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The NBA’s Golden Age of Gonzo Innovation Is Coming

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Last month, the Sacramento Kings fired their coach, Mike Malone, after he’d spent only a year and a half on the job. This was a shocking move for myriad reasons, most of all because the Kings were off to one of their best starts in recent memory and had only fallen into a slump because DeMarcus Cousins, the team’s first All Star–caliber player in years, had missed two weeks owing to viral meningitis. No other club would have fired Malone, let alone for the reason owner Vivek Ranadivé seems to have: because Malone refused to coach basketball like a lunatic.

Sure, Ranadivé and Malone had the normal contretemps that cause personnel fissures, but a tipping point, according to reporting right after the firing by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, was that Ranadivé had a crazy idea that Malone wouldn’t get down with. The idea is four-on-five basketball — “cherry-picking,” as they might call it in middle-school ball. This is especially notable because, if you knew anything about Ranadivé before, it probably had to do with middle-school basketball. Middle-school girls’ basketball. Ranadivé is a Silicon Valley giant, but to the rest of the country he is most famous for his appearance in a Malcolm Gladwell magazine story, in which Ranadivé takes over coaching duties of his daughter’s not particularly talented youth basketball team, installs an insanely ferocious full-court-press defense (in which 12-year-old girls harass the other team like Rick Pitino’s college teams) and rides the strategy all the way to the national tournament.

Now Ranadivé’s the owner of the Kings. And he had a new idea. That idea is that one player, after his team scores, stays on his side of the court while his four teammates play defense against the other team’s five players. The defensive disadvantage of four-on-five, theoretically, would be overcome by what would happen if the offensive team missed: The defensive team would simply have to throw the rebound to the wide-open player and boom: instant basket. (And if that player is a wing, it could be an instant three points.)

It is difficult to overstate how insane a notion this would be in the NBA. NBA offenses are so advanced that it’s hard to stop them five-on-five; four-on-five would lead to easy (and violent) dunks and layups every time down the court, and even if a player happened to miss one, having one fewer defender to block out would make it more likely they’d get the rebound anyway. I’m fairly certain an NBA team deploying it for a full game could easily lose by 100 points. It is a horrible idea.

Which is probably why Malone — a college and NBA assistant for 20 years before finally getting his first head gig with the Kings — could not abide it. But the truly crazy thing may be that he’s still on the wrong side of history here. Pro sports are about to get disrupted by just this kind of throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks thinking. If you look in the right places, they already are.

Ranadivé, perhaps inevitably, is a product of tech culture. He earned his money to buy the Kings from a technology company he founded in the ’80s and from Tibco, a software company he sold in a deal worth $4.3 billion earlier this year. He’s the sort of person who fits perfectly in a Gladwellian world, where wonkish experts come in from the outside, without all the baggage and institutional bias, and Think Different. Ranadivé has other ideas for the Kings too, and they’re of the similarly off-the-wall variety. As coach of the Kings’ development-league team the Reno Bighorns, for instance, Ranadivé brought in David Arseneault Jr., the 28-year-old son of the Grinnell College coach famous for the high-speed “Grinnell System,” which posits that the first shot is the best shot and employs a “designated shooter.” (This is why Grinnell has had individual players score more than 100 points in a game.) In Silicon Valley parlance, Ranadivé, since taking over, has decided, well, to break shit.

And, loopy as it sounds, this is the direction everything in sports is going. In each of the three major sports, innovative owners and executives are in the process of dramatically reshaping how the sports you love are played. In many ways, this is the next logical progression of the Moneyball revolution of advanced statistics and analytics. Sabermetrics changed how people evaluated players and looked at and analyzed the games, but it didn’t change the way the sport was actually played. Now that the market has been saturated with stats — now that everybody has access to the same information about player performance — everyone’s looking for the next edge. And that edge may be found in strategic lunacy.

Last year, MLB Advanced Media introduced StatCast, a video tracking technology that allows you to see exactly, down to the millimeter, where a player is positioned, how far he has run to catch a ball, even the trajectory and the angle of the batted ball. This technology, combined with historical databases of every hitter’s tendencies, has already led to something totally unique in baseball history: The fielders are moving all over the place, not just in marginal adjustments to the familiar even array across infield and outfield, but in wholesale defensive-strategy redesigns that place the third baseman between first and second (say).

And those defensive shifts are considered one of the main reasons, along with the increasing strikeout rate, that run scoring has fallen lower than it has in a generation. It’s bizarre, when you think about it, that we ever place fielders in set positions in the first place: Putting the shortstop where he is, and the outfielders where they are, is a generalist maneuver in an increasingly specific world. These shifts are just the beginning. In the future, it is not difficult to imagine defensive positioning looking more like it does in football — not players just trotting out to preestablished positions on the field but adapting dynamically, play by play, to the particular dynamic of an at-bat (maybe even a particular pitch). Against certain hitters, in certain situations, wouldn’t it make sense to have six fielders on one side of the field and one on the other? Or to have five outfielders? The baseball world is just starting to understand the possibilities. Though it’s still ahead of basketball, where a similar all-seeing video system promises to reshape the way teams do everything from defensive positioning to rebounding and shot distribution (and is already making the mid-range jumper, possibly the least efficient shot a player can take, seem like a relic from an earlier generation).

The NFL has always had fad innovations, from the “46 defense” to the “wildcat” to the “read-option.” But even more than other sports, it has learned from the wild experimentation of the college game in recent years. This is largely thanks to coach Chip Kelly, who nearly won a national championship at Oregon before heading to the Philadelphia Eagles to turn a moribund franchise deep in a rebuilding process into one of the most thrilling offenses in the game. Kelly’s innovation, to oversimplify, is to run plays at ludicrous speed — incredibly complex formations, with 11 people doing 11 different jobs but all working together at the same time. The idea is that if you can be more organized and more streamlined than the defense — if you can get ready quicker than they can get ready — you have an advantage that overwhelms talent or inherent skill.

Of course, with all this innovation, sometimes it’s helpful to remember one’s history. Five years ago, Kelly was criticized throughout college football for having a “gimmick” offense … before everyone copied it. This year, that criticism has been directed at Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, whose Yellow Jackets nearly won the ACC this season playing the ­“triple-option” offense, which features the quarterback running the ball himself or giving it to one of his running backs.

Sound radical? This is a version of the most basic offense in all of football: the T formation. You could argue that it is in fact as old as football itself. Only two or three college football teams use it. Everyone else considers it a gimmick.

*This article appears in the January 12, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

The NBA’s Golden Age of Innovation Is Coming