Besides a Stephen Curry advantage, Warriors flaunt a tech advantage

San Jose Mercury News

There was a night last spring when the Warriors made some people very unhappy by not playing either of their star guards, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in a game at Denver. One fan took to Twitter to say he'd spent $250 on tickets; the game was the site of a birthday party for his son. Another fan reportedly said he'd driven his family eight hours from South Dakota for Curry's one-and-only appearance in Denver.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr felt bad enough about the whole thing to write emails to three unhappy customers. He offered his sympathy, but no apology.

Curry and Thompson needed a break, Kerr said, and he wasn't acting on a whim. He had hard evidence that led him to his unpopular decision. Resting Curry and Thompson that night, as well as Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, was backed by data culled from new technology employed by the team.

The Warriors, off to a 10-0 start this season, continue to wear devices that help gauge a player's fatigue by tracking everything from heart rate to the biomechanical load exerted on his legs.

"You have to keep players on the court," Warriors assistant general manager Kirk Lacob said recently, a reference to keeping players healthy.

"If players don't play, you can't win the games. If Steph Curry is not healthy, we're not winning. If Andre Iguodala is not ready to play 42 minutes in a game in the Finals, we're not winning."

The Warriors lost that night in Denver. But they won the war. In their first championship season since 1975, the Warriors had fewer minutes lost to injury than any other team in the league, according to an ESPN study.

The correlation between health and technology is less clear, but the Warriors don't see it as mere coincidence. They swear by the devices they wear.

"All those things played a role in our team being rested going into the Finals, no one being hurt all year, which you could say helped us win a championship," Iguodala said.

Tech devices cannot be worn by players during games, in accordance with the current labor contract between players and owners. But practice is fair game.

One tool used by the Warriors is a wireless GPS device. Small (about the size of a car remote) and lightweight, the device is worn inside a compression shirt, positioned between the shoulder blades. Manufactured by an Australian company called Catapult Sports, the device tracks micro-movements in real time, providinginstantaneous monitoring of accelerations, changes in directions, heart rates and force applied on knees and ankles. The Warriors use the data to measure the practice workload of players and monitor fatigue that could increase the risk of injury.

"The more that you can track, the more you can measure, the more you train your guys to make sure they're not overworking themselves," said Brian Kopp, Catapult's president for North America operations.

It was Catapult data that led Kerr to rest Curry and Thompson that night in Denver. The two players were beyond the baselines established during practices earlier in the year.

Three days later, though, in a game at home against the Lakers, Thompson suffered an ankle sprain that forced him to miss the next three games. Was it fate, or was it fatigue that made Thompson more susceptible to injury? The Warriors again chose the latter. "That was a big learning moment," Lacob said at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in San Francisco in September. "We said, 'This information gave us an out (to rest Thompson in Denver) and we sort of took it, but now we need to get better.'

"Now, you can't always stop a guy from turning his ankle, but if a guy has never turned an ankle before, and your data tells you he's getting tired, and he turns an ankle, maybe there's something to it. Maybe there's not, but most likely there is."

Thompson sided with fate on this one: "I stepped on a guy's foot," he said. "I was just unlucky."

Not that Thompson is opposed to technology; on the contrary. He is involved with a company called ShotTracker, which uses wrist and net sensors to track shooting mechanics.

Curry was also recently seen on camera wearing a pair of strobe glasses while doing a drill with his personal trainer designed to improve his reaction time and visual awareness. The glasses impaired his vision as he dribbled a basketball with one hand and continuously caught a tennis ball with the other.

The NBA's growing interest in injury analytics has more teams turning to wearables. Last season, the Warriors were one of 11 NBA teams using Catapult. Now there are 19, according to Kopp.

Last season, the Warriors also began working with Omegawave, a Finnish company that specializes in assessing a player's physiological state. With electrodes attached to the face -- "like you're straight out of 'Star Trek,'" said Warriors forward Harrison Barnes -- the Omegawave device measures heart-rate varaibility.

Lacob said the Warriors plan to have their minor-league team in Santa Cruz experiment with Athos, a Redwood City company that makes fitness apparel. The compression clothing has embedded sensors that track electromyography -- a test of electrical activity produced by muscles - along with breathing and heart rates and calories burned.

Among its investors, Athos counts Lacob's father, Warriors CEO Joe Lacob, and former Warriors player Jermaine O'Neal.

Iguodala is a wearable tech clothes horse. He wears an Apple Watch and also uses a device that tracks his golf swing. Two years ago, his first with the Warriors, he began wearing a wristband manufactured by San Francisco-based Jawbone to track and maximize his rest. Once a sleep-deprived players with creaky knees, Iguodala, at age 31, became the MVP of the NBA Finals last spring.

In fact, technology played a part in him coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2013. Iguodala liked the deal the Warriors offered -- $48 million over four years -- but he also liked the idea of investing in tech companies.

Meantime, Kirk Lacob is on the lookout for the next device that might give the Warriors a competitive advantage. Lacob, who oversees the Warriors' analytics staff, has been on the lookout for next device that could give them a competitive advantage.

"We're very lucky that we're in the Bay Area, and we're very lucky that we're also a team that's performing well now," hesaid. "Everyone wants a piece of us."