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.

You Control Your Inputs, But the Market Only Sees Outputs

Semil Shah uses a story to illustrate a good point for people trying to get their work noticed within the broader marketplace of their profession.

Individually, the inputs are all we can control: the effort we put into each day and how we choose to spend our time. This rhymes with Warren Buffett’s idea of the inner scorecard (paraphrasing: don’t worry what others think of you and create an objective way to grade yourself on how you’re doing).

The catch with focusing on the inputs is in most professions, the end product will be all that matters to the client or boss you are working for.

I know you worked hard on the inputs, but I need the right outputs.

Continue to focus on finding best use of the inputs, but recognize that at some point it has to result in outputs that are valuable to others.

Source: Semil Shah