The Fast and The Curious

Max Whittaker/Prime

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 2 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!

THE BOOK IS titled The Two-Second Advantage, and it nestles snugly inside the recent trend of business books with simple, digestible slogans meant to appeal to both the smoothest CEO and the clumsiest salesman. The premise could not be more benign: It is much better to know a little bit of information before something happens than to have all the information in the world six months afterward. So get out there and find those two seconds, wherever they may be.

The author is not a man to take any measurement of time lightly. The value of speed is an obsession for Sacramento Kings owner and technology mogul Vivek Ranadive. Over the years, his companies have focused on accelerating everything from the sale of stocks (his software digitized Wall Street) to the availability of real-time sports statistics.

Technology is a race to conquer time: to shop faster, ship faster, know faster and arrive faster. Nearly two years into his ownership, Ranadive says the Kings now "operate more like a Silicon Valley company than a sports team." Doesn't it make sense that an NBA owner immersed in tech culture would want to play faster? And win faster?

"My software has been used to find what kind of drugs will kill what kind of cancer," Ranadive says. "Why can't it be used to ask, 'How do I defend against LeBron James?'"

Ranadive says his goal with the Kings is no less grand than to reimagine basketball, to take the principles of one industry to re-create another, as if basketball and semiconductors can be farmed as a monocrop. What if a corporation could know someone was going to steal your identity before it actually happened? What if a Kings player knew -- through the power of data analysis -- which direction his opponent was going to turn to shoot on the low block? How great to be faster and smarter than the criminals and the Clippers?

But as the Kings flounder on the court and generate confusion in the front office, one question matters most of all, hanging over Sacramento like a cartoon anvil: What does Vivek Ranadive know -- or think he knows -- that nobody else does?

RANADIVE'S RELATIONSHIP TO basketball has never been conventional. Raised in India, educated at MIT and Harvard, he says he never touched a basketball until he began coaching his daughter's middle school basketball team roughly 10 years ago. The game nagged at his analytical mind. A shot would go up, someone would either rebound it or inbound it, and both teams would rush back to either defend or attack the basket. Two-thirds of the court went uncontested. With his daughter's team, a 
minimally talented group of wealthy Silicon Valley girls, Ranadive employed a frenzied press that engulfed every inch of the court, and his team marched to the national championships. His coaching career was lionized by author Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker and in the book David and Goliath.

Ranadive, 57, is a slight man with a propensity for posting photos of himself giving the shaka sign while in the company of other famous, wealthy people. In ownership terms, he's a direct descendant of Mark Cuban, another high-profile, high-tech entrepreneur who is deeply involved with his team. But while Cuban is an unabashed fan, Ranadive is something different, a man attempting to convey the principles of his Silicon Valley success -- the fast-forward culture, the urge to re-engineer -- to how the game is played.

Ever since his group purchased 65 percent of the Kings, rescuing them from Seattle's clutches, Ranadive's worlds have merged. Or collided, depending on the perspective. He speaks in slogans and hyperbole, a subset of the language he calls V-speak. In his speeches he talks about the world entering "Civilization 3.0," and in interviews he talks about the Kings being the forerunners of "NBA 3.0." He refers to the team's new arena, scheduled to open for the 2016-17 season, as "WBA" -- World's Best Arena. He says he intends for Sacramento to become the "basketball capital of the globe." It's basketball as TED Talk.

He has an affinity for leading groups in "Silicon Valley cheers." When Nik Stauskas was on a conference call with Kings executives after being drafted with the No. 8 pick last year, Ranadive led the room in a "1-2-3 -- Nik rocks!" cheer. Everyone in the room joined in -- he's the boss -- but the look on senior adviser Chris Mullin's face was rich.

In mid-December, Ranadive stunned the basketball world by overseeing the firing of coach Mike Malone. In just his second season, Malone led the team to a surprising 9-6 start before DeMarcus Cousins, who had a strong relationship with Malone, was sidelined nine games with viral meningitis and the team lost seven of them. It's rare that such a move causes universal bewilderment, but as an NBA source says, "The only way they could play was the way Mike had them playing."

There has been no satisfactory explanation given for Malone's dismissal. There were rumors of discord between the coach and GM Pete D'Alessandro, who against convention was hired by Ranadive after Malone. It's known that Ranadive favors an up-tempo offense, which ran contrary to Malone's patient approach. Asked to explain Malone's firing, Ranadive chooses his words carefully. "I have to support my guys, and I hired Malone," he says. "But everyone has to be on the same page as well. They all have to work together."

In speeches, Ranadive proclaims that "math is eating science" and contends that "you don't have to know the why anymore, you simply have to know the what." So did math eat Malone? "No," D'Alessandro says. "Michael focused on analytics as much as anyone."

Regardless of the why and the what, the firing of Malone sent the Kings into disarray, a common state for a franchise that hasn't won more than 28 games in a season in six years. As Ranadive says, "It's OK to fail. Just fail fast." And under interim coach Tyrone Corbin, the team failed quickly and thoroughly, losing 21 of 28 games. Now Corbin is out, replaced by George Karl, who signed a four-year deal, becoming the Kings' third coach by the All-Star break.

In the period between Malone and Karl, the locker room became the home of clenched jaws and puzzled looks. Rudy Gay spoke openly to a Sacramento Bee columnist about "feeling lost." During a particularly desultory loss to the Celtics on New Year's Eve, longtime Kings play-by-play announcer Gary Gerould said, "I'm tempted to say the Kings aren't even going through the motions." It is true, however, that Sacramento played faster under Corbin, much in the same way that a dog moves faster when it chases its tail.

The Kings' success is predicated on Cousins, a unique talent whose agility belies his 6-foot-11, 270-pound frame. Still, asking Cousins to play in a run-and-gun offense is like taking away Picasso's paintbrushes and handing him a camera. Under Corbin, Cousins was much less efficient, taking more jumpers -- the "long 2s" that nag the analytics crowd -- and his shooting percentage dipped considerably. The clearest sign of frustration came on Feb. 8, when he hit a game-winning shot to beat the Suns and gave a speech about nobody stopping "God's plan," seemingly in response to rumors he and his agents were against the hiring of Karl, another up-tempo-minded coach. From where Cousins sits, in the middle of the dysfunction, it's a rough spot: The team fired the coach he wanted, and seven weeks later he was being blamed for the struggle to hire a replacement for the replacement. Under Karl, it will be interesting to see whether the lofty ideals wafting through the front office reach the court. Corbin's strategic decisions fell short of revolutionary, trending more toward the traditional and low-tech. Against the Raptors in Toronto on Jan. 28, the Kings were tied 66-66 with 6:54 remaining in the third quarter when Cousins picked up his fourth foul and Corbin reflexively benched him. Any realistic shot the Kings had of winning sat down with him. Why not keep him on the floor and maximize his minutes? Dean Oliver, regarded as the Bill James of basketball and hired by Ranadive this year to lead his analytics department, is a proponent of treating foul trouble on a case-by-case basis. Corbin chose a conventional approach with a predictable result: By the time Cousins returned to start the fourth quarter, his team trailed by 17. He finished the game with four fouls.

The Kings' collapsing season has made Ranadive the target of Internet snark for his suggestions that his teams play "positionless basketball" -- not a new concept -- and employ a four-on-five defense with one player hanging back for easy baskets. It's popular to assume he wants his NBA team to play more like his daughter's middle school team. In a typically lifeless loss to the Nuggets at home on Jan. 9, Ranadive watched from his courtside seat and leaped to his feet most vehemently when Gay hung back on defense and got an easy dunk.

"There are a lot of stories out there that I was telling players what to do and telling the coach what to do," Ranadive says. "None of it was true. They were saying I was advocating playing five-on-four defense with a cherry picker, and I never suggested that. One time we were lamenting the fact that our starters were really good, we'd go up 15 and then our bench would come in and we'd go down five points. And I just said, 'Has anyone ever thought about having four guys on defense and one guy cherry-picking, and if we get a stop we can get our two points back?' I thought in the last part of a quarter, maybe, when you're up 10 and you want to keep the lead, is that a strategy that could be used in the NBA?

"And by the way, I had a number of owners email me saying I wasn't the first guy to think of that. One said, 'I've asked that for years.'"

This questioning, Ranadive says, is all part of the culture. "My role is to set the values and ask the dumb questions," he says. Executives in the Kings' front office are accustomed to hearing Ranadive repeat one of his favorite sayings:

Let's make different mistakes.

ATTEMPTS TO DISCERN Ranadive's vision have become a popular exercise in Sacramento. The crowds at Sleep Train Arena have turned nasty, and bile is the order of the day, every day, on local sports radio. D'Alessandro became the frontman, going on one such radio show for an hourlong town-hall meeting (commercial-free!), where he gave vague, unsatisfying answers. As the losses mount, Ranadive walks from his courtside seat to the private club under the arena with a security guard -- shaved head, thick chest, grave look on his face -- clearing a path. He's spoken little with the media, but Ranadive referenced the firing on Twitter on Jan. 2, in response to the backlash there from fans: "Kings Nation -- I see you and am OK and not offended. But want to thank you for your support. Your passion truly inspires me."

Ranadive is accustomed to the adulation of a genuflecting business world and an appreciative fan base -- one that will contribute $223 million in public money and $32 million in land to the downtown arena project. It's indicative of his personal insulation that his words in the wake of the firing came across as if he were responding to an apology that was never issued in the first place.

He seems particularly sensitive to the idea that he is dictating what happens on the court. "Some of the misconceptions are that I don't believe in defense," Ranadive says. "Well, I hired Michael Malone, and he's a defensive guy. The second misconception is that it's me that's doing this. At the end of the day, I just support my team. Whatever they want to do, I support them 100 percent. Pete does what he wants. There are times, as a fan, I don't agree."

But an NBA source who requested anonymity to protect his business interests says Ranadive is heavily involved in the product on the floor. "The tech guys are a new breed of owners," the source says, "and they're all out to prove they're different. They're wealthy because they have the ability to think beyond the ordinary, and they automatically think that translates to basketball. It's the rock-star culture of Silicon Valley. And they're intimidated by the long haul -- everyone wants to be the Spurs, but they want to do it in 13 weeks, not 13 years."

Ranadive describes himself as "the irritant in this organization" -- the grain of sand that causes an oyster to create a pearl. He has made it a franchise priority to assemble the most comprehensive analytics staff in the NBA -- even if, so far, execution of its ideas has been questionable -- and he is, by all accounts, an active member of that team. Ranadive also likes to say that success in any business is all about "finding the patterns." To help find them, he hired Oliver to serve as director of player personnel. Oliver, 
a Caltech-educated former ESPN analyst, allows no conversation to stray into the hypothetical without first saying, "I'd have to see data."

On Jan. 9, in the hours before the loss to Denver, Ranadive phoned Oliver -- Dean-O, he calls him -- twice. Even so, he says, "I haven't really put out that many ideas. That would be giving me too much credit or too much blame."

Oliver, who has been on the job less than six months, believes the right knowledge -- "There's data, there's information and there's knowledge," he says -- can change the way the game is played. And not just individual games but the very fabric of the game.

"Everybody talks about the great players changing the game," Oliver says. "If it's hard to find the great players, can we find other ways to change the game? Do I think it's possible? Yes. Do I know exactly how? Not yet, but that doesn't mean you don't try."

But with the concrete being poured for the new downtown arena -- drones circle above the construction site, beaming real-time progress to screens in Ranadive's Palo Alto office -- and an unsettled fan base desperately searching for signs of life, long-term solutions aren't a popular topic. Ranadive finds himself in the surprising position of having to sell to a skeptical audience.

He's done it before. There's a story Ranadive tells about his origins as a software mogul: On a summer day in New York, he had lunch with the managing director of Salomon Brothers. The managing director sat at one end of a long table, as Ranadive tells it, "with a foul-smelling cigar between his fingers." Ranadive's mission was to procure a contract to automate the investment firm's trading floor, and after pleasantries were exchanged, the managing director asked, "Why should Salomon Brothers give you this order?"

Ranadive told the story as part of a speech last year at a convention for Tibco, a Silicon Valley company he founded and subsequently sold for $4.3 billion. In his telling, he answered the question by reciting, in an early iteration of V-speak, a list of his software's attributes. "It's real-time," he said. "It has publish and subscribe, subject-based addressing ..."

The managing director blew smoke across the table.

"Come on, Vivek," he said. "We're Salomon Brothers. We can do this with anyone. Why should I give you the order?"

Ranadive repeated himself.

He was cut off with a yawn.

"We're Salomon Brothers. We're the largest bond brokers in the world. I can do this with IBM. Why should I give you the order?"

"You're right," Ranadive said. "None of those are reasons to give me the order. Mr. Managing Director, there's only one reason to give me the order."

The managing director put down his cigar.

"Mr. Managing Director," Ranadive said. "The reason to give me this order is because we have fire in our eyes."

As Ranadive finished his speech and turned to leave the stage, "Eye of the Tiger" burst through the speakers and drowned out the cheers in the auditorium.

He walked off, and it's easy to imagine someone backstage calling for a group huddle and starting a Silicon Valley cheer.

PERHAPS THE WINDOW into Ranadive's basketball soul -- the spot where math, velocity and fire come together -- can be found in a mostly empty arena in Nevada, on a snowy Tuesday night in late December. It's the Idaho Stampede against the Reno Bighorns, the Kings' entry in the NBA Development League, and there's some weird science taking place on the court.

"One of the first things I did after getting the team was to say I wanted a D-League team," Ranadive says. "In Silicon Valley, you have a lab. In basketball, I wanted a lab."

The Bighorns are coached by the boyish and enthusiastic David Arsenault Jr. -- he's 28, so the boyishness comes naturally -- who formerly worked as an assistant for his father at Division III Grinnell, a program known for attention-seeking scoring exploits such as Jack Taylor's 138-point game in 2012.

When Arsenault interviewed for the job, he impressed with his willingness to pick up an unconventional system and drop it whole into the pro game. Asked to diagram a few plays, Arsenault started at one end of the court and finished at the other, à la Coach Ranadive. "I'd never seen anyone do that," says Kings assistant GM Mike Bratz. Asked what he would do with 7-foot-5, 360-pound Sim Bhullar, a human obelisk the Kings were committed to playing in Reno, Arsenault said, "I can use any player who can do something well."

The Kings told Arsenault they wanted to play fast and wanted to play differently, and he said, "Just how fast and how different do you want to be? Because I can probably play faster and more different than anybody in the country."

The Bighorns press full-court, constantly seek steals and shoot primarily 3s and layups. Ideally, a shot is taken within 12 seconds. Midrange jumpers are discouraged, and players shuffle in and out, five at a time, in 90-second to two-minute shifts. The Grinnell approach -- grandly called The System -- is the perfect type of reinvention for a man like Ranadive, who came to basketball with no preconceptions.

"You've got to unlearn some things to play here," says Bighorns point guard David Stockton. Asked what his father, John, thinks of it, David says, "He thinks it's a little weird."

The Bighorns scored as many as 174 points and allowed as many as 169 -- in the same game. They made 31 3s in another. The intent is to speed up the game -- "championship speed," Arsenault calls it -- and force turnovers by luring the opponent into the same pace. It's a chaotic blur of overplays, easy dunks and pull-up 3s. No game has anything resembling a coherent throughline; a 20-point lead can become a 10-point deficit over the course of three or four rough shifts. It's equal parts exhausting and entertaining, the combined fever dream of Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith, or precisely how you'd envision basketball would be played if a meth lab sponsored a team.

"We get to do things there you'll never do on an NBA floor -- ever," D'Alessandro says. Is this the positionless ideal? There are no guards, forwards or centers. Instead, positions are designated by defensive assignment: on ball, left wing, right wing, interceptor and safety. The basket is routinely left unguarded as Bighorns players overplay passing lanes.

Bhullar plays safety, to protect the hoop, and his shifts often force the Bighorns to play four-on-five offense. He simply can't cover the court fast enough to play both ends, especially when things are going well and possessions last less than 10 seconds. (When he does get there, he's nearly unstoppable at the rim.)

Players taught to work for a good shot are now asked to redefine their definition. A 25-foot jumper five seconds into the shot clock used to be a bad shot, but now a bad shot is a 12-footer after four passes. The System is great fun, but leave your conscience at home. Through it all, Arsenault stands on the sideline, silent and stoic, aware that whatever happens on the court is out of his control.

"I've never understood something," Arsenault says. "If you're limited based on location or recruiting or being a small-market team or just not being able to get some of the best players, why be the poor man's version of everybody else? Why not try something new?"

Asked to describe Ranadive's involvement with Reno, Arsenault says, "He's the guy who is promoting the whole creative thought. He's the mastermind behind the whole plan."

And what exactly is that plan?

Arsenault pauses, his face stuck in a rictus of hesitation. To this point, he's had the timing just so. He starts to answer, stops, shrugs and finally says, "That's the million-dollar question."

In a much bigger arena 135 miles away, with his security guard angled sideways in the aisle behind him, Ranadive sits courtside. He watches intently, searching the court for those two seconds, confident they're out there somewhere.