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Expertise: Gabe Farkas Th'02, Director of Basketball Analytics, San Antonio Spurs

Gabe Farkas
Photograph courtesy of Gabe Farkas.

With his five-foot, nine-inch stature, Gabe Farkas Th’02 knew that his future wasn’t as a power forward in the NBA.

But a decade ago, he saw an opportunity to enter the hoops world. As baseball’s stats-based “sabermetrics” movement was in full swing, one was developing in the basketball community on a much smaller scale.

“I had stumbled across the APBR [Association for Professional Basketball Research],” recalls Farkas.

“There was barely a website at the time. It was just an e-mail list of like 75 people. There were discussions you could participate in. It got me thinking more and more about how to combine my two loves: basketball and math.”

Ten years later, Farkas, a Master of Engineering Management (M.E.M.) graduate, has found the ideal way to mix those two passions. As director of basketball analytics for the San Antonio Spurs, Farkas spends his days aiding one of the NBA’s most successful organizations on all fronts—from preparing for the June draft to breaking down lineups for the team’s next opponent to simply aiding someone with creating an Excel document.

On a daily basis, Farkas says, his work breaks down into three categories. First is his work for the front office, which is focused on player acquisitions. Farkas and his analytics staff provide information to help the team’s decision makers in their evaluation process when trying to improve their roster, such as what trade possibilities may exist and who could be scouted further. Second, there’s his work to support the coaching staff. Farkas and his staff aid with game preparation by analyzing potential lineups, i.e., what player combinations perform best for a given opponent. Last, there’s a purely technical side to his day—from database maintenance to explaining different types of technology the team may be utilizing.

When it comes to working with analytics, Farkas—who works from his Durham, N.C., home—says that the numbers are ineffective unless they can be communicated properly.

“One of the biggest challenges is communication,” says Farkas, adding that analytics is just a “small piece of the pie” in the grand scheme of the day-to-day operations of an organization. “Even if you have the best formula, it is ineffective if you can’t explain it to the coaching staff or the scouts.”

Basketball has seen a rather impressive statistical revolution in less than a decade. Since the days when Farkas was trading e-mails with stats enthusiasts, the majority of NBA teams have developed in-house analysts—though San Antonio was certainly on the cutting edge when it came to the infusion of APBR metrics into daily operations. In the coming years, the basketball analytics world looks to continue its rapid expansion. Just last season, the NBA introduced into every arena cutting-edge SportVU cameras that track myriad statistics, from the speed a player is moving to how well he performs at a certain spot on the floor.

Considering the impact that analytics can have in areas such as roster management and game decisions, its surge in popularity is not surprising. “I think analytics have grown in popularity because it can give you a competitive advantage if you do it well,” says Farkas. “Games are decided often by a point or two, which can come down to an inch or two. Every little bit helps. There’s a book by Jonah Keri, The Extra 2%, which talks about how the Tampa Bay Rays made little adjustments here and there that helped them create additional wins. The same concept applies here.”

Ending up in the NBA didn’t happen overnight for Farkas. In fact, he thought that he’d continue in the pharma industry, either as a researcher or a statistician. But working in basketball was something that always called out to him. And six years ago, he decided that he just had to make a play for it.

In the spring of 2007, Farkas went to the inaugural MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in hopes of making a connection in the pro hoops world. That weekend he’d finally meet those other analytics gurus he’d been e-mailing with for years.

Ultimately, Farkas was introduced to Sam Presti, who was then assistant general manager for the Spurs. They’d exchange contact information and trade e-mails about their thoughts on statistics, topics such as why it’s more efficient to measure performance per minute as opposed to per game. After he didn’t hear from Presti—who is now general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder—Farkas began to give up hope.

But one morning, he got the message that would change everything.

“My phone kept vibrating at like 4 in the morning, and my wife just thought that it was one of my friends,” remembers Farkas. “[Presti] had sent me a text that was like 1,000 characters and it said to call him as soon as I could. It was the steps to start working on a project as a consultant.”

At the same time he took the consulting role, Farkas took a job with Quintiles, a clinical research company that works for biotech and pharma companies throughout the globe. But his role with the Spurs would eventually evolve from a consulting gig into the full-time position he holds today. It’s a job that suits Farkas perfectly. According to Farkas, who followed his M.E.M. with a master’s in statistics at Columbia, his time in the M.E.M. program was invaluable, with classes at both Thayer and Tuck having rounded out his education. In fact, he says, he still consults materials from his classes to help him with his day job.

Making that fateful trip to Boston was certainly a gamble for Farkas. But he’s reminded each morning why it was worth it.

“There’s no reason why I shouldn’t wake up every day with a big smile,” says Farkas. “I’ve been able to take my two biggest loves—besides family, of course—and use them in a way that is actionable.”

—Andrew Clark

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Categories: Alumni News, Expertise

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