Sport and Outdoors

Golden State Warriors use tech to their on-court advantage

To get to the NBA finals, the team tapped into the power of tech to help transform itself from perennial loser to a winning force.

The Golden State Warriors are the best team in basketball.

They proved it last year -- electrifying fans by winning 67 games (out of 82) and then grabbing their first National Basketball Association championship in four decades. They did it again this year by winning 73 games in the regular season, an all-time NBA record. That history-making achievement served notice: Last year was no fluke.

The success of the Warriors, who are in an epic battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers heading into a deciding Game 7 of the NBA Finals and a possible back-to-back championship-clinching victory on Sunday, can partly be attributed to a five-year bet on technology. The wager has helped transform a perennial cellar dweller into an annual contender.

The team, which plays at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, was among the first in the league to install cameras that track when players touch or shoot the ball during a game. During practice, players sport wearable monitors (a labor deal prohibits their use in games) that gauge their heart rates, movement and stamina. And the team is constantly trying out new technology -- including "smart" sleep masks -- for potential use.

The Golden State Warriors play against the Atlanta Hawks in Oracle Arena.

James Martin/CNET

Few NBA teams have turned technology to their advantage quite like the Warriors.

"You can play on the probabilities or just stand pat," says Kirk Lacob, an assistant general manager who oversees the team's analytics staff and is the son of co-owner Joe Lacob. "We choose to take the risks."

Numbers, please

The Warriors' transformation began in 2010, when the senior Lacob, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and Hollywood producer Peter Guber bought the team for a then-record $450 million. The ownership change came just as basketball began experimenting with analytics the way baseball had a decade earlier.

The Warriors, along with the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, began collecting data that stretched beyond how many points a player scored or how many rebounds he grabbed.

The team started by installing SportVU, a six-camera motion-tracking system hung from the rafters. With it, the Warriors could see and analyze every dribble and pass a player makes, along with his speed, distance between teammates and miles run in a game. Point guard Steph Curry, for example, runs about 2.4 miles during his 34 minutes on court, according to the NBA.

Now Playing: Watch this: The tech helping the Warriors to win
1:51

Today, all 30 NBA teams rely on SportVU, and every team has someone on hand who can wring strategy out of the data. That wasn't the case for the Warriors, who had to figure things out as they went along. They won fewer than half their games in their first two years using SportVU.

But as the team learned to use the data, its winning percentages started to climb. They won 57 percent of their games in 2013, and 62 percent the following season. In 2015, the Warriors won 82 percent of their regular season games (compared with an eyebrow-raising 89 percent in the season just ended), before going on to stun competitors, fans and the league during the playoffs.

"They took a strategic gamble that took a while to matriculate, and it is paying off," says Dean Oliver, who literally wrote the book on basketball analytics. (His book is titled "Basketball on Paper: Rules and Tools for Performance Analysis.")

The little things

Today, the Warriors are praised for their unselfish play. While Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson are among the league's best marksmen, the team passes the ball around so much that Warriors forward Draymond Green is a threat to tally at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists -- a feat known by basketball fans as a "triple-double" -- each time he plays.

Many say the team's use of analytics, video and other tech tools has encouraged its style.

"In some shape or fashion, every team has become heavy on using tech," says ESPN senior NBA writer Marc Spears. "But the Warriors are having tremendous success with it."

In sports, the tiniest movements can reveal volumes about players' fatigue and potential for injury. The Warriors consider that information as vital as knowing each player's success rate shooting three-pointers.

To gather that information, players wear a small monitor from Catapult Sports that tracks their movements as they practice. Worn under a compression shirt between players' shoulders, the Catapult detects pressure on their knees and ankles, and if they're moving at their usual fitness levels.

The Warriors won 89 percent of their regular season games, including this one played against the Atlanta Hawks in Oakland's Oracle Arena.

James Martin/CNET

"Back in the day, we were just able to say, 'He's breathing hard, he might need to rest,'" says the Warriors' Thompson. "Now [coaches] can actually see if you need a day of rest or you need to go harder."

The information helps the team manage players' workloads and reduce injuries, says Lacob.

It's easy to focus on an athlete's physical condition, but professional sports teams know the brain is just as important. That's why the Warriors also fit players with electrodes attached to the face and hands. Made by Omegawave of Finland, the electrodes measure the electrical activities of each athlete's brain. That data is crucial for determining both mental and physical fatigue, something the players themselves have trouble recognizing.

"You may come to the gym one day and want to say, 'I'm sore, I really don't feel like working out,'" says Warriors forward Harrison Barnes. "This will tell you how [you're] feeling because the data says it all right here."

It takes a village

The Golden State Warriors are constantly testing and exploring new products to find an extra edge.

Daniel Brusilovsky, who leads the team's digital initiatives, sometimes takes a personal role in that testing. Case in point: the Neuroon, a sensor-equipped sleep mask to help combat jet lag.

copy-of-ctsu16c1.jpg

See more stories from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

"I sleep with it every single night," says Brusilovsky. "We're talking with the company each day to provide feedback on what's working, not working and what features they could possibly add."

Players on the Warriors' minor league team in Santa Cruz, California, also serve as the guinea pigs in many tests.

Last season, they tested smart clothing by Athos, which measures heart rates, breathing and muscle use. Now they're piloting headphones made by Halo Neuroscience that send electrical impulses to the brain to improve muscle memory.

And yes, the Santa Cruz Warriors are benefiting from that testing, too. They also won their league title last year.

"From top to bottom, we believe in innovation and pushing the boundaries," Lacob says. "Anything we can do to get one extra win is huge." 

Terry Collins (@terryscollins) is a CNET senior reporter writing tech's impact on sports and health. He joined CNET from the Associated Press, where he spent six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.