Vivek Ranadive is an award-winning CEO, the author of three best-selling books, a black belt in taekwondo and a former national junior girls basketball coach. He's a graduate of MIT and Harvard and the founder of the multibillion dollar company TIBCO Software Inc. He’s also the majority owner of the Sacramento Kings, and he thinks taunting is cool.
We had the chance to catch up with Ranadive by phone earlier this week, and he gave us the inside scoop on the Kings' widespread use of analytics, his plan to solve tanking, and why he felt comfortable hitching the wagon of his franchise to DeMarcus Cousins.
What did you think about Malcolm Gladwell's conversation with the commissioner (Adam Silver at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference)? They touched on a lot of topics.
I think what’s most interesting is that the new commissioner is putting his mark on the NBA very quickly. He has this very open style and there are no questions that are off limits. He's inclusive; he’s open. I think he’s very quickly putting his imprint [on the league].
I had an interesting hallway conversation with him where I was talking about how, as the game becomes global, different cultures react in different ways, and that we’ve gone overboard in calling technicals when somebody celebrates. We talked a little bit about that. I said that as long as it doesn’t delay the game, then it’s part of the entertainment. What’s wrong with it? And he said, “Well, what about taunting?” And I said, “So what? I think taunting is cool.”
I happen to agree with you, but I think you might have a little bit more of a vested interest in that, considering the players on your team.
Well, the guy I was referring to about the technicals was actually Quincy Acy! And the commissioner turned around and said, “Yeah, you’re right.” One of the best parts about the early era was taunting. That was highly entertaining. He acknowledged that. What I like about him is that he’s very open and as you saw in the interview with Malcolm, nothing is off limits. He did a great job of defending why cities need to support sports teams, and I think he is doing a fantastic job.
One of the last questions Gladwell asked the commissioner was what one change he would make to the league if he had a magic wand and could change anything he wanted instantly. The commissioner said he’d increase the age limit. What would your one magic wand change be?
That’s the "V Plan." Do you want me to tell you the V Plan?
I would love to hear about the V Plan.
So, basically, we have this issue with how the draft happens and people allegedly tanking. So when I was flying back from the conference, someone looked at me and asked, “Hey, have you thought about this?” People have come up with different ideas -- this idea of The Wheel, and this and that. And so I thought about it and I came up with a solution that I believe will solve most of the issues, and I call it the V Plan.
There’s two parts to it. Part I is that you freeze the draft order at the time of the All-Star break. Then, everything [pertaining to the current lottery system] remains the same, but it’s frozen based on the standings at the All-Star break. Then there’s no gain in not playing at the highest level for the remainder of the season. That’s Part I.
Part II is that at the end of the season, the top seven teams from the Eastern Conference and the top seven teams from the Western Conference make the playoffs. Then for the eighth playoff spot, the remaining eight teams have a sudden-death, college-style playoff in a neutral venue, like Vegas in the West and Kansas or Louisville in the East. (Note: This idea is similar to Bill Simmons' "Entertaining as Hell Tournament,” first floated here and was discussed by Silver in his chat with Gladwell at the Sloan Conference.)
That would inject such excitement into the league. Teams would no longer be incentivized to lose. Their fans would have something to hope for, like a Cinderella team that got into the eighth spot. It would solve most of the issues that we’re facing with the way the draft happens right now.
There has been a lot of talk in NBA circles recently about health, sleep and injuries, with Catapult technology and things like that. How do you think that area of analytics will affect the league in the future and how heavily are you investing in it with the Kings?
We’re on the leading edge of all of that. We’re actually going to look at more data than any other team. We’re going to look at about 30 gigabytes of data, which is probably more than all the data that existed in the history of the NBA in that area.
We’re very big believers in that. The whole analytics space has gone from being one-dimensional, where you were looking at a box score, and analytics moved forward and you were still looking at player scores. Rows and columns of player scores. And now the analytics are also moving into a space-time thing. So you’re looking at spacing, and combinations of players, and you have a lot more data.
Look at Rudy Gay. You could look at one level of numbers and say, “In Toronto he’s scoring 24 points a game, so he’s great.” And then you go next level and say, “Yeah, but he’s only shooting [X] percent, so he’s terrible.” What we did is, we looked at all six years of data, we looked at spatial data, we looked at what happened with a big guy, and what would happen if he was the second or the third option. We concluded that his efficiency would go up dramatically, and sure enough, it’s gone up 20 percentage points. (Note: Gay’s true shooting percentage has increased from 46.8 with Toronto to 57.4 with Sacramento this season, a jump of 8.6 percent. His player efficiency rating, a measure of per-minute efficiency, has gone from 14.7 in Toronto to 20.5 in Sacramento.)
So we think that there’s a revolution happening. Basketball is a big data problem for me. The same will obviously apply to the draft. We’re using machine learning, and neural-network technology with the draft. It’s really hard when a player comes out after one year, to say, “Is that going to be The Guy?” So we’re looking at data to try to predict what NBA player the guy might end up looking like.
Then, of course, using preventing measures for health. I get a report every week now, where I monitor a whole bunch of metrics for our players. I’m continuously monitoring them. We’re looking at bands of certain kinds of metrics. We’re very much on the leading edge of all these areas, and we’re very committed to leveraging that.
Are you using the Catapult technology in practice?
We’re using variations of that. We actually used Catapult. There are competitors, and we’ve experimented with a variety of them. It’s measuring every single thing, and looking how that varies from week to week. I literally get a report, every single week, with a whole bunch of metrics that I look at.
Do you think that kind of data is more helpful in terms of preventing injuries or in creating custom practice schedules for a team or an individual player?
Well, both. We want to do things where we minimize the chance of injury. If you combine that kind of data with analysis, oftentimes there is a correlation between certain kinds of things and injuries. We want to get to the point where we have extremely customized training regimens for all of our players, depending on their position, their skills, their weight, and various metrics that we look at.
You went through a rather unusual hiring process when you took over the team in that you hired a coach before you hired a general manager. How did you decide to go that route, and how did you decide on Mike Malone and Pete D’Alessandro?
I had worked with Malone with the Warriors (Note: Ranadive was a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors franchise before purchasing a majority stake in the Kings) and I had the highest regard for him. I’d seen him in practice and I’d seen him in games for two years. I’d been to training sessions with him and been with him in the draft room.
He was the 21st century kind of coach that I wanted. The style of play -- we want to be like the Spurs, but exciting. We want to create a winning franchise that is a perennial contender, and we also want a strong defense, combined with up-tempo play. Malone is a coach’s son, and there was high demand for him. I knew that I wanted him, so I made a deal with him that once I bought a team, he would be my coach.
For the GM, I went through a pretty exhaustive search. What I was looking for was, I said: Who is the smartest guy? Who’s got the most passion? And who’s the hungriest? That’s how I hired people in my software company.
When I spoke to Pete, I told him, “I’ve got three other candidates that are finalists for this job, and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get job. I will interview you, and most likely it will be for an assistant GM [position]. If you want to come out, come out, but the chances of you getting it are 1 percent.” He came out, and the night before I gave him a call and said, “There are just five questions I have for you,” and then he just absolutely blew me away. Blew me away. He was the kind of 21st century GM that I was looking for.
Looking at that, we don’t hold the fact that you haven’t done something against you. (Note: Malone had never been a full-time NBA head coach, nor D’Alessandro a full-time general manager.) Mark Zuckerberg was 21 when he invented Facebook. That’s just how we think.
You said you wanted to be like the Spurs, but exciting. Play up-tempo, but also have a good defense. I know your defense has improved over the course of the season, but you’re playing a little slower now than early on. How do you feel that the offense has looked, not necessarily in terms of performance, but in the aesthetics of the way you wanted to play?
I think clearly we have more work to do on offense. We have more turnovers than we would like. We need to move the ball around better. We’d like it to be more up-tempo. We have a lot of young guys on the team.
I want to basically play a new brand of position-less basketball. I want to have these super-athletic, young guys that can run and feel out the game. Guys like Rudy Gay, and Derrick Williams, these are guys who can play the 1-2-3-4 positions. There’s work to be done on offense but I think we’ve made progress.
Very soon after you took over the Kings, you gave DeMarcus Cousins a maximum contract extension. You hooked the wagon of the franchise to his back. What was it about him as a player that made you confident that he’d be able to lead the era of basketball that you’re looking to create?
He represented the 21st century player that I talk about. He’s a mismatch for just about anybody. He’s too big for the smaller guys and he’s too quick for the bigger guys. He can play facing the basket, or with his back to the basket. The game we had [March 23 against the Milwaukee Bucks], he had these amazing passes. He’s arguably the most skilled big man in the game.
He plays really hard. I know that he’s had issues with his temper and so on, but when I took over the franchise, the first thing I did was I texted him and I said, “Hey, my friend Steve Jobs likes to say ‘Let's put a dent in the universe.’ So let’s do that in the NBA.” And just like one of my kids, he sent me a three-word text back just saying, “Sounds good, boss.”
That was the start of my relationship with him and his mom. Before we gave him the contract, it was over the summertime, and I said, “Look, I just want one thing from you. I want you to be the first guy in and the last guy out. As long as you do that, we’re good.” And he did. He lost a bunch of weight; he was the hardest-working guy in practice. The coaches have done a great job with him, and his numbers reflect it. He’s had amazing numbers.
There’s still more work to be done, but I am very pleased with where he is.
Jared Dubin writes for the TrueHoop Network and is a coauthor of We'll Always Have Linsanity.