For years, stats junkies have relied solely on NBA box scores and play-by-play summaries to numerically paint the picture of pro basketball. But this season, teams will have more data available to them than ever before as a half-dozen cameras positioned high above the court in all 30 arenas promise to open up a treasure trove of new information.
Similar to what foreign soccer leagues have been doing for several years, the NBA and STATS, the data firm that services every NBA team, will use the cameras to quantify and analyze every movement of every game throughout the entire season. Recording from the rafters, the six cameras will document everything, capturing speed, distance, player separation, sets, plays, passes — areas that have never before appeared in the standard box score.
“It’s going to have a big impact,” said John Hollinger, vice president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, “and the scary thing is, we don’t know how. It’s too early. I just hope I figure it out before everybody else does.”
Last season, 15 teams, including the Washington Wizards, independently paid for cameras stationed above the court to track their players’ movements. Because not all games were being recorded, the data was incomplete and limited. In the offseason, the league took the lead and made the push to outfit all 30 NBA arenas with SportVU technology.
In all, the cameras capture 11 data points — 10 players and a ball — mapped 25 times per second. That means in a minute of action, the system is recording more than 16,000 data points on the court.
Every team will receive a base package of data and analysis, and some will pay for a deeper dive and more video integration. They’ll all figure out their own way to use the information, but teams will finally be able to “quantify what hasn’t been quantifiable,” said Brian Kopp, the senior vice president at STATS. For example, if a player is within 10 feet of 30 potential rebounds but only pulled down three, coaches will know he’s well behind league average, which is 15.
“A lot of these statistics are very indicative of effort,” said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president of operations and technology “and also indicative of whether players are doing what coaches are instructing them to do.”
Training and medical staffs can also use the information. If a player is recovering from an injury, for example, teams can monitor his tendencies and speed moving up and down the court.
The cameras can change the way coaches measure every aspect of the game. For passing, rather than rely on a single traditional statistic — the assist — they can track potential assists that were marred by missed shots, passes that preceded assists, passes that eventually led to shots.
Teams will have access to the information almost in real-time. The cameras collect the data, and in a matter of seconds it’s all transmitted to a database in Chicago. There, it’s married to the NBA’s live play-by-play feed and churned into a report that can instantly appear on a laptop or iPad in the arena.
Coaches will ultimately make their preferred in-game adjustments, but they’ll have a lot more information informing their decisions.
“Everything plays into it,” Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When you finally climb that mountain, you look back on it and you see how many factors have to be moving and clicking in the right direction at the right time.”
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