People who dismiss the NBA’s statistical revolution as a bunch of nerds in front of computers with Google-like algorithm don’t get the real picture.
The reality is that a stats-loving coach who incorporates them into formulating his game plans is about to win an NBA title in Miami. The reality is pretty much every team has an advanced stats guy in house.
And those stats are going to the next level now thanks to former missile tracking technology that can literally track a player’s every move on the court. Teams are already paying for the next level of advanced statistics and the early results have wowed statheads at places like the SLOAN conference at MIT.
There’s a great story on the technology at fastcodedesign.com (go read the entire thing).
Now, SportVU systems hang from the catwalks of 10 NBA arenas, tiny webcams that silently track each player as they shoot, pass, and run across the court, recording each and every move 25 times a second. SportVU can tell you not just Kevin Durant’s shooting average, but his shooting average after dribbling one vs. two times, or his shooting average with a defender three feet away vs. five feet away. SportVU can actually consider both factors at once, plus take into account who passed him the ball, how many minutes he’d been on the court, and how many miles he’d run that game already.
A perfect example of this principle is in how SportVU can track assists. Traditionally, the NBA will award a player with the assist if they pass the ball to a player who immediately scores a field goal. It’s a human calculation, a judgment call based more on feel than science (much like a foul). Aside from clear issues of accurate counts, think about everything that generalized “assists” stat misses: What if the best passer in the world is on a team of people who can’t shoot? They’re making the correct play but getting no credit because they’re surrounded by mediocrity. But put this playmaker on a good team, and that team might excel.
SportVU can track these potential assists, and even track the person who passes it to the person who makes the assist. Now scale this level of assessment to every single skill in basketball, and our view of players could change as we know it.
The next level of challenge for coaches is to turn this data into something the players can assimilate. It’s one thing to tell a player “Kobe Bryant shoots X percent less if you force him to go left for two dribbles into a pull-up jumper” and another for a player to really grasp it and apply it in a game.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (among others) tries to put these tips in video packages — don’t tell the player, show the player. Most of us are visual learners, if we see it we process it faster.
But the revolution is here to stay, and with companies like SportVU there is only going to be more and more data out there to mine for an edge. And teams will pay and do just about anything to get an edge.