Ben Falk on Building NBA Teams and a Winning Culture

Ben Falk started working for the Portland Trail Blazers as an analytics expert while he still had two years of college left to finish. After graduating, he spent several years each with the Blazers and the 76ers assisting with analytics and basketball strategy. Today, he posts what he’s seeing in the league on his site Cleaning The Glass.

Zach Lowe had Falk on his Lowe Post Podcast this week, and Falk had many insightful things to say about constructing teams in the NBA along with winning strategy in today’s game. My notes are below:

— Zach Lowe’s solid insight on franchises that try to be good now while also adding young prospects to develop to be good in the future: It seems easier to be good first, and then worry about building assets to drive the future. Being mediocre to poor now and then trying to build from scratch has choppy results historically.

Falk’s related point: People like to say culture creates winning. But a lot of times winning creates culture. It’s hard to have a good culture when you’re losing.

— When projecting a draft pick, you have to consider their potential in terms of a probability distribution. What is the chance they become a star? A starter? A role player? A bust? And you’re constantly adjusting those odds as more information arrives. New info can make a big difference at the extremes (whether they project to be a star or a bust), which shrinks the potential outcomes.

And your expectations about the prospect at the start affects those predictions. If they’re high, you’re more patient with a slow or disappointing start than you would be if you’re taking a flyer on a pick at the end of the draft. Also, if you know this player will take time to develop, you’re more willing to wait.

Think about all the abilities a player has and what is more likely to change than not. Shooting is easier to change than height or hoops IQ.

— Ultimately, decisions rarely are black and white. You should rarely go into a decision thinking 100% one way or the other.

One franchise grades every one of their transactions on a scale of 1-100 of whether they think each one will work out. It makes you consider your threshold for making a deal. Does it have to be a 60? An 80? A 90? That said, uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction.

— It’s easy to have your goals set by outside influences. You have to set internal goals.

Sam Hinkie was incredible at having consistency internally. He ignored any talk of what he’d have to do to save his job, because that’s how terrible decisions get made.

The best trade Ben was a part of (trading Gerald Wallace for the draft pick that became Damian Lillard) occurred because of the other team’s desperation.

— Sam Hinkie quote: “Every game is a data point.”

— In Philadelphia, they made players earn the green light to shoot certain shots in the game by hitting a certain percentage in practice.

— In the NBA, it’s amazing how much a foot or a step matters. It can be the difference between being in position to challenge a shot vs. giving up a layup.

— It’s tough to have a great offense without getting at least some easy points from transition and/or putbacks.

Jared Dudley, the Consummate Role Player

Jared Dudley was an undersized forward coming out of college that carved out an 11-year career to date in the NBA. Given his terrific communication skills, he is very likely to have a long second career as a member of the media or on a coaching staff.

Dudley sat down with Adrian Wojnarowski (“Woj”) for an hour-long podcast to talk about trends in pro basketball and how he has stuck around the league for so long. My notes are below:

— He has had an 11 year career because he knows his role. There are only 2-3 scorers per team in the NBA and everyone else is a role player. It’s on them to figure out how to fit in around the stars. Be a star in your role.

— For several years now, the majority of his value in the league comes from his ability to teach professionalism to the young franchise players that his current team has on the roster. He is willing to sacrifice playing time in order to show those young guys the ropes.

Dudley’s first superstar pupil was Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Jared says what makes Giannis special is he is the rare superstar that doesn’t care about being embarrassed. He will try to swat every opponent’s dunk attempt and guard the opposing superstar as much as possible even if it means he gets beat more often.

— Putting up empty stats on a bad team doesn’t have value anymore. Teams see through that. It’s all about efficiency now, showing how you can contribute to winning. Is he a team guy? What is his reputation?

— What separates good front offices? Honesty. Be straight up about what you see that player doing for you. Don’t promise that they’ll never get traded or are going to twenty shots a night. If a good front office expects something of you and you deliver, they will look out for you.

— Dudley spent one season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Expectations were high for that team since it featured multiple star players, but they continually came up short. Dudley says the issue was chemistry. You don’t have to be best friends but you gotta like each other. Not all work environments will mesh though even if you have some star talent. When you don’t have camaraderie, you don’t hang out. And when you don’t hang out, it makes it hard to come together when shit hits the fan. And that’s what this is about. Everyone is gonna face adversity, even the world champion Warriors did when Kevin Durant got injured for part of last season.

— Dudley’s rookie year was in Charlotte when Michael Jordan was running the team’s basketball operations. Dudley had the guts to ask the greatest hooper ever to hang out, and Jordan took him up on the offer. They would grab dinner on occasion during road trips.

— One of Dudley’s first pro coaches was Hall of Famer Larry Brown. Brown is known for being very demanding of his players. Jared said he was the most attention-to-detail coach he has ever seen. Larry didn’t care about politics or where you were drafted either. He was playing who he thought gave the team the best chance to win.

The hardest part of a head coach’s job is getting buy-in from all fifteen players in the locker room. At any time, 7-8 guys think they deserve more playing time and 2 think they ought to be starting, and the coach has to convince them all of what he’s selling. Being a great communicator is half of the job.

Jared thinks his current coach, Earl Watson, does a good job with the young franchise players because he lets them be themselves but is demanding and brutally honest. The honesty comes from a place of love though because he wants to see them be more successful.

Source: The Woj Pod

Charlize Theron Walks Through Her Career Ups and Downs

From The Bill Simmons Podcast:

Charlize Theron was the featured guest on Bill Simmons’s podcast last month prior to the release of her film Atomic Blonde. They walked through her film career on a movie-by-movie basis. My notes are below:

She is poor at auditioning but relentless and can stick in people’s heads.

She was just trying not to drown in Devil’s Advocate, her first big role that also featured Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. Surprised she got the part. Worked really hard and did her best.

Winning the Oscar was a night she felt very grateful for all she had been able to do. However, it felt no greater than getting her first film role as an extra years prior.

After winning the Oscar, she got a lot of offers for work and made some bad choices. She overthought and was not fully committed or felt right choosing what she did.

An injury to her neck caused chronic pain for 8 years. Then a fusion surgery was a game changer.

After the difficulty of making Mad Max, she needed the funny work environment of filming a comedy to remind her why she loves this kind of work.

Seth MacFarlane wrote, directed, and acted in A Million Ways to Die in the West while also writing a novel and doing voices for Family Guy; and he still has time to meet you for a drink.

She would much rather have word of mouth than mountains of money going to publicity for her films. She does not set expectations for her films.

Her kids are 2 and 5 years old. Simmons says that is a tough stage. You don’t see light at the end of the tunnel until they turn 6. Then they can occupy themselves. Simmons is torn up that his daughter is throwing sass at him now that she’s 12 and it will stay that way after he used to be her hero. His son is great though. Sons are dumb, happy, and loyal.

Judd Apatow on Fame, Netflix, and Working on Yourself

From The Bill Simmons Podcast:

Judd Apatow was a featured guest on Bill Simmons’s podcast earlier this summer. He has been a central figure in the world of comedy for over twenty years. His comments in this interview were insightful on a number of subjects. My notes are below:

Men in power are terrified of confident, brilliant, creative women.

When someone flips out online, it says more about that person than the subject they are attacking.

When he is deciding on who to partner with next, it is almost like the universe keeps putting that person in front of him.

Doing stand-up is nice because you are around so many creative people. Making movies leaves you alone in a room a lot. Stand-up makes you want to work harder because you see how hard other really funny people are working. Bill Simmons: Aziz Ansari said it is inspiring to see older comics who have hit every career checkpoint that are still grinding that hard.

It is such a great feeling to have a joke work regardless of the audience. It could be 4 people or 400 people, you’re so happy.

The TV show business has all changed because there used to be no financial incentive to make good television.

Most people today consume 2 TV episodes in a sitting, 3 max.

The great thing Netflix does: they pick people they want to work with and then let them go create what they want. Network TV on the other hand is like having a gun to your head the whole time because they threaten to cancel your show at any time.

The best guys in their field like LeBron or Jay-Z somehow are relaxed for hours with company. They aren’t stressed. They are smart, funny, and amiable. They are taking calls, waiting for the next photo shoot or practice they have to start in a few minutes or hours. And yet nothing fazes them. They can hang out with someone they just met and be charming right up until it’s time to move on.

Jim Carrey on becoming famous: in a moment you go from you watching the world to the world watching you. Apatow: you need the mental foundation to hold up over the long haul.

Garry Shandling asked himself after having success and being able to express himself, what is he doing all this for? How much does he have to do? Who am I beneath all this? This is common for creative people: how much can you give?

When you have a good moment where something works out, you discover the limits of your ability to be happy. If in a moment where you know everything is good and you still feel anxious or tense, it bums you out to know this is as good as it will be for you. Then you realize it comes down to you and you need to work on yourself.

How Jim Koch Started Boston Beer Company

From Guy Raz at the How I Built This podcast:

I listened to this podcast today and came away with lots of notes. It features Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer Company. Their flagship beer is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. My notes are below:

His dad had been a brewmaster since 1948, as had the previous four generations of Kochs before that. Jim started his company in 1984. His dad told him brewing was a miserable way to make a living.

He learned after college you don’t need to earn that much money if you really enjoy what you’re doing.

He worked as a consultant for a bit after leaving college and the businesses that fascinated him were the outliers. The outliers are where you learn the most. They are the niche businesses that find a market they can tap into. The beer example that fit this outlier philosophy for Jim was Anchor Steam out of San Francisco. That told him it could be possible to be a craft brewer.

There is a difference between something that is scary and something that is dangerous. Some are one but not the other, and vice versa. Scary but not dangerous: Repelling backwards off a cliff is scary, but a rope that could hold a car secures you. Dangerous but not scary: walking at a 35-degree angle across a snowfield on a beautiful sunny day in May. It seems pleasant but those are conditions ripe for an avalanche. For Jim, staying at his consulting firm: dangerous but not scary. The danger was continuing to do something that did not fulfill him, and then reaching 65 years old and realizing he wasted his life. That is risk in his mind.

Jim’s differentiator with his beer business was he would not be competing directly with Bud, Miller or Coors. In addition, he knew the beers people considered the best in the world (Beck’s, Heineken, etc.) were not the best beers in the world either. He could create a better flavor structure for a beer and it would be fresher for US consumers than the more stale beer being shipped from overseas.

First thing he had to do: find the best brewmaster in America to help him. The man he found combined practical experience with scientific know-how. He turned Jim’s offer down at first, knowing Jim could not pay him enough. He got him on board by giving him 2% of the company.

They knew there were breweries out there already, so they would rent that space, brew their beer, and package it. They did this for several years before getting a brewery of their own. They did not have an office or a telephone starting out.

His calculus: am I spending money on something that will make the beer better? If not, do not spend it.

He got the first recipe right after tweaking it for several months.

His father told him that starting a business is lonely and to look for a partner to work with. He wanted to find someone that had the skills he did not have, and he realized he already had that person in his 23-year old secretary, Rhonda. She had no college degree but could do everything he could not.

All five beer distributors in Boston turned him down the first time he went to them. They only wanted light beers. They also scoffed at the lack of professionalism of his operation: no marketing plan, no advertising budget (because they had no money), and only two employees.

The only way he got business was putting 7 cold beer bottles in his briefcase with 2 cool packs and cold calling bar after bar serving samples to try and convince owners to pick up his beer. He had never sold anything in his life prior to that. The key to getting trial from bar managers was 1) the beer was already cold, and 2) after quickly opening one, it needed to be consumed by someone. That got managers to try the beer on the spot before they could kick Jim out.

Launched in 1985. 6 weeks after Sam Adams came out, it got named the best beer in America at the Great American Beer Festival.

They were profitable from the first full month. It was the ultimate lean startup. Did all their phone calls from pay phones. Had no office.

There were only two things he knew they needed to do: 1) make great beer consistently, and 2) work their butts off to sell it.

Initially he grew it one bar at a time with a rejection rate from bars of 95% (1 new account for every 20 calls). Being named best beer in the country gave a jolt to demand.

His goal at the start was $1 million in sales within 5 years. Instead, it took him 5 months.

He realized early on that the potential of this was a lot larger than he originally thought. He knew they were climbing a mountain, and nobody climbs a mountain to get to the middle. If they were going to do this, they were going to climb it to get to the top. The top for him was to become the largest, most respected of the high-end beers in the United States. That could be a 30 or 50-year journey. He still does not believe they are there.

If you are right about something important, push it. He did this when he attacked the import beer brands in the 1990s for not being as high quality as drinkers perceived.

They have 1,400 employees today at an average W-2 compensation of $70,000 per year. He is proud to be supplying good jobs.

He admits a lot of it was luck. A lot of things didn’t go wrong that could have.

He never imagined the success they would have and that there would be 4,500 craft brewers in the country today. The United States has gone from the laughingstock of the beer world thirty years ago to being the best in the world today.

One-off Bits of Advice Picked Up from Various Podcasts

Los Angeles Clippers basketball player JJ Redick: Your performance and your team’s performance improve when you decide you are playing FOR your teammates and not WITH your teammates. Note: this same perspective is used to build bonds within units of the military, and I’ve seen elite football coaches like Urban Meyer apply it by breaking his 85-man team into smaller subsets to make it easier for players to identify a small unit they are playing for.

Los Angeles Dodgers baseball manager Dave Roberts: As a leader, there are three things your players are looking for from you: (1) Can I trust this person? (2) Does he/she care about me? and (3) Can he/she make me better?

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Lessons from TV host, comedian, and CEO Chris Hardwick

I went back and listened to the first Jonah Keri podcast with his boss at Nerdist, Chris Hardwick. Chris is the CEO of Nerdist and host of Talking Dead, @midnight with Chris Hardwick, and The Wall. He had a lot of insightful things to say. My notes are below:

— We’re conditioned to be rid of any discomfort, yet discomfort is where the most growth happens.

— ‘What if’ questions are dangerous because rarely is that an optimistic thought. It’s usually us thinking of a possible negative outcome.

— ‘Worry is a misuse of your imagination.’

— Just get started instead of overthinking. Nerds fall into overthinking too easily and then never act.

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Things learned from Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz

Gail Miller and her husband have owned the Utah Jazz for decades. After her husband Larry passed away in 2009, she assumed full ownership of their businesses: the Jazz, 54 car dealerships, and a movie theater. She sat down for a podcast with Jonah Keri last month. My notes are below:

— Being charitable doesn’t have to be done at scale. Giving one can of soup every week is enough to make an impact. That feeds somebody. It’s gotta be in your heart to want to help people.

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Lessons from Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a Hall of Fame basketball player that won two national titles at UCLA in the early 1970s and was a key player on two NBA championship teams (1977 and 1986). He was on this podcast with sportswriter Jonah Keri last year. My notes are below:

— Bill’s body started breaking down on him in his 20s, and he’s had to deal with limitations on his physical activity ever since. His advice in that scenario is to figure out what it is you can do and do your best with that. For him, that led to biking and swimming for physical exercise. At the end of your life, there are three physical activities you can do: swim in the pool, lift weights, and bike.

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Strategic advice from Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix

Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix, recently sat down for a conversation with Marc Andreessen, co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Full podcast is here. My notes are below:

— Don’t dabble. If you’re going to go after a new area you think has potential for high returns, invest one-third of your resources. He’s citing this for business, but the same can be said for investing your personal time. This goes back to the advice of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates that the most important factor in their success was ‘focus.’

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