Those who work in analytics are wont to apply data and rational thinking to every facet of their lives. So this summer, when Timberwolves Executive Vice President Sachin Gupta was preparing to move to Minneapolis with his fiancée, Anuja, he called a friend of his, Twins assistant general manager Daniel Adler, another Twin Cities transplant who had lived in the area for about three years.
“He had done a lot of research,” Gupta said. “I guess like all of us analytics folks, every decision in life, we look at all the options, evaluate each one, pros and cons and he had done all that when he was sort of researching apartments.”
It might come as no surprise that Adler and Gupta now live in the same downtown building. They may work in different sports, but their minds have traits in common.
“It is incredible luck …” Adler said of Gupta ending up in Minnesota. “It is fun running into him in the elevator or just having him come and drop by for a half-hour to say hi. ... He’s just an incredibly warm person.”
Gupta said the same of Adler, who he first met in 2013 at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference — the biggest event in that community. From there, what would become the brainiest bromance in Minnesota sports began even as their careers kept them in different places — Gupta in Houston, Philadelphia and Detroit; Adler with the Jacksonville Jaguars and eventually the Twins.
Now, each has a hand in decisionmaking for two of the four pro teams in town. Analyzing trades is a large part of what Gupta and Adler do, and both are busy right now. The NBA trade deadline is approaching Thursday, while the Twins could be active in the trade market as they look to bolster their 2020 roster.
And despite the differences in their sports, their jobs are more alike than it would seem.
‘Our game time’
In conversation, neither lets on that they have advanced degrees from Harvard or MIT, and both have a curiosity to learn. They also come across as measured, as the type of people who don’t overreact to emotion, a critical trait when facing something as strenuous as a trade deadline.
It’s a time that Gupta said can feel like “our game time,” where there is “adrenaline flowing.”
“That type of feeling can also lead to deal fever,” Gupta said. “That feeling of, ‘We have to make this deal. I don’t care what it’s going to cost me.’ We try to avoid that. You try to be rational and levelheaded.”
Trade deadlines in baseball and basketball can act as a kind of “truth serum,” Adler said. By that, he means teams that were just speculating on deals all season are finally willing to get down to business.
“When there’s no deadline, teams tend to posture and ask for the moon …” Adler said. “The deadline is extremely helpful to force people to actually make a decision.”
Adler said there can be a lot of “mind games” in trade talks. Sometimes a team may be wary of even inquiring about a certain player for fear that the simple act of asking could drive up his price.
“You tend to see in the last 24-48 hours, and frankly, just the last two hours, the stances people take tend to soften a fair amount,” Adler said. “You kind of get to their bottom-line decision and then at the very end there can be a real flurry. We’ve had some deals that we’ve put in with truly just minutes to spare.”
Both Adler and Gupta said the amount of time spent talking about trades dwarfs the actual number of trades executed from these talks. So when reports say teams are talking trades or have inquired about a certain player, those discussions might be just very theoretical and were never close to an actual deal.
“We spend an unbelievable amount of time talking about trades,” Adler said. “Exploring possible trades, especially given how rarely we actually make trades.
Added Gupta: “The percentage of trades that are talked about which end up getting executed is, I don’t know, like 1% or something like that.”
What Wolves are looking for
Trades can also take weeks to materialize, even one like the seemingly simple trade the Wolves already made in swapping Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham for Allen Crabbe, and the Wolves are entering that time of the year when they will assemble in their “war room” and be able to act quickly to developing trades.
Assistant GM Gianluca Pascucci will help analyze questions involving trades of draft picks.
Gupta and Assistant GM Emmanuel Rohan can analyze cap ramifications, one of Gupta’s strengths and how he earned a reputation when he was working in Houston with its well-respected GM, Daryl Morey.
Gupta is one of the developers of ESPN’s trade machine, and through that he learned the ins and outs of the collective bargaining agreement, and has come up with creative ways to use the rules to his team’s advantage.
“His former colleagues in Houston would say nobody knew the rules better and had more creative ideas for how you could structure contracts, structure trades in a way to make them appealing to players, other teams and also help your team,” Adler said.
Added Gupta: “I quickly realized that trades have such an enormous, immediate impact, and can really shift sort of the whole outlook of a franchise.”
He also was part of “the process” under Sam Hinkie in Philadelphia, helping mold the 76ers into an Eastern Conference powerhouse. Gupta sees the Wolves differently than his previous jobs, and the reason for the is the Wolves already have a franchise centerpiece in place in Karl-Anthony Towns.
“We’re obviously far from where we want to be in terms of results, but we have the hardest thing …” Gupta said. “We have the right starting block. So, I feel like we are fortunate that we have that and we can, to an extent, be patient and try to just be optimal in our strategy to build around him and not overreact to different situations, overpay or take unnecessary risks.”
The big move to surround Towns with complementary talent might not materialize at this deadline, but the Wolves have pledged to find the right opportunity to strike.
Some in the Wolves fan base might fear that Towns will want out sooner than later, given the organization’s lack of success in his first five years. They see what happened in New Orleans with Anthony Davis, who talked his way into a trade to the Lakers last summer after trying to make it work with a fledgling franchise. But Towns has four years remaining on his contract after this one, and Gupta said the Wolves aren’t worried that Towns is restless.
“We don’t want to rush into a suboptimal move … ” Gupta said. “I would say we know there’s not endless time, but I guess I don’t think it’s driven by a worry of Karl getting upset. It’s more driven by we owe it to Karl, and he’s committed and entering his prime and we’ve got to get the pieces around him as soon as possible.
“To the degree those situations happen, we hope to be the team taking advantage of that, than the other way around.”
So over the next few days, Gupta might not be popping over to Adler’s apartment and hanging out as much as he otherwise might. It’s also a busy time personally for both of them, with Gupta’s impending marriage and Adler’s wife, Michele, expecting the couple’s first child.
But one advantage of their friendship is the ability to compare notes in similar jobs with slightly different perspectives given the sports in which they work. They can also freely talk with each other since they don’t work in the same sport.
“Everyone jokes that the basketball analytics panel [at Sloan] is the same thing every year; nobody wants to talk or share anything” Gupta said.
It might sound odd, but it’s a fact of living in the sports analytical world. But, Adler said, that shows what kind of person Gupta is, that he’s able to be as welcoming and friendly as he is despite the culture of the profession.
“His warmth and openness, especially as an analyst, where sometimes people can be cagey, not wanting to give away whatever secrets their team knows, it’s rare,” Adler said.
But Adler has done some hopping around from sport to sport, going from the NFL to MLB. What if he wants to go to the NBA some day?
“If he does [jump],” Gupta said with a laugh, “It should be with us.”
If Adler ever did that, Gupta will do his best to make sure those secrets stay in house — or rather, in their apartment building.