Jun 16, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

How the cloud helps the Warriors win playoff games

Warriors Assistant Coach Jama Mahlalela talks with Andrew Wiggins prior to a playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks.

Warriors Assistant Coach Jama Mahlalela talks with Andrew Wiggins prior to a playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks. Photo: Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors are now one game away from capturing the NBA championship — but to get there, they've been making adjustments all the way through the playoffs, with a major assist from a massive database.

Why it matters: While pro teams are increasingly relying on technology to improve their performance, coming up with specific insights from a sea of data remains a challenge.

How it works: In addition to game footage, the Warriors also capture every shot a player takes in practice, even those taken in warmups, thanks to a system called NOAH, which uses facial recognition to match each shot to a player.

  • The system detects whether missed shots were too long or too short, even measuring if made shots were a little more short or long.
  • Another system called Catapult collects biometric data from the players.
  • The team feeds all that information into a massive Google Cloud database. (Google Cloud is a sponsor of the team, though Lacob said the Warriors started using it before the business deal was struck.)

The big picture: All that data has been valuable during the playoffs. The Warriors are where they are despite a couple of blowout losses along the way. In each case, the team was able to turn things around the following game and avoid back-to-back losses.

  • Warriors executive VP Kirk Lacob said the analytics made possible by the team's cloud data store have helped identify specific advantages and player tendencies, though he declined to go into specifics.
  • Pabail Sidhu, the Warriors'diirector of basketball analytics and innovation, added, “the intersection of compute, knowledge of basketball X’s and O’s, and communication is powerful. I can accurately aggregate and compute large datasets to answer questions in real time when asked by our coaching staff, and offer insights that give us advantages on the court.”  
  • Klay Thompson, meanwhile, turned to a different technology to get out of a shooting slump — watching video of himself on YouTube.

Between the lines: Lacob has been working for years to get to this point, having hired Sidhu back in 2017 to create a data operations effort when that was a novel concept.

  • "I even told him at the time, 'The first few years are going to be tough. I'm going to ask you to do a lot on your own.' "
  • Early on, even before the Warriors were a playoff contender, Sidhu and Lacob were able to identify that a bad streak of defense boiled down to a specific rotation issue leaving the opponents open for corner 3-point shots.
  • These days, Sidhu has a whole team to work with, as well as a brand new stadium packed with sensors, cameras and other technology. "Now we can contextualize a lot more player rotations, lineup changes," Lacob said.

Some players have gravitated to the new tools more than others. One of the most eager adopters of technology is veteran Andre Iguodala, unsurprising given his interests in tech.

  • "He’s still playing out there at 37 — that’s no mistake," Lacob said, adding that he was also one of the more skeptical athletes, wanting to be sure he understood just what the technology could and couldn't help with.
  • Steph Curry too, is always up for anything that can give him a fresh edge — or a new mountain to climb, Lacob said. "His team does a great job of continuing to find new ways to challenge him," Lacob said.
  • For younger players, Lacob said the shot-tracking technology can help identify who, for example, might be a promising three-point shooter with a little help.

Yes, but: All that data can be a double-edged sword, Lacob says. "There is certainly a point, for many, where you get paralysis by analysis," Lacob said. With so much data, "it’s very easy to get lost in it or see false prophets."

What's next: Lacob said he would like to see more of the players' biometric data accessible without forcing them to wear a device.

  • "I would love to see things get less wearable if that makes sense... more things that don’t impact a player," he said.
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