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Nate Silver And Mark Cuban Talk A Lot Of Politics And A Little Basketball

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver found themselves on stage together last weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. They covered a wide range of topics, including Cuban’s political aspirations, President Trump’s political skills and the Mavericks’ bad season. We’ve reprinted a condensed and lightly edited version of the interview below.

Nate: Are you prepared here at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to announce your candidacy for president of the United States?

Mark: [laughter] I’ll get back to you on that.

Nate: OK. But is it something you’ve thought about seriously?

Mark: Have I thought about it? Yes. Seriously is relative. Circumstantially, yes, but I’m nowhere near ready to decide anything. You know, there’s still a few years to see how things go and what direction they go, so … let’s just say, it’s not just a lifelong dream of mine to be president of the United States.

Nate: Donald Trump was able to win the nomination and the presidency. Do you consider that a kind of game-changing event?

Mark: Game changing event? Yes. Is he paving the way for businesspeople? No. Probably the exact opposite. So it probably hurts more than helps somebody who wanted to come from the business side as opposed to the political side. But it really depends on how he governs, if he governs, and what the results are. Because if things are great, then it’d be a positive, but it also is going to open a door for more Trumpian-like people, I guess, which I would not classify myself as. And if it doesn’t work, then it may swing back the other way, toward more traditional politicians. We’ll have to see.

Nate: You were a critic of Trump’s during the campaign, I believe endorsed Clinton at some point. Have you become more optimistic or more pessimistic?

Mark: Well, I’ll get back to you, but I was actually one of the first people to support Trump. When he first came out, I said he was authentic, he wasn’t scripted, he wasn’t a traditional politician, and those were all positive things. And then I got to know him. [laughter] And it wasn’t so much that I was really pro-Hillary. People think I’m a Democrat. I’m not. I’m an independent. People think I’m a progressive. I’m not. I’m far more middle of the road, particularly on fiscal issues and probably a little bit left on social issues. But it really was as much a protest against him and a movement to try to stop him — which obviously failed miserably. In terms of what happens next, it’s only been, what — 42 days? The whole country is Gilligan’s Island.

Nate: Right. The fact that we’re counting the number of days, right, it’s probably a bad sign.

Mark: It’s a very bad sign.

***

Nate: Is he like a once in a lifetime fluke? How did he become president?

Mark: You know, it’s funny. I made a huge mistake in how I evaluated it, obviously. I thought logic and common sense and facts mattered to most voters. But the reality is, we all — including all of us here — tend to take the path of least resistance. We just want to get through our lives, we want to get through our days. We want to give ourselves, our family, our kids a reason to smile, right? If you’re stuck and things aren’t going well and you don’t see very high prospects or positive prospects for your children and your family, you get what you got if you vote for a traditional politician. What’s the worst that can happen if I vote for Trump and he turns out to be an idiot, right? More of my friends will have opioid issues? If things are already going poorly, if things aren’t going the way you anticipate, go for it. It’s Hail Mary voting.

Nate: About 15 percent of the electorate did not like either Trump or Clinton, and they broke substantially to Trump. That’s why he won. People who did not like Trump voting for Trump gave him the margin he needed.

***

Nate: There’s almost a more profound point here about forecasting. It’s like precisely when people feel complacent about something is when they let their guard down.

Mark: Well, yeah, it’s a greater than zero chance, but also, it’s not like either side stopped marketing up until the very end. I went out with Hillary Clinton to Detroit, and I’m like: “What are we doing in Detroit? That’s not a good sign. Why don’t you bring me back to Pittsburgh?” So they had an inkling, but they thought they would get through it. But, you know, polls only go up to a certain point in time, and if there’s uncertainty and you keep on marketing and you keep on selling, you can transition people’s minds.

Nate: You also have a lot of backlash against business. People might say it’s deserved or maybe not. On the left, you have the Sanders wing of the party, where I think it’s obvious a lot of the energy is. So to be a kind of a pro-business, pro-gay-rights centrist, do you think there’s a constituency for that?

Mark: Either there will be or there won’t be. The crazy part is that if you look at what Trump is doing, a lot of the stuff is far left of what Bernie wanted in terms of trade and other things. I wasn’t a big Bernie Sanders fan because I think free runs out at some point, but I got the excitement about him. But even then, I think a lot of it was anti-Clinton as much as pro-Bernie.

Nate: Do you feel like Trump’s win was a loss for rationality in some sense? Or do you think that there’s a deeper level that’s almost rational?

Mark: No, I think it shows the bifurcation of the country. I think there’s certain people that believe in information and facts and making reasoned decisions and there’s certain people, like I was just saying, that are like, “It can’t get any worse.” I would go to places — particularly in Texas, once they found out I switched and was supporting Hillary Clinton — the things that they would say about Obama being the ultimate socialist, about he’s just two steps away from communism, about how he’s going to take everything away from us, yada, yada, yada. Those aren’t conclusions you just naturally come to on your own. Those are marketed conclusions, and I think that’s really what won the day for Trump as much as the dissatisfaction with the way things are going.

***

Nate: What’s it like to make — and I probably experience like a tenth of this, and you experience a whole portion of it, and Clinton experiences 10 times what you do, right? — but what’s it like to make high-pressure decisions when everything you do is going to be scrutinized?

Mark: I like it. When I got the chance to do interviews for the Clintons, I didn’t want to go on MSNBC. I wanted to go on Fox. Any position I have, I want to be challenged so I can get smarter about it. So I don’t mind it, and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. And it won’t be the first time, it won’t be the last time. But I like that. When it comes to making decisions that are going to be in the public eye, whether it’s the Mavs, whether it’s politics, whatever it may be, I kind of like scrutiny, intellectual scrutiny.

Nate: The politics of Texas are changing a little bit. It’s one of a handful of states where Clinton actually did better than Obama had.

Mark: Mm hmm. She actually won Dallas County.

Nate: She won Dallas County. I think won Houston, right? You know, why do you think Texas is shifting in a different direction?

Mark: Well, there’s urban centers and then there’s rednecks, you know. [laughter] It’s like crossing a timeline when you leave Dallas County to go farther out or when you go, since Texas is such a big state, anywhere outside an urban area — it’s just a different world. It’s just culturally … I mean, we live in two different worlds. There’s urban, there’s intellectual, and there’s everybody else, and that’s part of the challenges we face as a country.

Nate: Texas becoming more purple … Ted Cruz is up in two years for Senate.

Mark: No. No.

Nate: [laughter]

Mark: That’d be the worst. No. No governor, senator, congressman — hell no. If I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down in flames going for the big job, right?

***

Nate: I think part of what we’re learning is that other people in the government have a lot of power and authority and that maybe you don’t have so much power as president. I hope we don’t test that proposition.

Mark: Right, yeah. I mean, it remains to be seen, right, because he comes out and says one thing about foreign policy and then Tillerson and the others go out there and give speeches in Europe that say the exact opposite. How’s that happen? And he tweeted today about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. Now, the president doesn’t have the authority to issue a wiretap. The FBI does have the authority to initiate a wiretap once it gets a warrant. So basically without him even realizing it, he’s confirming that the FBI got a warrant to wiretap him.

Nate: Or he’s confirming that he reads crazy conspiracy theories.

Mark: Or, yeah, maybe they brought it up on “Fox and Friends and Family” or whatever it is in the morning. [laughter] You know, those intelligence briefings are tough. In between the cat stories and the dog stories, you have to be able to get your information and know which is which.

Nate: I was also in 2015 very skeptical about Trump, right? Less skeptical in the general election, but like, do you think he’s very good at what he does? Or just was in the right place at the right time?

Mark: At which point in his career?

Nate: To become president. Is he just like randomly mashing buttons and happened to pick the combination that was fruitful for this point in time?

Mark: I don’t know. I don’t honestly know. You can’t look at him and particularly knowing people who work for him and listen to them and say, “Boy, the guy just knows his stuff cold.” I remember talking to him about a business thing during his campaign, and I tried to put it in real-estate terms. And I’m thinking, “He’s going to catch me on something, that I missed some point; he’s going to say, ‘No, that’s not how we do it.’” I could tell he didn’t get it, and I had to rephrase it, and I was kind of shocked. And this is the honest to God truth: I had multiple people that I talked to on his campaign over some private messaging apps if I would have given them a job would have left his campaign because they were terrified. And others told me that there’s no chance he gets elected, but in the slight — they would say 30 percent — chance he does, somebody’s got to be there to watch over him.

Now, most of those people are already gone, because I will say this about him, he has no personal attachments to anybody except maybe his daughter. Not even his sons. I mean, people are fungible to him, and if you’re not helping him — it’s like, when I would get into these Twitter wars with him and I would nail him, oh, Cuban’s the worst, he’s an idiot, he’s dopey, he’s this, he’s that, and then if I could help him with something on business, he loved me. And the Mavs would win a game — I remember one time, Deron Williams hits a game winning shot against the Kings, and he’s on the phone calling me, congratulating me and telling me how exciting it was, and then three weeks later, I’m dopey. That’s who he is.

Nate: [laughter] Do you think Trump is a product of social media and the media environment? Or is he a classic kind of …

Mark: No, social media is an asset for him. I used to give him so much shit because he has no clue how to use social media and he would troll himself and not realize it. Seriously.

Nate: See, I think like, most politicians are terrible at using …

Mark: Yeah, to them, it’s a PR newswire. It’s just out there, because in reality, if only 15 percent of adults are on Twitter and out of the 25 million or whatever that follow him, half are probably bots, half of the remaining are probably foreign, and so to reach the rest of the country … it’s how people interpret what he tweets, it’s how people understand what his tweets are.

***

Nate: Do you find it satisfying that you have a win or a loss at the end of the day and that’s all people care about? Even though it might imperfectly reflect your decision-making?

Mark: I just hate to lose. Unless we go like 17-4 the rest of the way, this is going to be my first losing season since grade school. I mean, that’s fucked up. It’s not satisfying in the least bit, but it is what it is. And I think we’ve kind of evolved this season, so hopefully we’re in a good position.

Nate: You’re going to have to move on from Dirk at some point …

Mark: Nah. Somebody’s got to be the first 50-year-old — Dirk will be the Satchel Paige of the NBA, playing knuckleball somewhere.

Nate: But it’s been a very successful run. If you could replicate that and, say, you have a team that’s going to be good for 10, 12, 15 years with a 10 or 15 percent chance of winning the championship any year versus a team that has a three-year dominant window, does either of those appeal to you more?

Mark: If I knew I was going to get three rings and just be horrible the rest of the way, I’d probably take the three rings and then try to change the agreement. But yeah, I mean, rings are the thing. I want a really big ring.

Nate: You would trade … let’s say you have 10 60-win teams that make the conference semifinals …

Mark: Yeah, we won 50-plus games 10 out of 11 years in a row.

Nate: But you would trade that for one additional ring?

Mark: Yeah. Yeah.

***

Nate: You’ve talked about how using analytics or any kind of more rigorous approach, there’s not as much low-hanging fruit as there was. How many teams out of the 30 NBA teams you think still don’t get it?

Mark: I think they all get analytics. I think they don’t all get how to use analytics. You talk about efficient markets. Analytics is the most efficient market, and in my opinion, it’s changing the most dramatically right in front of our eyes because of deep learning, new networks, etc. And so, now, we all have to scratch our heads and say, “What variables and how do we weight them and does it correlate, is it causation, etc.?”

Nate: Have you had experiences where you had a model that fit the past data really well and then you applied it and it was disastrous?

Mark: I wouldn’t say disastrous. Like one of the things that we liked to use one summer was the shooting percentage, the number of games that you shot over 60 percent versus the number of games that you shot under 60 percent across D-League, college, the NBA. And those who had a greater than 2-to-1 ratio typically had success. And it worked fairly well until we had a couple of the exceptions that proved the rules. And so, yeah, there’s been times where we thought, yeah, this is really an indicator, and it turned out not to be.

Nate: Do you deliberately experiment with different lineups and different strategies or …

Mark: Absolutely.

Nate: Because to me, that’s one of the big lessons. You learn that no forecasting method is perfect, right, but there’s a lot of value in actual, real data.

Mark: Whether it’s starting Nerlens last night and having him guard the 5 or guard the 4 and Dirk guard the 5 or whatever, or playing more zone the year we won, I always try to be contrary. So if everybody’s shooting threes and layups, how do you defend that? And then it means the midrange is going to be wide open, right? And so if you can get past that point expectation, there’s an opportunity there. But the year we won, I asked coach to play zone an entire preseason game so we’d get good at it because nobody ever practiced against the zone. And if nobody’s ever practicing against it and they’re only playing us two or four times a year, they’re not going to change their habits just for us. And if we don’t get good at a zone and play a zone and if other teams aren’t lousy at attacking a zone, we don’t win. I mean, going back to that Miami series, the minute we’d go into a zone, you’d see LeBron pounding the ball and eating up time, which was what we wanted.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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