Numbers of the NBA: A courtside chat with Steve Ballmer about the basketball metrics that matter

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Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer roots for his L.A. Clippers in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Nov. 5 , while recording at episode of the Numbers Geek podcast with GeekWire editor Todd Bishop, at left. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Sure, you know how many points your favorite NBA player scored in his last game. But how do turnovers, field goal percentage and rebounds improve chances of winning? How did NBA rule changes impact average points per game this season? And how did “wins above replacement value” factor into the year’s big trades?

From the boardroom to the baseline, those are a few of the numbers that make a difference in the world of basketball, and we explore all of them and more on this episode of the Numbers Geek podcast, just in time for the start of the NBA Playoffs. We recorded this episode behind-the-scenes and courtside during a game at Staples Center with LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO and founder of our podcast partner USAFacts.

Listen to the episode above to experience what it’s like to sit next to Steve at a game, and continue reading for edited highlights from his comments on the show.

Subscribe to Numbers Geek in your favorite podcast app, and see the video below for a conversation with Steve and members of the Clippers analytics team, Jud Winton and Greg Peim.

Was the $2 billion price tag for the Clippers worth it? There’s two criteria I had. One is, would it be fun? And two, was it at least a decent investment? Not that I’m planing on selling but nobody wants to be a chump. Fun, I’m having a ton of fun. The value of the investment? I think that we’ve already found that it proves to be pretty darn good.

The Houston Rockets have sold at over $2 billion. Memphis sold at $2.3 billion and certainly LA has more attractiveness than either of those markets for buyers, particularly for foreign buyers. But also for free agents. LA’s probably the number one destination, all things being equal. I mean free agents, big time free agents, maximum players as they say, max salaries, they will pick primarily on where they can win championships, where the environment’s good, where they’re going to like their teammates. But all things equal, by geography they’ll pick LA or New York. So I feel good about $2 billion, and Houston at $2.1 billion and Memphis at $2.3 billion.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoots against LA Clippers players Montrezl Harrell (5) Danilo Gallinari (8) and Patrick Beverly (21) at Staples Center in L.A. on Nov. 5, 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Which is more difficult, getting the Clippers’ salary cap right or maximizing Microsoft’s gross margin back in the day? One was more operating challenging. Microsoft’s gross margin, although Microsoft’s gross margin in the day wasn’t a problem because everything was software and it was 100% gross margin. None of this cloud stuff and hardware stuff. So I guess you could say that was relatively easy. Getting salary cap stuff with all the rules and the things you can do and the crazy trades you can make or think about making, I think the salary cap stuff is pretty hard.

Key stats to follow beyond shooting percentage? I look at turnovers pretty heavily. I mean you can see how we shot. Sometimes that’s because of good defense, sometimes not. Turnovers might be because the other team’s playing good defense, but I think of those as unforced errors.

Lessons learned from NBA legend and Clippers executive board member Jerry West? Jerry likes stats, but he believes you shouldn’t overuse them. Judgment’s super important, and he’s very good about pushing that concept.

Can research and analytics impact the outcome of a game? I think in any given game, insights will guide the way the coach makes decisions. It’s not the only factor but just look at playoffs. The books that these guys create for playoffs are unbelievable. Highlighting what’s gonna work, what might not work. I mean they’re really quite extensive. It gives the coaches a chance to see what’s going on. It’s not like the old days where there’s the playbook. … People think, OK, in business you get all these long PowerPoints. I’ve had more PowerPoints, more packed with data than ever before my life from these two guys (Winton and Peim) and their department at the Clips.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers speaks to an NBA referee with Clippers player Montrezl Harrell at right. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Stats that NBA fans should know? The league keeps track of the job the refs do, statistically. Refs do a very good job. It’s not like refs will get every call right, but our refs on a percentage of time, they make the right call and they don’t miss calls. They’re really very good. It’d be good for fans to know that.

What’s it like watching a game as an owner? Emotion. It’s mostly emotion, a level of really caring. I care so much more. I don’t know about anybody else. I think we have a lot of fans who are pretty passionate. I know it has amped up my fandom.

In case there was any doubt, here’s a gallery of pictures of Ballmer, by photographer Kevin Lisota, at the game where we recorded this episode.

The LA Clippers finished the regular season with a 48-34 record. They take on the top-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, beginning at 5 p.m. Saturday.



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