference. He described a recent business meeting with Magic Johnson, the three-time MVP award winner who in February was named the Los Angeles Lakers’ president for basketball operations. Someone else in the meeting had commented, “Magic, no one ever rested in your day, right?” (Johnson won fame during the 1980s.) He answered, “Actually, we rested. There were games where Pat Riley used to rest me.”

Silver believes there may also have been games in the past when fatigued players were simply put in for fewer minutes, or “frankly, didn’t play as hard … and it wasn’t noticed.”

So, what changed over the past couple of decades? According to Silver, the enormous growth of media technology has thrown every game into a national and even global spotlight. It’s impossible for a team to sit players without the world reacting. “In addition to ABC, ESPN, and TNT games … you can get an app or go on your computer [and] watch high-definition streaming of every single game that’s out there.” Plus, the highlights are available on “literally thousands of websites…. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or whatever else.”

Silver was quoted in USA Today recently as saying the league needs “to find the right balance between appropriate rest for our players on one hand and our obligation to our fans and business partners on the other hand.”

Another way the approach to resting has changed is that decisions are now based on high-tech analytics. “Analytics have become front and center with precisely when players are rested, how many minutes they get, who they’re matched up against,” said Silver.

He talked about biometrics and wearables. “[Analytics] are tracking every movement of those players…. It’s not just that they’re moving on the court during games, but during practice.” At night, most players wear sleep monitors. Information about their diets is quantified and recorded. “Sometimes there are very sophisticated markers, even in terms of saliva and other things,” that indicate a player is fatigued, Silver said. And because there is a proven correlation between fatigue and injuries, a red flag goes up.

“Analytics have become front and center with precisely when players are rested, how many minutes they get, who they’re matched up against.”

Silver said the league is spending an increasing amount of time looking at data when it comes to injuries. Analytics might reveal information such as: If a particular player rests for three days after playing 30 straight games, there may be a greater likelihood he won’t be injured. By acting on this data, Silver said, “you are in essence making that player available for even more fans.”

A Game-Changer

Interviewing Silver was Daniel Pink, author of several books on work and behavior including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Drive and To Sell Is Human. Pink asked about other ways analytics have affected the game over the past 25 years or so, both on and off the court.

“Analytics are part and parcel of virtually everything we do now,” answered Silver. For example, they have become central to scouting, although he believes there’s still a role for “the touch and feel, the scouts’ ability to size someone up.”

He contrasted hiring for the NBA with hiring for the average large firm: When a Fortune 500 company makes a hiring decision, the worst-case scenario is the individual needs to be terminated and the company hires someone else. But in a draft system like the NBA’s, “you live with those mistakes for years.” Consequently, scouts will take any edge they can get. “The number of analytics fields they’re looking at now, for example when they’re doing college scouting or drafting internationally, is incredible.”

Basketball stats have become much more sophisticated, too, and are readily available on the NBA’s app and website, said Silver. For example, fans used to be able to track assists (getting the ball to a teammate who then makes a basket), but now they can also track “the assist leading to the assist. It’s amazing.”

There are also analytics that help players improve their game, for example to make better three-point shots. “They’re smarter about the positioning… optimizing a three-point shot from a precise position on the floor.”

As fans of the game know, this difficult shot, first used by the NBA in the 1979-1980 season, has gained increasing importance in professional basketball. Last year the New York Times wrote that the three-pointer has gone from “gimmick to game-changer” and noted that accuracy has risen: “While the league’s two-point field-goal percentage has been more or less flat for decades … three-point shooting has gone from below 30% for the first seven years of the shot to above 35% in recent years.”

Teams also use analytics to plan defensive strategies. Silver said that players “have broken down for them every move of that player that they’re covering.” Analytics might reveal for example that 42% of the time a player goes forward with his left foot, or other idiosyncrasies such as making a certain ‘tell’ before particular moves. He said the information was more in-depth than people might realize.

“The number of analytics fields they’re looking at now, for example when they’re doing college scouting or drafting internationally, is incredible.”

The business side has changed, too, Silver said. Until recently, the price for every game was the same. “If you wanted to buy a game against the Lakers or against Detroit it wouldn’t matter.” But today “it’s sort of airline price optimization,” he said, with prices varying by game and also by when the ticket is purchased.

Moreover, what used to be called ‘ticket scalping’ is now viewed as an accepted secondary market, Silver said, referring to companies like StubHub and other ticket exchanges. “Games are hardly ever sold out anymore because there’s presumably some price at which someone is willing to sell a ticket, even if they were planning to go. So, it’s become very transparent, very robust in terms of the marketplace for tickets.”

Analytics are applied in other business areas as well. “We have a group in our office called Team Marketing and Business Operations, run by some very sophisticated MBAs, who in essence act like a SWAT team, going from market to market and sharing best practices,” Silver said. Information is made available to all 30 teams about things like successful ways to sell sponsorships.

Silver noted that the NBA has about $8 billion in revenue and employs approximately 50,000 people globally, “I think [commissioner is] more of a typical CEO job than people might see from the outside,” he said. “And I think our use of analytics … is similar on the business side, the same way [other firms] would use analytics in their business.”

Diversity and the NBA

At one point in the talk, Pink asked Silver to talk about “the NBA in the world.” He observed that Silver has been “a little more political” than other sports commissioners. Examples he gave were banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life from the NBA for racist comments in 2014; publicly supporting Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete in major American sports; and pulling the 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte, North Carolina, because of HB2, the “Bathroom Bill” mandating that people could only use restrooms corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate.

“What’s going on in your mind through all of that?” asked Pink.

Silver said that these were not personal political decisions or those of the team owners, but decisions that were consistent with the NBA as a brand and a business, “no different than your expectations would be if it were Apple or Facebook.” He added that these actions were in keeping with the established values of the NBA.

“I think [commissioner is] more of a typical CEO job than people might see from the outside.”

“There’s a tradition in the NBA of being a progressive sport,” he said. He noted that previous commissioners including David Stern, Walter Kennedy, and Larry O’Brien supported and reflected this tradition, and so have a number of players. He named among them Bill Russell, whose civil rights achievements earned him a 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Oscar Robertson, who as president of the players’ union helped NBA players become the first professional athletes to be granted free agency.

Pink asked Silver if the proportion of black players to white owners was “a little bit uncomfortable” for him as a leader. He stated that while roughly 75% of NBA players are African-American, only one owner was (Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets). Silver commented that 25% of NBA players were born outside the United States, so “it’s a diverse group.”

He mentioned team owners of color in addition to Jordan: the Sacramento Kings’ Vivek Ranadivé, who is Indian, and the Atlanta Hawks’ part owner Grant Hill, who is African-American.

“I would say also that we have a very diverse management group at the NBA as well,” said Silver. He and Pink discussed the fact that the deputy commissioner of the NBA, the president of the WNBA and the head of the players’ association are all African-American. The holders of the two latter posts are also women.

“Having those different points of view in the room is extremely important to me as we’ve made difficult decisions,” said Silver. “It’s not just a bunch of white men sitting around making these decisions.”

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