Quick links: Breaking Election Invest Bitcoin Syria North Korea Hot clicks Scandal Topless
www.paywallnews.com Only News Behind Paywalls
Sports Illustrated / Sports

The smartest basketball mind outside the NBA

Ben Falk is a lot of things: a Hinkie disciple, a 29-year-old basketball savant, an observant Orthodox Jew, and the creator of one of the best basketball sites on the Internet. Is he content being the smartest man outside the NBA?

  • NBA
  • Crossover
  • The Smartest Basketball Mind Outside the NBA

    Courtesy of Kubica & Nguyen/MIT Sloan


    • Ben Falk is a lot of things: a Hinkie disciple, a 29-year-old basketball savant, an observant Orthodox Jew and the creator of one of the best basketball sites on the Internet. Is he content being the smartest man outside the NBA?

    When Ben Falk first conceived Cleaning the Glass, the NBA site he launched last year, he tried to balance hope and realism. Hope: that basketball fans like him might find the site interesting enough to pay for; realism regarding how many other such humans actually exist.

    Falk, who is 29 but looks younger, is many things—a former front office executive for the Blazers and the Hinkie-era Sixers, an observant Orthodox Jew, and someone who, in the ninth grade, designed, programmed, and launched his own fantasy basketball game, building in rewards for defense, teamwork and other traditionally overlooked elements. He is the type of person who enjoys an hour-long conversation about, say, the offensive rebounding rate and technique of Steven Adams but has little interest in a subjective, ill-defined debate such as who should win this year’s MVP award. He reads deeply in science, history, and fiction, is proficient in graphic design, and once interned at National Institute of Health. His nicknames include “Brain” and “Wiz,” for reasons I probably don’t need to explain at this point.

    Thus, when Falk latches onto something, his interest tends to run deep. For example, Cleaning the Glass tracks points per possession, which is not unusual, but Falk also scrubs out garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves, on the logic that they don’t reflect whether an offense or defense is efficient, and isn’t that what you’re hoping to learn from the stat in the first place? In Falk’s world, the little things matter.

    But how many others feel the same way? Falk wasn’t sure. So when his subscription site went live last year, priced at $7.50 per month, he waited to find out.

    What happened next may say something about where NBA coverage is headed, and perhaps even the future of sports media. It certainly says something about the Falk. 

    Before we go further, an example from Falk's site: a video, less than two minutes and soundless. First, I’ll do my best to explain it in words:

    It’s the third quarter of Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals and LeBron James is facing a double team. After faking a pass, he finds an open JR Smith in the corner for a three. On the surface, it looks like any other pass in a series, a season, and a lifetime of them.

    But, rewind to the previous possession and you may notice something else: Not only did LeBron recognize the Warriors’ defensive strategy but he instantly determined the proper counter, commandeered the Cleveland offense, and enacted a solution. To describe exactly how and why this occurred, and what it tells us about James, would require a discussion of pick-and-roll coverage, double-team schemes, and the Warriors’ defense. The terminology and parentheticals might eventually trample the message or exhaust the reader. Even if I succeeded as a writer, a casual fan still might not have a firm grasp on what occurred, because words are good for a lot of things but, as any coach knows, they often fail when trying to explain something as ephemeral as basketball IQ.

    But what if instead you just watched this:  

    A small demonstration of LeBron’s incredible basketball IQ: 30 seconds from Game 4. pic.twitter.com/sG7L2yEaZ6

    — Ben Falk (@bencfalk) June 11, 2017

    Now it makes sense, right? Here, without bells and whistles, is an efficient way to explain a relatively advanced, if not unique, skill. It’s the type of example that only someone versed in the game could recognize, only someone adept at programming could illustrate, and only someone who watches a ton of video would come across in the first place.

    Which is to say, Ben.

    From a genetic perspective, his career is unlikely. Ken Falk is a graphic designer, the kind of dad who, upon seeing a magazine ad, might provide an impromptu discourse on typography. Ben recalls slapping together a school project in the first grade with a glue stick and construction paper and Ken taking one look and blurting out, “What are you doing?!?” After which his father sat him down with a ruler and scissors, because margins matter.

    Meanwhile, Karen Falk worked as a curator for museums and art galleries. Neither parent played organized sports. Neither had much interest in following them. And yet here was Ben, a small, not-so-athletic boy who harbored two unlikely passions: Numbers and basketball. He spent hours shooting at the curbside hoop in their cul de sac in Potomac, Maryland. At an early age, he announced he would make the NBA. “Look, I’m sorry,” replied Karen, a realist. “I know what genes you have.”

    Ben kept grinding. Finally, during his senior year at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, the coach called him over at the end of varsity tryouts. “He told me I was good enough to make the team, but I’d be one of the last players on the bench,” Falk recalls. “And he’d rather take a young player he could develop.” Falk was crushed. Looking back, though, maybe it was for the best, as it allowed him to focus on his fantasy game, XO Hoops.

    As a boy, Ben used to take the pieces from board games like Risk and create his own rules. Now he did something similar with fantasy basketball. He aimed big: Twenty teams, to better mimic the NBA talent pool. Multi-year contracts, so that if you signed a player to a bad five-year deal you actually had him on your team for five real-life years—say, from the time you turned 14 until you left for college. He accounted for coaching strategy, so if you chose “post offense” one week, you’d get extra points for the stats of your bigs (unless, that is, your opponent’s defensive strategy was ‘doubling the post”). It was while researching the site that he discovered the APBRmetrics message board, where the forefathers of the advanced stats movement were at the time posting and discussing ideas out in the open—Hollinger and Pelton and Beech and Dean Oliver. Falk had found his people. He asked good questions. Contributed. By the time he was a freshman at the University of Maryland in 2006, he’d managed to secure a summer job—well, an unpaid, volunteer job—helping Oliver, then the director of quantitative analysis for the Nuggets. “I remember seeing him posting and I immediately said, ‘This guy is good,’” says Oliver. “At the time, I was looking for someone who could help with certain defensive work and I tend to look for people who think carefully and think well about certain stuff.” It never occurred to him to consider Ben’s age.

    When fall arrived, Oliver assumed Falk needed to go back to school. “But once I had my foot wedged in the door, I wasn’t taking it out,” says Falk. So he kept going, meticulously charting defensive plays. “Frankly, he was the only person I ever found that was successful at doing it,” say Oliver, noting that most people are wired to watch the ball on offense, rather than pay attention to defensive rotations and closeouts. Even so, Oliver couldn’t convince the Nuggets to hire Falk. Back then, NBA teams thought one stats guy was plenty. So, when the Blazers called Oliver asking about potential analytics hires, Oliver eventually, reluctantly recommended Falk.

    Ben was all–in. During the school year, he began working roughly 80 hours a month. In the summer, he worked full-time, being careful not to violate minimum wage laws (he guesses he earned $1,000-2,000 a month). Upon graduation, he joined the Blazers full time, as their Basketball Analytics Manager. Over the next five years he took on all manner of tasks: building internal scouting databases, managing statistics PhDs, presenting research and suggestions to head coach Terry Stotts (also a big stats guy). Then, in 2014, Sam Hinkie pried Falk away from Portland, hiring him as the Sixers’ VP of Basketball Strategy. At the time, Hinkie was in his second year in Philly, already deep in The Process but looking for others who shared his appreciation for the long view. “Ben struck me as an incredibly deep thinker about all that goes into winning basketball games,” says Hinkie. “And that’s a rare thing.”

    Those were heady times. Falk, Hinkie and Sachin Gupta, the team’s VP of Basketball Operations (and the creator of the trade machine), spent long hours debating strategy and philosophy. The three may not have looked like “basketball people,” as Gupta puts it, but they shared a love for the game and a deep curiosity for how and why things work. Gupta recalls conversations that veered into unusual realms: the Hubble telescope and the theoretical limits of the universe, for example, or a twisting discourse triggered by a post on Wait but Why. Not that this surprised Gupta. The first time he met Falk, years earlier while out at the Four’s sports bar in Boston during the Sloan Conference, the two had discussed not basketball but the societal value of their career choices. Because while what they did theoretically brought happiness to people, winning games is still a zero–sum situation—someone has to lose for you to win—and wasn’t that antithetical to their life goals of bettering the world? And, furthermore, didn’t all these smart people going into sports, instead of other fields, represent a form of brain drain?  

    Maintaining perspective proved an ongoing challenge for Falk. As an Orthodox Jew, he observed the Sabbath every week. From sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, he couldn’t work or use electricity. No phones, no computers, no flights. In Portland, he could only accompany the team on shorter road trips. He missed the two iconic playoff games of his tenure: when Brandon Roy scored 18 in the fourth quarter in 2011 to overcome a 23-point deficit to the Mavs, and when Damian Lillard hit a walk–off three to knock out the Rockets in 2014. During both, Falk was ensconced in what peers called his “cone of silence”, often alone in his apartment, reading. Only on Saturday night, if he’d successfully avoided hearing a result at synagogue, would he finally watch the games. “It was a challenge but I think people understood how it was the core of who I am,” he says. “It was probably apparent that it was more of a self-sacrifice.”

    Courtesy of Ben Falk

    Hinkie got it. “Honestly I think it might have made him more valuable, not less,” Hinkie says now. “During the craziest times of the years when we were working 18 hour days, he’d often come back from Shabbat with even better perspective. He wasn’t as caught up in the fog of war as the rest of us. He got to be such an old soul, and that’s because of a whole bunch of Saturdays in his 20s that he spent with a book in his lap.” Hinkie pauses. “Probably the rest of us could have used to unplug like that.”

    Falk hesitates to name his contributions to the Process in Philly. So much of it, he says, was with an eye toward the future – dividends expected down the road. Infrastructure built for the long game. Technically, he was there for the Sacramento and Michael Carter-Williams trades, the Okafor and Ben Simmons drafts. But he’s not one to claim credit or assign blame. He says he most values his relationships, and all he learned.

    The end came in April 2016, when Hinkie and the Sixers “mutually parted ways,” which you are welcome to read as euphemism. Within a few months, Falk did the same.

    Which meant that, at 28, Falk was suddenly out of a job. At the same time, he wasn’t in a hurry to get a new one. Rather, he existed in that sweet spot between being highly employable and totally okay with unemployment, at least temporarily. Single, he’d saved his money, was fine with working long hours, and wasn’t so entrenched in a career that he was leery of taking risks. And, as you may know, from such perches have many great concepts—as well as plenty of batshit schemes—been birthed.

    Ten years ago, Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired, wrote an essay entitled “1,000 True Fans.” In it, he argued that, in the online age: “You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.”

    The idea: between the long tail of the internet and the scalability of global enterprise, if you could find the smattering of other humans on a planet of billions who cared deeply about exactly what you cared about you could start a business. If each paid $100 a year for your insights, it could be your full-time job.

    The exemplar is Ben Thompson, a veteran of Apple and Microsoft who, in 2013, launched a site called Stratechery. After gaining a readership, he began successfully charging $10 a month for tech analysis and reporting, becoming a beacon for other entrepreneurial journalists (including Falk).

    In Falk’s case, he hit upon the idea of Cleaning the Glass by, in essence, reverse engineering his future. “What do I actually want to do and what do I want my life to look like?” he asked himself. One thing became clear: Even after immersing himself in basketball for years, he still loved the game. In those first months after leaving the Sixers, he served as a volunteer coach at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. He loved the interplay, the explanation. The teaching.

    Soon, he began to visualize a site that provided a different sort of teaching: breakdowns, analysis, stats, and deep basketball geekery, all presented with Apple-esque style and minimalism. No catering to the masses or worrying about ads or click-throughs.

    He made a list of best practices and consulted peers, including Oliver, Gupta, Hinkie (they talk almost daily), and old friends from the Blazers. When he visited other websites, he noted where he got stuck—“the points of friction.” He aimed for intuitive navigation and professional presentation. On this point some engineering and basketball friends pushed back. No one will care about that, they argued; they’re here for the stats. But Falk disagreed. He believed that if you were asking someone to pay for something they didn’t need, the product had to feel like it was worth money

    Perhaps most surprising, to outsiders, was how much writing Falk intended to do. Long essays, anecdotes, re-created conversations. A “This American Life” tone, as one peer now describes it. For some quants, comfortable in the world of numbers but not metaphors, this might prove intimidating. Falk? As a boy, he filled a small notebook with stories and attempts at fiction—fantasy, mystery, crime. In high school, he learned how to write essays, even if he chafed at the structure: five paragraphs, make an argument, follow guidelines (“Why not teach writing as an applicable craft, not a formula?” he asks). And much of his job with the Sixers included writing briefs.

    Now, Ben intended to go it alone, both for autonomy and to keep costs down. His overhead consisted of server hosting, software, data acquisition fees, and Memberful software, which acts as plumbing for the site, covering newsletters and logins to the discussion board. Stripe, the credit card processing service, took another 3%. The only other expense, really, was Ben’s time.

    Falk set a goal of viability after one year, which he defined as covering expenses and paying him a reasonable salary. Friends were supportive but also skeptical. Falk planned to offer the site free for a while and then ramp up and offer subscriptions. Oliver questioned whether people would pay, considering how many free resources existed. Others wondered if the site was too wonky.

    Finally, on April 5, 2017, he launched a beta version, with analysis only. The first post was titled: “Do the Bucks Stop here: How the Bucks' defense reveals an underlying strategic tension in the game itself.” Stats saturated the post but didn’t render it impenetrable. Falk wrote with context, narrative, and insight. Like Zach Lowe, but geekier. Sure, it was choppy in places, but the reader immediately understood that Falk knew what he was talking about, had earned examples to back it up, and could elucidate it. In sum: He could make you smarter. In describing a closeout by Khris Middleton, he wrote: “That’s life in the NBA—18 inches and half a second is the difference between a turnover and a bucket—and it’s why all of these small decisions can add up to something big.”

    The response to the site was immediate and overwhelming. Retweets. Emails. Texts. Fifteen thousand hits in three days, which may not sound like a lot but is when you’re a one-man startup. He posted more; more people came. In June, the LeBron clip went viral—by Ben’s estimate, it’s now been viewed more than five million times (this includes all the places that ripped it).

    At this point, two interesting things occurred. First, larger media companies reached out, hoping to hire Falk. He wasn’t interested. “If I’m doing something that’s counter-industry, and that I think is going to work because it’s counter-industry, then I shouldn’t go join the industry,” he explains.

    The second surprise: NBA teams contacted him. One flew him out to consult (and a second is doing so later this month). Usually, you need to attend summer league and other functions to make connections. Hustle. Schmooze. But Cleaning the Glass turned out to be the opposite. Passive networking, essentially. Now teams came to Falk. He had unintentionally created the most effective résumé imaginable.

    The potential opportunities were tempting. He missed the competition and camaraderie of the league. But he didn’t miss the lifestyle and being “a slave to the calendar.” Besides, he wanted to find out if his site was indeed viable. To start, he’d only offered free content, to build an audience and awareness.

    Then, on Oct. 16, he launched his full subscriber site. Message boards. Deep dive sortable stats, presented intuitively. And, most important, an “insider” section, with more frequent posts and video breakdowns.  

    Here, finally, was the test of the idea, now over a year in the making. Would people pay for the site?

    Within three weeks, Falk had his thousand fans, even if they weren’t the ones he expected. The execs, wonks, and writers came in time, but NBA diehards were the first rush. From cities across the US. From outside the U.S. and Canada (he says global fans make up roughly 20% of his subscriber base). By the end of the year, he’d more than doubled the initial thousand, surpassing his bar for viability. If he wanted, it could be his full-time job.

    Talk to people in and around the league about Falk’s site and you hear certain questions: How did he pull it off? Will he expand? And: Is he content being the smartest guy outside basketball or is he going to join another team?

    For now, Falk works from his apartment in Philadelphia. He wakes up, downloads interesting games from the night before, and watches them over breakfast, using a laptop and a VLC media player. As he goes, he rewinds frequently, taking notes.

    Life is flexible. If he wants to go for a run, he goes for a run. He plays in a Monday night pickup hoops game with friends. Goes out to dinner. Plays tennis. The Sabbath no longer conflicts with work.

    It’s now been nearly a year since that first Bucks post, and Cleaning the Glass continues to prosper. Falk says his renewal rate is above 95%. He’s made tweaks, added things, talked strategy with Ben Thompson. From a reader’s standpoint—well, my standpoint in this case—the site continues to evolve in interesting ways (something Falk suggests he will continue to do, perhaps hiring part-time help). In recent months, he’s mined his front office experiences to shed light on the league, writing about the Blazers’ 2012 trade deadline heist that sent out Gerald Wallace and, eventually brought in Damian Lillard via the draft. He wrote an insightful post about how to break into the NBA (the question he is most often asked). In “Friday Film”, he often focuses on the craft of the game. For example, how the aforementioned Adams uses swim moves and leverage to grab offensive boards while ceding defensive rebounds to teammates by boxing out, leading to a discrepancy (and confirming that Adams is exactly the sort of teammate every NBA player wants). Or how Spurs forward Kyle Anderson has the vision to make counterintuitive passes. (Check below). These are the types of insights you can’t always pull purely from stats; you have to be wired to recognize them. As such, Falk’s site is eminently applicable. You can learn and steal ideas whether you’re a rec player, high school coach, youth coach, aspiring exec, or NBA lifer.

    Certainly, this is one element of Falk’s success. Like Stratechery, the site is something that a percentage of its audience can justify as a “business expense”, whether to their employer or to themselves. The timing is also important. Just as Falk attributes his career success to luck—coming of age with a certain skillset at the exact time when the NBA was opening up to people like him but before it was flooded by applications from people like him—so is Cleaning the Glass arriving at a moment when the NBA is growing in popularity at an astonishing rate, especially globally. And while plenty of excellent statistical sites exist, and plenty of thoughtful reporters and writers provide analysis (including on this very site), Falk’s approach marries the two. He makes deep stats accessible, presents coaching concepts in a way that makes sense even if you’re not a coach, and adds an anecdotal layer that only someone who worked in a front office can provide. At the same time, he is adept at both zooming in—on the granular detail—and zooming out to go beyond the game. He is, in essence, Gladwell-ing the NBA. (It doesn’t hurt that some of the industry’s most respected voices have publicly endorsed the site and/or hosted Falk on podcasts).

    This leaves us at an interesting place in assessing the larger importance of the site. In some respects, Cleaning the Glass provides a blueprint for how to successfully create a niche journalism venture, highlighting how barriers to entry have decreased and the playing field has leveled.

    At the same time, how replicable is Ben’s site, really? How many other humans combine his package of front office experience, deep statistical knowledge, basketball acumen, programming and design proficiency, and the ability to write for a lay audience? I don’t know the answer, but I’m guessing the number is lower than ten. It might well be zero.

    Then again, maybe that’s a misleading way to frame it. It makes sense that Falk is good at doing the thing he’s most suited to do. Naval Ravikant, the AngelList founder and tech-age philosopher, of whom Hinkie and Falk are fans, is fond of saying “Be you because nobody in the world can compete with you at it.”

    And maybe this is the lesson of Falk’s site. Sure, he could go work for an NBA team, and one day he might again. He could also sell Cleaning the Glass, or take a job with a media company. But for now he’s managed to find success and what seems like an ideal work-life balance by doing the exact thing he both most wants to do and is most interested in and most qualified to do.

    And, in the end, isn’t that the dream?