The Reno Experiment: Inside Vivek Ranadivé's Grand Scheme

Five years ago Kings owner and software CEO Vivek Ranadivé decided he wanted a basketball “lab,” so he turned over his D-League affiliate to a Division III assistant who installed a freakily frenetic scheme called The System. The “disruption” lasted just two seasons, but its tenets—threes and pace—are now all the rage in today’s NBA
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When Dave Arseneault Jr. received the email, back in the fall of 2014, he assumed it was a mistake.

At the time, Arseneault was 28 and living in Grinnell, Iowa, a town of 9,000 an hour from Des Moines that dubs itself—somewhat aspirationally—the Jewel of the Prairie. It’s the kind of place where you leave your doors unlocked, you can walk most anywhere in 15 minutes, and the nicest hotel is a converted middle school.

Arseneault liked it. He also didn’t know much else. He had played basketball at Grinnell High, then at Grinnell College, the Division III liberal arts school on the north side of town, starring as a slow-but-savvy 6' 1" point guard. Now, five years after graduating, he held the title of “seasonal assistant” basketball coach, a job that paid him $5,000, with no benefits. He was renting a place while he and his girlfriend, Rachel Whitfield, talked about settling down. Arseneault’s eventual goal: work his way up the coaching ladder and maybe run his own D-III program someday.

So you can imagine his surprise when he opened his computer to find an email from an NBA executive, asking him to call. Since Arseneault knew no NBA executives and worked for a small school in the middle of nowhere, he assumed the email was either a) a mistake or b) meant for his father.

Dave Arseneault Sr. began coaching at Grinnell in 1989, taking over a program that hadn’t had a winning season in a quarter century. A curious, cheery man, he began experimenting. Different lineups. Unorthodox plays. Eventually, he hit upon the idea of playing not just fast, but really fast. He concocted something he called the System, which involved nonstop pressure and a deluge of three-pointers. Designed to mask a lack of talent with on-court chaos, the System was like a fun house mirror held up to the game: shots launched without discretion, ceded layups, outlandish statistics. For the most part, it worked. Grinnell began winning conference titles and breaking scoring records. Arseneault managed to both annoy purists and attract national attention, most memorably in 2012, when 5' 10" Jack Taylor set the single-game NCAA scoring record with 138 points in a 179–104 win over Faith Baptist Bible. So, yes, people knew about Dave Sr.

And yet, when Dave Jr. responded, Dean Oliver, newly hired by the Kings in basketball ops, didn’t mention Dave’s dad. Rather, Oliver said that he was conducting a coaching search. That he’d heard about the System- and found its potential intriguing. That Sacramento had big plans, perhaps bigger than any team, ever. And that he was curious whether Dave Jr.—a man with no head coaching experience, who was making ends meet because his dad supplemented his salary with 25 grand—would be interested in being the coach of the Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ NBA D-League affiliate.

Dave Jr. was silent for a moment. Then, as he recalls, he said the only thing he could think of. “Of course!”

A week later, he was on a plane to Sacramento.

In 1997 Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen coined the phrase disruptive innovation. Before that, disruption had a negative connotation. Power outages disrupted our lives. Children disrupted our sleep. No longer. Within a few years, everyone in Silicon Valley was disrupting everything: groceries, cars, pet food, the publishing industry. No idea was too big or too radical.

Among the many beguiled by this tech-centric 21st-century notion was Vivek Ranadivé. The son of a pilot in the Indian military, he came to the U.S. at 17 with, as he liked to tell people, nothing more than $50 and big dreams. Ranadivé graduated from MIT, got a Harvard MBA and eventually built a software company, TIBCO, into a billion-dollar business. He also wrote three books, including The Two-Second Advantage: How We Succeed by Anticipating the Future—Just Enough.

If that title sounds Gladwellian, it’s with good reason. In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about Ranadivé in The New Yorker, detailing how a man who had never touched a basketball disrupted the youth game while coaching his daughter’s team in Redwood City, north of Palo Alto, Calif. Ranadivé noticed an inefficiency—12-year-old girls can’t break a press very well—so he brought in former NFL running back Roger Craig and regularly flew up his daughter, Rometra, a USC basketball player, to help transform the team into a tiny, ponytailed version of Nolan Richardson’s 40 Minutes of Hell. Some might argue it wasn’t terribly sportsmanlike; Ranadivé reveled in it. His team reached the national championship game. Gladwell lionized Ranadivé, comparing him to, among others, Lawrence of Arabia: “Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass.” (The story, which Gladwell later included in a book, proved so popular that Rometra, now a personal trainer, says she is still asked about it “about once a week.”)

Emboldened, Ranadivé turned his attention to the NBA. In 2010 he became a minority owner of the Warriors, and three years later he headed up a group that bought the Kings for $534 million. Two days after taking over, he hired a coach, Golden State assistant Mike Malone. Then—the opposite of how it’s usually done—he hired his G.M., Pete D’Alessandro, who had also worked for the Warriors. He would make Sacramento the center of the basketball universe, create “NBA 3.0.”

Brainstorming commenced. He invited fans to the team’s draft room. Spoke about the idea of “positionless basketball,” a concept that Don Nelson and others had espoused. Suggested lineups. And, as reported by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, floated the concept of playing four-on-five on defense, with a regular cherry picker. Staffers from that era confirm that, saying Malone initially tolerated the idea then finally shut it down, despite pleas to try it for only a possession or two.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Ranadivé, 62, who declined to be interviewed for this story, didn’t stop there. According to people familiar with the situation, his proposed solution for the Kings’ free-throw-shooting woes was to install a hoop outside the locker room. This way, during games, players could run back and practice foul shots. This plan got far enough that the team installed the goal, just to the right of the locker room, before people around Ranadivé dissuaded him, citing potential rules issues (players usually leave the bench only to go to the bathroom), messaging issues (players would likely be insulted, and it would scare away free agents) and general optics (not good).

None of this slowed Ranadivé. And so, before his second season, he entertained one of the team’s bolder ventures, one posed by D’Alessandro and his new lieutenant, Oliver. What if the Kings used their D-League team to push the boundaries of the game? What if they took the 55-mph NBA and sped it up to, like, 90? Or 140? What if they installed a 28-year-old D-III assistant at the helm and allowed him to try one of the bolder experiments in modern pro basketball?

Ranadivé was all in. As he told ESPN, “In Silicon Valley, you have a lab. In basketball, I wanted a lab.”

And so, on Oct. 17, 2014, the Kings introduced David -Arseneault Jr. as the new coach of the Bighorns. His marching orders, as he recalls, were that he had none. Says Arseneault, “There was pretty much nothing I couldn’t try.”

As recently as the 1990s, the NBA moved at a deliberate pace. Walk it up, feed your star, watch him work. Jordan’s final title-winning Bulls team averaged 96.7 points per game. Slowly, the game sped up. It began with Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix. Then came the Warriors. Today, it’s not anomalous for a team to win 159–158, as the Rockets did last month.

But in 2014–15, when Arseneault arrived in Reno, the NBA was still evolving into a pace-and-space league. The most prolific team the year before, the Clippers, averaged 107.9 points. Today that would rank 23rd in the league. Arseneault was bewildered by how he’d gotten the job. The Kings had flown him out, without asking for a résumé. Only later would he learn how they had found him: how Oliver, an analytics guru, had taken the advice of a fan named Jack Patton, a devotee of the System. How Oliver had grabbed Arseneault’s contact info off the Web. How Sacramento brass had interviewed roughly 10 other candidates but focused on him because, as Oliver says, “We really wanted to experiment.”

During the interview, the group had asked Dave Jr. to explain the System. He had headed to the whiteboard and diagrammed the tenets: a laserlike focus on putting up threes and shots at the rim; an insistent press, designed to create turnovers (“always double-team whoever has the ball”); a breakneck pace (“the first shot is the best shot”); four players crashing the offensive boards (with rebounds kicked back out for threes); and maximum effort at all times (five-man units playing in one- or two-minute rotations). The end goal: Take 94 or more shots, at least half of them threes; rebound at least a third of your misses; force at least 32 turnovers; and attempt 25 more shots than the opponent. When these goals were met, according to analysis by Arseneault Sr. and a group of students in the 1990s, the team won 95% of the time.

Spiritually, the System was a mashup of Rick Pitino’s press (on defense) and Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun Loyola Marymount teams (on offense). Of course, those programs deployed NBA-level prospects. The System was built not on talent but in spite of it. Grinnell could dress 20 players and use them interchangeably, each playing 10 to 16 minutes a game. It was like Strength in Numbers—that slogan of the title-winning Warriors—only with lots more numbers, all of whom were spindly short kids.

That’s well and good for D-III. But a glaring problem existed when it came to translation: The NBA and the D-League are not filled with spindly short kids.

David Stockton recalls clearly the day in November 2014 that he met his new coach. A third-round pick in that year’s D-League draft, the point guard, who had just graduated from Gonzaga and is the son of Jazz legend John, was ready for a lot of things. But standing in a fitness center in Reno, listening as a coach he had never heard of explained how he would be playing two minutes at a time was not among them. “I remember thinking, This is insane,” he says.

He was not alone.

Then as now, the D-League (which was renamed the G League in 2017) was a transient experience. Players—fringe NBAers, holdovers, overseas vets and D-I standouts—hoped to be called up but rarely were, signed contracts that averaged roughly $17,000 a year and toiled in tertiary cities before minuscule crowds. No matter. Their real audience watched from afar: NBA execs looking for a roster filler. The goal: Showcase your skills. Get yours.

And now, here stood an amiable, balding, shortish, youngish coach saying that there would be no midrange shots. That, if he was being honest, they would probably get dunked on a lot. But that, really, it was going to be fun!

“We did not,” recalls Reno assistant GM Chris Gilbert with a dry tone, “get a lot of immediate buy-in.”

The first game didn’t help. With only a week of practice, the Bighorns hosted the Iowa Energy at the Reno Event Center. A smattering of fans took their seats while, on the sideline, a mascot in an oversized ram’s head tried to exhort the crowd.

The Reno starters attempted to follow Arseneault’s directions: Play as if the shot clock is 12 seconds, not 24. Shoot only threes and layups. The first possession came up empty. On the second the Energy center pinned a layup attempt off the board with two hands. A minute and a half in, Arseneault made his first sub, pulling all the starters. Watch the video now and you can see the disbelief on the players’ faces.

Two minutes later, they were all back in.

On offense, the Bighorns fired and then fired some more. On defense, they tried to press and doubled like crazy, gambling on passing lanes and leaving the rim nearly unprotected. The Energy were not thrown off. One in particular, a raw, 7-foot vagabond center named Hassan Whiteside, had a field day. “I loved it man,” Whiteside says now. “Once you got past the pressure, it was pretty much a two-on-one drill.” Whiteside thundered home lobs, sucked down rebounds and, since the Bighorns passed up midrange looks, swatted every attempted layup or dunk in sight. “They just kept driving at me,” he says. “I couldn’t understand it.”

By halftime Whiteside had a double double. By the end he had put up a Wilt Chamberlain–esque line in a 152–144 win: 30 points (on 15-of-18 shooting), 22 rebounds, eight blocks. Five days later he was called up by the Grizzlies and, a week after that, the Heat, who later signed him to a four-year, $98 million contract. Today, Arseneault half-jokes, the deal may have been his greatest contribution as a D-League coach.

From there, it didn’t get much better. Against the Idaho Stampede, career D-Leaguer Joel Wright came off the bench and shot 19 of 19 from the field. After games, Arseneault retreated to his two-bedroom apartment in north Reno—which, since the Bighorns had no offices, doubled as a coaches’ meeting room—rewatching games and looking for clues. He tried to stay positive, but it wasn’t easy. He missed Rachel, who had stayed in Grinnell, as well as his dad, who had always been there to provide answers. Back in Iowa, the Grinnell players and coaches streamed Reno games on YouTube. Recalls Hayes Gardner, then a senior, “We loved it but figured it would never work.” Says Matt Chalupa, who took over as an assistant, “I was as shocked as anyone, but I was skeptical.”

Chalupa had good reason to be. Bighorns players complained to assistants, to management. Guard Ra’Shad James ignored his coach and shot midrange pull-ups. One point guard, subbed out and then told to go back in a couple of minutes later, refused. Eventually, Arseneault threatened to call security when he refused to leave the bench. Other players, like Stockton, heard from their agents how the System was killing their value.

Reaction from opposing players and coaches varied from annoyed to affronted to dismissive. Gene Cross was an assistant at the time with the L.A. D-Fenders. “One of the easiest scouting jobs we’ve ever done,” he recalls. The second time they played, the D-Fenders set a D-League scoring record, crushing the Bighorns 175–152. An ESPN story described the team as “precisely how you’d envision basketball would be played if a meth lab sponsored a team.”

Arseneault had warned management that games could be ugly—that it never gets easy seeing teams dunk on you, even if you get a three on the other end. But witnessing it in person was different. Gilbert recalls sitting in the stands with his future wife for a midseason matchup with the Santa Cruz Warriors, a 16-point loss that dropped the team five games under .500. In a photo Gilbert has kept, he’s staring at a box score with dead eyes as she speaks to him. Recalls Gilbert, “She was saying, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”

Meanwhile, something equally crazy was occurring: The Kings were winning.

Children had been born and entered elementary school since the Kings had more than 28 victories in a season. Mediocrity had become an aspiration. And yet, in November, Sacramento was 9–5, led by Malone and the team’s young center, DeMarcus Cousins.

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

To Ranadivé, it must have felt as if it were all coming together. In less than two years, he had broken ground on a high-tech, $558 million downtown arena and made the Kings the buzziest team in the league. But he had another pet project: overseeing the debut of the first player of Indian descent in the NBA. So in December, the Bighorns, a team built on running and jacking threes, added to their roster 7' 5", 360-pound Sim Bhullar, who rarely shot from outside of five feet. The sideshow team had added a sideshow player.

By this point, Arseneault was already making concessions, at the urging of Gilbert and Scott Schroeder, the Bighorns’ director of basketball operations. With the roster sometimes topping out at nine, he had modified the defense, letting up on the press at times. He also left players in longer when they got hot. At the same time, he consulted peers, including another recent D-League coach from Iowa named Nick Nurse, who a season earlier had coached the fast-paced Rio Grande Valley D-League team and, in preparation, had studied Grinnell’s offense and reached out to the Arseneaults.

Eventually, the team found a rhythm. The 5' 11" Stockton turned out to be tailor-made for the System, a tireless distributor who could shoot threes, even if he had trouble adjusting to the freedom. “I remember one time I had a rough stretch, and Coach comes up and says, ‘You know what’s going on is that you haven’t taken enough pull-up threes.’ ”

Still, Stockton liked Arseneault. Surprisingly, so did his father, who’d been watching games. “I was halfway expecting him to be, This is garbage, this isn’t basketball,” says David. “But he said, ‘I kind of like it. I don’t like the gimmicky stuff. That’s not going to work in professional basketball. But the coach isn’t stupid. He seems to make adjustments and make the right plays and have a really good feel for basketball.’ ”

As former Baylor guard Brady Heslip, a dead-eye shooter described by his agent to The New York Times as “a 6-foot-1, 160-pound guard with a science teacher’s haircut,” averaged 34.8 points over a five-game stretch, the press took note. The Guardian asked in a headline: 140 points a game—but are the reno bighorns a basketball experiment too far?

There were eventual high points. In February, Bhullar had a triple double (26 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks), and in April he received a 10-day call-up to Sacramento. By season’s end the Bighorns led the league in offensive efficiency and call-ups, and had set records—not all of them good. Their final tally: 20 wins, 30 losses and a lot of skepticism.

In April, with the first campaign over, it was time to take stock. Oliver, who’d been crunching stats all season, created a file of takeaways. In it he noted how the press became less effective as “players get demoralized seeing easy layups and dunks”; how the team missed the motivating “hammer of playing time”; and how, in an observation that now seems quaint, “It does take a while to convince players that taking layups and 3s is the best approach.”

By the end of the summer, Oliver had been fired.

In reality, the purge had begun seven months earlier, in December. Ranadivé fired Malone after the team dropped eight of 10—a stretch that happened to coincide with Cousins’s getting viral meningitis. League observers were shocked. But, as Ranadivé likes to say, “It’s O.K. to fail. Just fail fast.”

That they did. Ty Corbin took over, and the team promptly lost 21 of 28. No one talked about the playoffs anymore. By February, Ranadivé had hired George Karl, his third coach of the season. Meanwhile, Ranadivé ill-advisedly posed for an ESPN The Magazine feature in a blazer and Kings T-shirt, fist raised in triumph. The story quoted him saying things like, “My software has been used to find what kind of drugs will kill what kind of cancer. Why can’t it be used to ask, ‘How do I defend against LeBron James?’ ”

By June, D’Alessandro had left, his role having been diminished. Arseneault assumed it was only a matter of time until he got the call. But, maybe because the team was preoccupied with all the other turmoil, or—since these are the Kings—maybe for no good reason at all, Sacramento picked up Arseneault’s one-year option. He had been granted a reprieve.

This time, he knew what to do. He brought in Cross, the defensive-minded coach of the D-Fenders, who eliminated the press and installed more traditional coverages. Realizing he needed allies, he called up Chalupa and brought him on as an assistant. The Bighorns drafted specifically for the System and brought in a video guy, Chris Holguin, who worked for free and sometimes crashed with Arseneault, coding live stats.

It worked. To the surprise of all, Reno started winning. Behind Stockton, the team roared through the D-League, breaking the league record for effective field goal percentage and going 33–17. Reno was now a place players wanted to come to, not flee.

You couldn’t blame Arseneault for thinking bigger. About tweaking the System further. Maybe even supercharging it. Building a whole franchise around it.

But the following month, Kings director of player personnel Peja Stojaković called to break the news: Arseneault was out, too. No good reason was forthcoming. “It seemed backwards. I thought I should have gotten fired after the first year and extended after the second year,” says a bemused Arseneault.

And so, less than two years after it launched, the great Reno experiment was over, destined to become a footnote in basketball history, a bridge too far.

Or so Arseneault assumed.

A year went by, then two, then four. And now, look where we are.

Mike Malone is now the coach of the Nuggets.

Hassan Whiteside now plays for the Trail Blazers and will make $27 million this year.

Nick Nurse took the Raptors to the NBA title last year.

After working for ESPN, Dean Oliver got hired as an assistant this summer by the Wizards. They are currently scoring 119.7 points per game.

Chris Holguin is now an associate coach with the Clippers.

The Reno Bighorns no longer exist. They are now the Stockton Kings.

Vivek Ranadivé still owns the Kings and is still thinking big, if talking about it less. Over the intervening seasons, Sacramento has lost far more than it has won. Former staffers now keep a spreadsheet of basketball ops employees who’ve been forced out or -dismissed—it numbers more than 150. No one compares Ranadivé to Lawrence of Arabia.

Still, in retrospect, some of what he proposed in the early days holds up. Yes, he fired Malone, but he also gave him his first head coaching job. The Kings’ new arena is indeed a feat of engineering. And then, the idea that has aged best: the System. Or at least the offense.

Which brings us to Dave Jr.

On a recent afternoon Grinnell is holding practice. Out on the court, an amiable, shortish, youngish man with a shaved head wears a T-shirt that reads 3 > 2 as he exhorts a horde of spindly, undersized players. As “Hey Ya!” and “Funkytown” blare, the players fire up threes, rotating in groups until each has taken 100. It’s something the team does for 18 minutes, every practice.

This is Dave Jr.’s fourth year as the Pioneers’ coach. He can’t stand to cut players, so the current roster stands at 30. “He’s a softy,” says Dave Sr., who sits in the bleachers in wind pants and a Nike sun hat. Occasionally, Junior comes over to ask a question. “Is he traveling on that two-step?”

Once upon a time, Dave Sr. dreamed of moving up the coaching ladder himself, of leading a D-I school. But he also read a stat, one he recites now, about how something like 88% of D-I coaches are divorced. He wanted to raise kids and be a husband and then, later, coach his son in college. So he did, and now he’s a grandpa who has never left Grinnell. “I still get obsessed with basketball, probably too much,” he says. But he is content to let his son lead the show.

Dave Jr. had an opportunity too. After the Kings let him go, the Raptors called, looking for a G League assistant. Arseneault flew up. He got the offer. It was tempting. But, by that time, he and Rachel were married. (Dave Sr. was his best man.) And she was pregnant. He thought back on that stat his dad always talked about. He came back to Grinnell.

Meanwhile, he watched as the NBA changed. Became faster. He saw teams eschewing the midrange. When Arseneault first arrived in Reno, no NBA team averaged more than 27 threes a game. This season, the Rockets are averaging just shy of 46. Recently, Toronto went a whole game and attempted three midrange shots.

In a weird way, Arseneault foresaw all this. Had you wanted to catch a glimpse of the modern game back in 2014, you could have—in a nearly empty gym in Reno. “Whether Arseneault knew the math behind it or just figured it out by trial and error is beside the point,” says Ben Falk, a former 76ers exec who now runs Cleaning the Glass, a respected analytics site. “He discovered something that worked that we’ve only now been able to actually capture and prove with data.”

Could a team that took things one step further and went all in on the System thrive in today’s NBA? If, say, they took one or two stars—guys like Trae Young, Damian Lillard or Kevin Durant, who could really light it up—with a rotating cast of minor leaguers and hustle guys. (“I’d probably go after P.J. Tucker or Pat Beverley,” says Dave Jr.). If you shuttled lesser players between the G League and the NBA, keeping them hungry. If you modified the defense a bit, throwing in junk formations, anything that would lead to turnovers. Says Arseneault, “What’s the worst that could happen?” If nothing else, a team looking to tank could do so in style.

Nurse doesn’t think it’s far-fetched, at least on offense. “You may call it really modified, but that’s what we’re trying to do [in Toronto],” he says. “We’re trying to get a lot of our players to play positionless basketball. Everyone who hits the floor shoots the three, and we run a wide-open spacing system that tries to generate those shots. Our G League team is doing it, too. . . . Looking back on it, the ideas don’t seem as crazy.”

But Dave Jr. isn’t focused on the NBA now, even though plenty, including Nurse and David Stockton, say he could coach there one day. He’s happy in Grinnell. Here, he’s not asked to disrupt the game or change the world. He merely has to coach a college team, one where the players buy in, practices are fun and no scouting is required, because opponents have to adjust to Grinnell, not the other way around.

Here, life is good. His daughter, Izzy, is now two. He sees her off every morning and is home most nights for dinner. Rachel is pregnant with a boy. Dave Jr. sees his dad and mom, Ellie, daily. He gets to play pickup two or three times a week. The door to his house is almost always unlocked. His commute is three minutes.

If he wants, Arseneault can still dream big. Recently, he says, he and his dad were in the office at Grinnell going through all the records the team had set over the years, looking for the one that would be the easiest to break this season. Finally, they settled on attempted threes in a game. The school record is 88, and the national mark is 89.

Dave Jr. figures they can break both. And, if not, what’s the harm in trying?