NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver backs the analytical movement

October 27, 2013

The numbers are fun for fans. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch)

NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver is almost four months away from replacing David Stern as the next league commissioner. Stern will step down on Feb. 1 after an incredible 30-year reign in which the NBA added seven franchises, became a multibillion dollar enterprise and expanded into an immensely popular global brand.

Silver, a graduate of Duke and the University of Chicago Law School, joined the NBA in 1992 and has worked for the league in several capacities, including as special assistant to the commissioner, NBA chief of staff and president of NBA Entertainment. He has shared an office suite with Stern since he became deputy commissioner seven years ago. Last week, at Stern’s last Board of Governors meeting with NBA owners, Silver presented his boss a commemorative bobblehead with “David J. Stern” printed at the base.

“There were some really touching moments, no question,” Silver said of meeting last week. “And for the record, I did not design that bobblehead. I did give it to him, but I did not design it.”

Silver, 51, has been involved in negotiations for merchandising and television deals for the NBA but is about to accept the reins of a league that continues to grow, is loaded with young, marketable stars and has a labor deal that is favorable to owners.

“I’m feeling good. The league is in great shape,” Silver said. “David Stern and I continue to work very closely together and I’ve been very fortunate, having had the privilege of working under him for more than 20 years now. At the same time, the sky’s the limit in terms of opportunities for this league.”

During his time in the NBA, Silver has been a passionate supporter of the analytical movement that is taking over the league. He has embraced new technologies with a keen interest in how a data-driven approach will affect fans, not just teams and players. Here are his thoughts on how the game – and fan access to information – is changing:

What led you to latch onto the analytical movement so quickly?

I come at it, historically at least, more from a fan standpoint. And one of my big pushes over the last several years is about making more of this statistical data available to our fans. Because there increasingly seems to be a real hunger by our fans to get deeper into the game and in many ways, we’ve lagged behind other sports, certainly baseball. There hadn’t been that same tradition, maybe, in basketball of getting deep into the statistics of our players and teams and using that data to analyze trends on the court.

And so, I was an early adopter of the [Houston Rockets General Manager] Daryl Morey [MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston]. I remember early days, at MIT, when the conference was still in a couple of classrooms as opposed to the convention center where it is now and they have thousands of people. But Daryl was one of the people, early on, that came and spoke to me and the league and said he did see a real opportunity here. Again, not just for the basketball folks to do a better job analyzing their teams, but ultimately to grow our business by creating data that was increasingly interesting to the fans.

At that point, in my career, approaching it wearing my NBA Entertainment hat, I saw an opportunity to improve our broadcasts. For things as simple as shot charts that we started using several years ago, on air, where they could graphically display every shot a player took and where on the floor and percentages of makes on certain zones and we saw that was interesting for the fans. And again from a fan standpoint, we saw this as an ideal way to increase fans engagement. If they are able to express their passion by being more engaged, they are going to attend more games, watch more broadcasts, watch them for longer periods of time, focus on particular players and what their habits are on the floor.

Clearly now, throughout the league, there is a cross section of our teams, in terms of how they value it, but I think there is a sense now from every team that at least it’s a factor, in considering lineups and considering players and some teams use it more than others. But from a league standpoint, that appropriately is a team’s decision. We just want that they have the tools that they need.

Is that what led you make sure that all 30 teams had access to the SportVU cameras? How did that come about?

That came about because at first, that was an area that was left to the team, where you decide on their own, whether they thought that data was valuable. But increasingly it became the case for a team to have a complete data set, those cameras needed to be set up in every arenas. And I think there is always that point when things move from team initiatives to where there is true scale for the league to be able to do the deal as opposed to the teams. So ultimately, rather than having an individual team shop around, in essence, to their fellow teams saying, ‘What do you think about installing the cameras in your building as well, because at some point, I’d like to have that kind of set of data.’ At some point it makes sense of the league has to step in and say there is enough interest throughout the league for us to adopt this as a league initiative. And also, there’s clearly the scale that when we’re approaching stats and saying we’re in a position to now do a deal on behalf of 30 teams as opposed to 15 teams doing their deals individually , we’re like to get a better deal as well.

The other interesting issue is, there is always a balance. There are some teams that view installation of SportsVU as a competitive advantage over another team that doesn’t install it. So some teams’ reaction is, ‘You, the league office, should stay out of this particular area of basketball operations.’ So there is that balance. We try to middle it as, we arranged a league-wide deal. We arranged for teams to get a basic set of data, but then it’s up to the teams if they want to supplement the basic package with additional data and of course, it’s left to the teams to decide what’s the best way is to crunch that data. And that’s called proprietary information that they view as highly confidential and don’t necessarily share with anyone else.

Why did you decide to get involved with the Sloan conference? Because, like you said, initially it was not very popular but now it’s a huge event every year.

I went to law school at the University of Chicago, which is famous for so-called law and economics and my law school days were filled with a very economic approach to issues. I think that when I saw sort of what Daryl was doing, and others at the time in the industry, in bringing a more of a data-driven approach to basketball, it fascinated me personally. I ended up, in later years, being a panelist but I first went as a spectator to have a better understanding of what it was and it was clear that it was an emerging trend in our league.

Obviously as a baseball fan, as well, I was well aware of Billy Ball and all the things that were happening in that league. So it always made sense to me that while there is not a perfect corollary – it’s a very different analysis when you have the integration of the players on the floor as opposed to a team sport with individual achievement stats – it would have to be applied differently in basketball. But my sense was it was inevitable that more of an analytical approach would be brought to basketball.

I read that during the lockout, you relied heavily on numbers in negotiations, in terms of what you said to the players. How much did that assist you in getting the collective bargaining agreement completed?

That’s a good question. In the same way — on the basketball analytical data that we think, additional data and more transparency allows fans to manipulate the data and ultimately causes them to be more engaged in the game — in terms of collective bargaining, we also felt that transparency, in terms of the financial numbers, was in everyone’s interest. So while many disagreed with this approach, we went into collective bargaining having fully disclosed all of our financials to the union and I believe we’re the only other league that’s ever done that. And I saw all our financials. Not just summary numbers, line items of expenses, line items of revenue. At that time of course, we were experiencing, on a league-wide basis, a multi-hundred-million-dollar loss. Our approach in collective bargaining was that these numbers speak for themselves. We had an economist from Yale [Barry Nalebuff] who was working with us. And the union had an economist, coincidently, from the University of Chicago, who was working with them. And we said, it’s an economic truism. No business is sustainable over time that will continue to suffer these kinds of losses.

So our approach was very much driven by economics, so to speak. To come to say that this is self-evident. While we can negotiate over what an appropriate profit is for our teams and discuss how revenue sharing should play a role in ensuring that all teams have the opportunity to be profitable, it’s critical that we steep ourselves in the numbers. I think for the most part, the players appreciated that approach. Obviously, there was plenty of back and forth in terms of some of the categories of numbers. But at the end of the day, we presented them all of the financial data we had. They had a very sophisticated economist in Kevin Murphy from the University of Chicago, who was analyzing it, along with a lot of accountants and other financial people. But my view has always been that transparency is in the best interest of our business and the best interest of the fans.

That transparency is probably why you felt it was important to make every box score in NBA history available to fans on your Web site.

Yeah, every box score available. And one of the things that we’re continuing to look at is if there should be some sort of an expanded box score. Whether there are increasingly other fields of data that are interesting not just to the basketball operations people at the teams and the leagues, but to fans as well. Programs like SportsVU ultimately will make larger data sets available to the fans. Part of it is, we’re going through the process of deciding what addition [of] data is relevant. Is it meaningful to know how many feet a player moved on the court, during the game? I don’t know. Sometimes with data, until you have the data and begin to manipulate it, you have no idea whether it’s truly valuable and that’s sort of the process we’re going through now.

I very much credit our teams. Daryl has been more public than many of our other teams, but there has been tremendous innovation coming out of our teams over the last decade. And we view our jobs with the league to take those best practices from the teams and where appropriate, make that the baseline for all the other teams. It’s a lot easier with some business practices, because it’s not a zero-sum game, to the extent that the Chicago Bulls develop a unique way to sell group sales and we share those practices with the Phoenix Suns, it’s a win-win for both teams. Of course, it’s a zero sum game when it comes to wins and losses, so it’s a little more sensitive when you’re sharing best practices. But having said that, I think there is a general agreement among all teams that raising everyone’s game is in the greater interest of the league and from that standpoint, there has been a terrific sense of cooperation from all of the general managers.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee | October 26, 2013