Report: NBA studying wearable technology for game use


The NBA is already becoming more and more data driven, or at least the reams of data coming in are being considered in basketball decision making. What kind of data? Thanks to the Sports VU cameras that track every on-court move of a player in every arena, we know that Damian Lillard and Andrew Wiggins averaged running 2.5 miles a game, the most in the league. Or that Rajon Rondo made the most passes per game (76) and with that created the most assist opportunities per game (20) last season. Or that Russell Westbrook attempted 10.9 pull up jumpers a game last season and scored just 8.7 points per game on them. And all that is just the made public, scratching the surface data.

However, NBA teams want more — including data that will tell them about player conditioning and maybe potential injuries before they become serious.

That means wearable technology — something a majority of NBA teams use already during practices. Zach Lowe has a must-read piece about it at Grantland.

The NBA is putting its own money into the study of wearable GPS devices, with the likely end goal of outfitting players during games, according to several league sources. The league is funding a study, at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, of products from two leading device-makers: Catapult and STATSports….

Weighing less than an ounce, these devices are worn underneath a player’s jersey. They track basic movement data, including distance traveled and running speed, but the real value comes from the health- and fatigue-related information they spit out. The monitors track the power behind a player’s accelerations and decelerations (i.e., cuts), the force-based impact of jumping and landing, and other data points. Team sports science experts scour the data for any indication a player might be on the verge of injury — or already suffering from one that hasn’t manifested itself in any obvious way.

The devices can show, for instance, that a player gets more oomph pushing off his left leg than his right — evidence of a possible leg injury. They will show when players can’t produce the same level of power, acceleration, and height on cuts and jumps. Those are typical signs of fatigue, but there is near-total consensus among medical experts that fatigued players are more vulnerable to all sorts of injuries — including muscle tears, catastrophic ligament ruptures, and pesky soft-tissue injuries that can nag all season. The Warriors rested Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry last March after data from Catapult devices (used in practices) and SportVU cameras indicated their bodies had reached extreme fatigue levels, as Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported during the Finals.

Wearing these during games is something that would require players’ union approval, which is where the study likely comes in (plus it gives the teams a look at different versions of the technologies out there). The NBA and union are already starting some level of new CBA talks in an effort to avoid a 2017 lockout (or at least avoid missing games due to one) and you can bet these wearable devices will be on the table in those talks. They have already been used in the D-League, but teams want to use them in games.

At the purest level, nobody is going to be opposed to using this data to improve players’ health and reduce injury, as the Warriors did last season. That’s just smart for the teams and players. The concern is how this data could come into play in contract negotiations — if a team has data a player could have an underlying physical issue, would they offer less money? Do other teams then get access to this data? Shouldn’t the player and his agent then have access to the data to have it looked at by their experts? Would teams limit minutes and opportunities in a contract year for a player, and use the data as an excuse? You can see where this would get messy and complicated.

Still, it is coming to the NBA. Sooner rather than later.

Like the Sports VU camera data, what matters more than the information itself is how teams learn to use it. Some teams will sift through it and have people on staff who can figure out what matters, what doesn’t, and how to apply that information best in terms of things like player minutes and rest. Other teams will put most of the information straight into the circular file (at least at first). The smarter organizations will adapt more quickly and gain an advantage. And in the NBA, every team is looking for that little advantage.