"Our secret sauce is making things actionable”
Position: Assistant General Manager of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors where he oversees statistics and technology in basketball operations
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Science, Technology and Society from Stanford University
Career: Joined the Warriors in 2010 and has served in a variety of front office roles including player personnel evaluation, draft preparation, scouting as well as running the Santa Cruz Warriors of the NBA Development League
Interests: Golf, reading and, of course, basketball. An avid pickup basketball player, he was key in organizing the annual game at the San Quentin maximum security prison between Warriors’ front office employees and a select group of inmates.
Fun Fact No. 1: Named to the Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list of notable people in sports
Fun Fact No. 2: Owner of a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Abby
Favorite book: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams
Best advice: From hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
At the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Golden State Warriors were named the “Best Analytics Organization.” Not just in the NBA. Not just in American sports. But in the entire world of professional athletics.
Kirk Lacob was justifiably proud . . . and a little mystified.
“I was like, ‘In all of sports? Really?’” recalled Lacob, the Warriors’ assistant general manager. “The dirty little secret is we don’t really have an analytics team. At the time it was just me and one other guy, and neither one of us is super technical. We’re more conversant than fluent in analytics.”
Perhaps, but here’s a key data point to consider — a pair of NBA titles in the last three seasons.
Golden State is the marquee franchise in sports today. The Warriors have four of the best basketball players on the planet: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The ownership group is disrupting pro sports with a Silicon Valley mindset of innovation.
But an often overlooked ingredient to the success formula is the team’s use of cutting-edge analytics. The Warriors had a reputation for being technologically savvy long before MIT bestowed its stamp of approval.
Lacob oversees the crunching of the most advanced basketball data available as he searches for insights that help give the Warriors an edge over opponents. And when he speaks at the upcoming Ops-Stars conference, there will be obvious parallels between Lacob’s role and how sales and marketing operations pros use data to drive their businesses forward.
“Our secret sauce is making things actionable,” said Lacob, 29. “We’re using information in a way that is valuable to us, and I think that’s the key whatever your business. You can have all the great data that you want, but it’s useless if you can’t do anything with it. So our focus is always on, ‘How do we use it?’”
The joke about the Warriors and analytics is that they discovered how three is greater than two. In other words, they let the sharp-shooting Curry and Company hoist shots beyond the three-point arc at will, and in the process changed the way the game is played.
It’s not that simple, of course. But ask Lacob what exactly is “basketball analytics,” and he’ll respond that it’s a widely misunderstood term.
“It started off as what numbers can tell us about the game,” said Lacob, sitting in a conference room that overlooks the practice courts at the team’s Oakland training facility. “But to me, that’s not what analytics means. It’s really a search for information. Analytics is about finding ways to better understand problems that we face.”
For Lacob, analytics is more of a directional tool. It’s less the pursuit of hard answers and more about making sure they are asking the right questions in the first place — and only then working with the coaches to find the answers.
“Numbers can help you find what you’re not seeing,” he added. “There’s great value in that not only for basketball, but in life. It allows you to ask: ‘What is it that we’re missing that we don’t see?’”
Traditional basketball statistics have always been lacking. Numbers like points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots aren’t necessarily the best indicators of how much a player helped his team. Part of the problem is the dynamic nature of the game. So much is happening, so quickly, that it could be difficult to quantify a player’s true contributions.
The watershed moment when all that changed was the introduction of SportVU optical tracking technology. By snapping 24 frames per second of every player on the court as well as the ball, video gave teams an unprecedented amount of data to determine why things were actually occurring.
The Warriors were uniquely positioned to take advantage of this motherlode of information. Joe Lacob, Kirk’s father and the managing owner of the Warriors, famously created a symbiotic relationship between the team and Silicon Valley when his group bought the Warriors in 2010.
The elder Lacob is a veteran venture capitalist with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, investing in more than 70 startups. That background is why The New York Times described the Warriors as the first NBA team to operate on the Valley principles of “nimble management, open communication, integrating the wisdom of outside advisors and continuous re-evaluation of what companies do and how they do it.”
Not only did the Warriors embrace that SportVU data, but they took it a step further by partnering with tech companies such as Second Spectrum, which specializes in machine-learning, video and data. (Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens was an early investor.)
One case of how Lacob uses data came a few seasons ago when the Warriors were going through a rough patch and giving up more points than usual. Lacob was able to determine the cause: the Warriors were allowing more high-percentage three-point shots from a certain spot on the floor. Lacob passed that insight onto a coach, who studied game film and determined that there was a subtle breakdown occurring with the Warriors defensive rotation. They fixed the problem in practice and opponent scoring suddenly dropped.
“That’s an example of understanding that something’s happening, asking the right questions and then digging deeper into the data of why,” Lacob said.
It’s also why he likes to say that he works at the world’s coolest startup. In the process, Lacob made a career out of his lifelong passion.
A native of Woodside, Calif., Lacob was always fascinated with sports statistics and the meaning hidden within them. As a boy, he pored over newspaper box scores every morning. His ability to rattle off statistics earned him the family nickname of “Rain Man” after the Dustin Hoffman movie character who displayed savant-level skills with numbers.
He was a diehard fan of the Warriors, even though the team was horrendous throughout his childhood. His mother still has a third-grade assignment where he was asked to write about what he would like to do when he grew up.
“I wrote that I wanted to be president and general manager of the Golden State Warriors,” Lacob recalled. “How I knew what those terms meant, I don’t know. I clearly got that from somewhere. I also added that if I was in charge, I would trade for Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.”
Lacob was a standout high school basketball player who had intended to walk on the Stanford basketball team. Instead, he played on the school’s club team and was good enough to later try out for a European league slot.
Shortly after graduating from Stanford, Lacob was with his father when the Warriors deal was finalized. His dad immediately asked him to come work for the team.
He said no. Lacob wanted to blaze his own trail.
“We spent two months talking about it and he kept saying, ‘I don’t understand. This is your dream job. Why would you not want to do this?’” he recalled. “I finally came to the realization that I shouldn’t feel ashamed of an opportunity. I understood that I would be under the microscope. People were going to come after me because of my name. But I liked that challenge because there was less margin for error.”
There were no errors. Lacob ran the Santa Cruz Warriors, the franchise’s Developmental League team, as a beta testing site for ideas that could be implemented at Golden State. But he is best-known as the Warriors’ data wizard.
“I always thought there had to be a way to measure things in basketball that aren't obvious,” he said. “I felt there were things that we call ‘intangibles’ that really aren’t intangible. There are ways of being smart that impact a game, and yet they don’t show up in a boxscore. That’s my big draw to analytics in basketball.”
His mother sometimes reminds him that his job isn’t creating world peace or curing cancer.
“But I also tell her, ‘Think of the millions of people we’re making happy,’” Lacob added. “That’s pretty important, too.”
And he’s also shaping the way we think about the use of analytics.
Register here for Ops-Stars. The free event will be held Nov. 6-9 at Trou Normand and John Colins, both near the Moscone Center in San Francisco. They will be the places for sales and marketing operations pros to learn, relax and network during the Dreamforce conference. Lacob is speaking at Trou Normand on Monday, Nov. 6 at 11 a.m. about the role of analytics and technology in building a championship team.
About the Author
Mark Emmons is the staff writer at LeanData. He previously was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow on Twitter