EVERETT — Pabail Sidhu may not be a household name, but there’s no doubt he’s reached basketball’s big time.
The Everett native owns an NBA championship ring. He attended Steph Curry’s 30th birthday party. He was even once described by none other than NBA legend Bill Walton as “the future of basketball.”
Yet on this temperate Sunday afternoon in August while on a brief trip home from the Bay Area, Sidhu’s top priority is making sure he gets to his old favorite, in time for the afternoon special.
“Made it in time for Alfy’s half-price pizza!” Sidhu said in an email shortly after being interviewed, complete with a photo of the pizza.
Indeed, Sidhu may be one of the NBA’s behind-the-scenes power players — this week he begins his third season as the Golden State Warriors’ director of basketball analytics and innovation — but he remains a humble individual who cherishes his roots, and his story is that of a proud Everett boy who reached the pinnacle of his sport via an unconventional path.
The Everett kid
Upon meeting Sidhu, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s a go-getter. Though the interview is ostensibly about his work with the Warriors, the conversation eventually morphs into a brainstorming session about possible ways the 38-year-old Cascade High School graduate can give back to the Everett community.
“I told him as he was growing up to go step-by-step,” Sidhu’s father, Harinder, said of his son’s take-charge personality, “and he’s chosen that way.”
Even as a kid growing up in north Everett, where his father was a machinist at Kimberly-Clark and his mother, Nashter, worked in the dietary department at Providence Regional Medical Center, Sidhu made things happen — often involving sports. In his second-grade class at Emerson Elementary he was encouraged by his teacher, Mrs. Lowery (and if you’re out there, Sidhu would very much like to thank you in person), to write a letter to Seattle Seahawks receiver Steve Largent, which resulted in a treasure trove of memorabilia being sent back.
But Sidhu’s biggest love was basketball. His room as a child was plastered with Michael Jordan posters, and his closet was full of Jordan high-top sneakers. Though he didn’t play basketball competitively, he frequently joined in pick-up games with his friends.
“From day one I loved basketball, and it was anything from watching the game to playing the game,” Sidhu said. “I was just always around it, consuming it. When I got older, I’d go down to Seattle to watch it.”
Sidhu soon became convinced he wanted his long-term future to be in basketball.
“At first it was playing, right?” Sidhu said. “There comes a point where you realize that’s not going to work. Then it’s just to be around it. Somehow I wanted to be part of it. At a young age I didn’t know what that looked like.”
It ended up being a role that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
The data analyst
Sidhu is not fond of the term “analytics.”
“People have this thing with analytics, and I just want to get rid of the word,” Sidhu said. “I think the word throws people off.”
But in his role as Golden State’s director of basketball analytics and innovation, Sidhu is at the forefront of the statistical movement that’s taking over the basketball and sports world.
So what exactly does Sidhu do?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’d say it’s giving our front office, coaching staff, ownership, players and performance team information so they can make more-informed decisions.”
The way that manifests is in gathering data and analyzing it. At every game the Warriors have a series of tracking cameras set up, and by the end of the game the cameras have collected more than a million events of data.
Sidhu takes that data and runs it through computer programs to produce information that can be used by general manager Bob Myers, coach Steve Kerr and the players to maximize the team’s performance.
But Sidhu doesn’t just sit at his laptop staring at data streams. He watches the games and charts their progress. Which events led to positive outcomes? Which players succeeded in certain play calls? Which shots are good shots versus bad shots?
“I always say the observations lead to the mathematical,” Sidhu said. “I think I’m a basketball mind first, and I use that to look at the numbers, to quantify my thoughts and whatnot. You have to be careful, you have to understand the numbers in the right context or else you’re giving folks false information.”
Sidhu’s work keeps him in constant contact with the coaches and players, so much so that he’s like a member of the team. He interacts with the players in both basketball and non-basketball manners, engaging Andre Iguodala in speculation about the destination for Amazon’s second headquarters, or swapping parenting tips with Curry.
And what does he think of his job?
“Oh my goodness,” he said, “I absolutely love it.”
Long before Sidhu was involved in the NBA, he was at a Seattle SuperSonics game when the New York Knicks were in town. At the time, Isiah Thomas was New York’s team president. Sidhu, who had recently graduated from the University of Washington with a business degree, had no qualms about introducing himself to the Basketball Hall of Famer and telling him he was interested in getting into the sports field.
That kind of moxie played a big role in Sidhu being where he is now.
Sidhu’s path began materializing while he was at Washington. He created an independent study class around sports business, and that gave him the opportunity to meet former Sonics general manager Rick Sund.
Sidhu and Sund became student and teacher, with Sidhu taking every opportunity to pick Sund’s brain. It was Sund who introduced Sidhu to Dean Oliver, considered a founding father of basketball analytics, and it was Oliver who suggested Sidhu pursue the analytics path.
“Numbers were always a strength of mine, but I never wanted it to be a strength of mine because of silly middle-school reasons — I didn’t want to be geeky, I guess,” Sidhu said. “It’s confidence, and once I got out of high school, the confidence started building a little bit and I started owning the things I was good at.”
Sidhu approached then-Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, did a freelance project for him, and was subsequently brought on staff. Working in the UW athletic department gave Sidhu the opportunity to present a 50-page report to then-men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar — “I look back at it and think, ‘What was I doing?’” Sidhu said — and while the report may have been long and esoteric, Romar was intrigued enough to bring Sidhu onto the men’s basketball staff full time.
Sidhu spent five seasons on staff with the Huskies, and during that time he continued to create connections with members of NBA organizations.
One of those organizations was Golden State, and in 2017 the Warriors approached Sidhu, offering a position created just for him. Sidhu accepted, and as a result he contributed to the team’s NBA championship run in 2017-18.
“His goal was to go to the NBA, and he got it,” his father, Harinder, said. “We are very proud of him.”
The future GM?
So what’s next for Sidhu? Although he loves his current job, his sights are aimed a little higher. Being an NBA general manager, perhaps?
“I definitely do (want to be a GM),” said Sidhu, who has begun preparing by paying close attention to how sports executives and coaches interact with people. “The more I’m around it, the more I get excited about it. But you also know you have to learn more. I’m very fascinated with that. Having a great GM in Bob Myers helps with that, he’s just a great dude, you see him and get a picture of what that role looks like.”
Sidhu can see himself in that picture, and if it becomes a reality, it will all be because the kid from Everett made it happen.