CLEVELAND — The Golden State Warriors are exploring potential pathways to improvement for next season, but they reject the notion this makes them greedy — even with a 3-0 series lead in the N.B.A. finals. The team’s resident shot doctor, Bruce Fraser, prefers to describe it as intellectual curiosity.
Working daily with the sharpshooting duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson does not stop Fraser from wondering: What is the optimum ball trajectory for a long-range shooter?
Fraser wants to know: Could Curry and Thompson, widely regarded as the most lethal backcourt shooting tandem in the game’s history, actually get better in this area?
What Fraser does know is where to direct these questions.
“I needed a physics answer,” Fraser said. “So I had to go to Sammy.”
Fraser knew Sammy Gelfand, Golden State’s manager of analytics, hailed from a family of physicists. Gelfand’s father, Norman, is a former University of Chicago physics professor who also worked as a scientist for nearly 30 years for Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., specializing in high-energy particle physics. Gelfand’s older brother Joseph, meanwhile, is an associate professor of physics at New York University Abu Dhabi, with an emphasis on astrophysics.
“He wanted me to look at it from a more theoretical standpoint,” Sammy Gelfand said of Fraser. “I’ve been working with my dad on it.”
The depths of that analysis of the Splash Brothers’ shots will be more of a summer emphasis for Gelfand. He shoulders an array of more pressing duties for the Warriors, built around the pre- and postgame statistical reports that have been vital daily tools for Steve Kerr and the rest of the Golden State coaching staff since Kerr’s arrival in May 2014.
The Warriors’ coaches lean on him for his in-game video skills and statistical support to such a degree that Gelfand occupies a seat behind their bench during home games and whenever he travels with the team. Although this is the N.B.A.’s analytics age, Gelfand’s vantage point is an extreme rarity.
On top of that, Gelfand has a regular on-court presence, which is also unusual for an “analytics guy.” He is the go-to rebounder for the reserve guard Shaun Livingston, who bonded with Gelfand almost immediately through their shared Illinois roots and who will not trust anyone else with that job after practices and shoot-arounds — despite Gelfand’s self-professed proclivity for “getting my glasses knocked off” in practice settings.
“He’s like the little brother of the team,” Livingston said.
Gelfand, 31, is the youngest of three siblings, and still struggles to comprehend how he landed beside Livingston — a star in Peoria, Ill., while both were in high school — with a franchise that sits just one win away from its third N.B.A. championship in four years. Part of that disbelief, he admitted, stems from being raised in what he described as “the most unathletic family in the world.”
But he was hooked on sports from a young age and entranced by the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty. “The Jordan, Pippen and Kerr Bulls,” Gelfand said, understandably paying a higher tribute to Kerr’s role in Chicago’s success than most would.
He was an annual science fair participant in his youth, but his time at George Washington University sparked the gumption Gelfand needed to scrap plans to go into political analytics and “go all-in” on his dreams. An internship with the sports agency Octagon while he was in graduate school at Georgetown was his entree to the N.B.A. But he quickly soured on that side of the business when Octagon lost its bid to represent the future N.B.A. All-Star Gordon Hayward to Priority Sports.
“That just killed me,” Gelfand said. “I realized then that I loved sports, but I loved the game. I wanted to work for a team.”
The silver lining at Octagon: Gelfand made basketball connections and persuaded the former N.B.A. head coach Eric Musselman to hire him as an unpaid intern in 2010-11 for the Musselman-coached Reno Bighorns in the N.B.A.’s official minor league. The Bighorns were the shared affiliate of the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings, enabling Gelfand to bond with the Golden State assistant general manager Kirk Lacob. Lacob was making frequent trips to Reno to monitor the progress of Jeremy Lin, who was a rookie.
Lacob hired Gelfand to be his “eyes and ears” with the Dakota Wizards, who then relocated to Santa Cruz, Calif., after the Warriors purchased the franchise based in Bismarck, N.D. With Gelfand entering his third season in the development league, Lacob gave him a choice: Join the big-league Warriors as an intern in their video room or stay with the minor league team as a full-time (and modestly paid) director of player personnel. Gelfand opted for the latter and immediately feared he would be “stuck in the D-League for my whole life.”
Lacob, one of two sons of the majority owner, Joe Lacob, who works for the Warriors, was a full-fledged Gelfand fan by that point and brought him in to bolster the club’s analytics department entering the 2013-14 season.
Gelfand got some prime TV time when the superstar Curry, recovering from a sprained knee, insisted on sitting beside him during multiple first-round playoff games. But his claim to fame during Golden State’s four-season run of roaring success might be his role in helping the Warriors establish 300 passes as their nightly team goal.
Golden State was last in the N.B.A. in passes per game, stuck in the 240s, when Kerr succeeded Mark Jackson after a first-round playoff exit to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014. Kerr turned to Gelfand to help establish a new benchmark — 300 — which has evolved into the team’s magic number and a symbol of its culture.
Kerr, a former TV analyst, had watched his share of series between San Antonio and Oklahoma City. “It was such a contrast in styles,” Kerr said. “I knew I wanted more ball movement — I wanted to play like the Spurs — but in those days we didn’t have access to those numbers. We didn’t have a Sammy.”
Referring to his old TNT broadcast partner Marv Albert, Kerr said: “At the time, I think you would have had to have someone count the number of passes by watching the tape — and Marv was unwilling to do that.”
Gelfand was always willing, but he admitted his basketball knowledge lacked the requisite sophistication in his early stops.
Through study, patient tutoring from coaches such as Musselman and Clay Moser, and the steady improvement in the quality of data available to teams in the development league, Gelfand improved. He learned the art of marrying game film to his statistical findings to increase the likelihood of interest from coaches and, in his current behind-the-bench role, maintains constant contact with the video room during games. Gelfand also benefited greatly from the placement of SportVU cameras in N.B.A. arenas to track player movement like never before.
In these N.B.A. finals, Gelfand spends two hours after every game assembling a report that leads off with a variety of passing numbers and proceeds into more specific breakdowns, such as how the Warriors fared in post-up situations. He reviews plays after timeouts, two- and five-man lineup combinations and plus/minus numbers, and evaluates the team’s defense and rebounding. He will also tack on any personal observations gleaned from assembling those numbers.
He then fields a stream of individual requests from Kerr and his assistants leading up to the next tipoff, while compiling a preview report that highlights opponents’ tendencies and lineup combinations for both teams. Kerr has been known to seek out Gelfand in the final hour before tipoff in search of one more easily digestible statistic to help slam home his pregame messaging.
The top line on Gelfand’s most recent reports, for the record, showed 284 passes in Golden State’s Game 1 overtime victory over the Cavaliers (2.8 passes per possession), 288 in Game 2 (up to 3.0 passes per possession) and just 269 in Game 3 (2.8 passes per possession). The Warriors are 8-0 this postseason when they crack the 300 threshold — and they have also managed to win five consecutive sub-300 games after starting 3-5 this postseason when held below that figure.
But Gelfand is the first to admit he hasn’t “figured out some secret sauce” that is transferable or universal.
“The personality and makeup of each team is so different that everything you do really has to be tailored to your team,” Gelfand said.
The difference in Golden State, then, isn’t necessarily the data, which most teams strive to keep secret. It’s the level of reliance on Gelfand, as well as the level of inclusion.
Lacob acknowledged that Gelfand was now as much a part of the Golden State coaching staff as the front office, which defies the leaguewide norm and may be illustrated best by his relationship with Livingston.
“At the end of the day, I’m 5-9 — O.K., 5-6,” Gelfand said. “But l love rebounding. It’s probably the G-League guy in me — because I had to be on the court there — but I think it helps show that you’re not just a guy on the balcony with a computer looking over them.
“But I guarantee you there are people in my position with other teams that would love to do that who aren’t allowed to do that.”
Curry said: “He’s the ultimate hustler — in the right sense of the word. He’s just happy to be here.”
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