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Nets and the era of Big Data ... Getting bigger?


Two weeks ago, the Nets and Infor, the sponsor of the team’s jersey ads, released a video on how the software company is helping the Nets. It was a short one, didn’t get any publicity and seemed mainly promotional. Sean Marks and Infor CEO Charles Phillips talked about how the company has already helped the Nets “on the court” and how it can add to the team’s future.

Specifically, Marks talkd about how Infor has helped with team performance, developing player-friendly apps.

“The biggest thing that Infor has done for us is making us more efficient,” says Marks as the video cuts to a shot of Trevor Booker looking at an iPad showing a replay of game action. “Our players when they're using their app and they're seeing their performance stats, their game stats, how those things marry, we're educating them. Infor has done a really nice job there.”

Phillips, CEO of Infor, said of “engaging” with the Nets, “Data science is invading every industry and we thought this was a cool opportunity to help a local team ... trying to make them a better team.”

A recent article on the Manhattan-based company’s blog also laid out some of what the two sides are working on: player self-reporting on their health, coaching communications, and hiring the best talent.

“I am a fan of analytics,” Kenny Atkinson said at the time the Infor deal was announced. “The challenge for our staff and our department is managing all this information we’re getting. I think they’re going to help us in this area, hopefully simplify things a little bit for us. I think it’s the future.“

But the Nets commitment to big data is bigger than the video or the blog item or the deal with Infor. It has been for a while. And it’is likely to get much bigger if new minority owner Joe Tsai’s tech background is any measure of where he will want to take it.

The Nets brain trust has long embraced data. Marks and Atkinson introduced the concept of a data-driven performance team and have built up their basketball analytics staff, hiring a “director of coaching analytics,” a “sports science analyst,” etc., etc. They’ve integrated performance and analytics in the team culture. As Joe Harris famously told Zach Lowe, "They even track the color of your piss."

It’s more than that of course. Players fill out daily questionnaires about sleep, soreness and diet and the data goes into the mix.

Dr. Riley J. Williams, the team medical director, talked last year about how big data can help players with injuries. You may not be able to prevent many injuries, but using injury data, you can build a database that has value down the line.

“What we are seeing,” Williams told the Hospital for Special Surgery website, “is an expansion of how analytics is being used to help provide useful insights both pre-injury and post-injury.

“For example, we will look at the amount of minutes a player spends on the court, how they perform over that time, and analyze how these statistics change if a player stayed on the court and played through pain versus how they perform post-surgery,” Dr. Williams explained.

The team’s scouting database has long been out front, with video as well as data available to the front office. (If you wonder whether the database includes character-driven information, wonder no more. Psychological reports, interviews, police reports if a prospect had been arrested ... all there.)

Now, with Tsai, the Nets effort is likely to get a lot more intriguing. The Taiwanese-Canadian businessman has agreed to buy 49 percent of the Nets now and take control in four years. He is executive vice-chairman of a company that uses big data like few other enterprises in the world ... Alibaba. And Tsai has been in the forefront of using big data to help the giant, China-based (but globally ambitious) e-commerce company.

Alibaba, under Tsai’s direction, has moved from pure e-commerce to helping other companies, primarily in China, use artificial intelligence. It’s helping farmers establish a visual early-warning system using drones to detect whether their crops are infected by disease and advising a Chinese solar panel manufacturer on the best way to cut panels to optimize efficiency.

In an interview posted on Alibaba’s internal blog in September, Tsai suggested viewing data as a nutrient, “food for the machine.” Feed data into a computer, and it can generate outcomes, offering real-time feedback, Tsai told an interviewer. There are different kinds of data, with different value, Tsai said, noting “historical data may not be as important as real-time data.”

Of course, Alibaba believes in big data for its own businesses as well as helping others. "The massive amount of data that we have on our users and customers; we're now able to use that to train our machines in machine learning," he’s said.

That doesn’t mean Tsai is giving over his businesses —or the Nets— to some bank of computers. In that same interview, Tsai noted artificial intelligence is better at some things than humans, but that “human brains will always be running faster than machines.”

It’s hard to say before Tsai and Mikhail Prokhorov formally announce their partnership what role the minority owner will have during the four years before he’ll take over. It’s a reasonable assumption that someone with such an e-commerce and big data background will likely be involved on the business side of the Nets. After all, the team hasn’t made money in 20 years. and reportedly lost $44 million last season and finished dead last in local revenues, thinks like tickets, sponsorships, local TV rights.

The Nets investment in big data has come even with an owner, Prokhorov, who famously (still) eschews cell phones, writes out his thoughts long hand and once said, “I know this iPad. I hope we never meet." Now that he’ll share ownership with a billionaire who built his fortune in big data, it will be interesting to see how far the Nets will take it all.