The Digital Stats Revolution Has Begun

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While it is true that the NBA is a game, it is also a business, and the business side just got a whole lot more complicated. With last night’s season opener came the debut of SportVU, a new stat-tracking system that is, as of Oct. 29, installed in every one of the 30 NBA arenas. Stats LLC’s hardware and software involves high-speed cameras that digitally capture every single player and ball movement on the court, allowing for an unprecedented amount of data to be drawn from every second of play. At first, SportVU was marketed to individual franchises, finding a home in only 15 of the arenas at a price of about $100,000 a pop, according to Grantland. However useful individual player and team measurements were, this still meant that no complete league dataset existed. Until now.

 

Photo: CBC.ca


What it will measure
The usual stats you have come to know and love (probably by heart) will be there, from shots to rebounds. However, more complicated measurements will be made possible by SportVU, including spacing between a defending player and his mark, how an entire team is situated in relation to one another and how successful plays force opposing team to change the shape of their defence, for example. This is perfect because defence has been notoriously difficult to quantify until now. However, it will make existing statistical data types more easy to convey (and visualize), giving coaches the advantage if they see a player hitting more 3’s than shots off the dribble.

More complex stats can also be drawn, such as how well two specific teammates set each other up for the shot, and what percentage of those go in versus a different matchup. Heap onto that stats that were once rolled into larger ones—such as post touches, elbow touches, rebound chances, distance travelled on a fast break—giving a ton of context to everything that happens on the court by making the stat possibilities nearly limitless. If you can find it in the system, you can make it a stat.

SportVU will also be primed with existing data about the players. For example, it will know the heights of each player, their shooting averages from several points on the court and more. Now, stats tracking will be able to go in with existing assumptions built from what it knows of each player’s individual skills.

 
 
The possibilities
As Zach Lowe wrote in an article for Grantland, one of the most interesting aspects of SportVU will allow coaches to look at a play and visualize how it should have been played. Above is a visualization of the Toronto Raptors performing a pick-n-roll. The empty circles following closely behind the players are where the coaches would have wanted them to be. As code is added bit by bit as the season moves forward, soon a lot of these plays can (and likely will) be changed on the fly. Machines will also potentially be able to suggest plays depending on how the other team is performing. However, in the same article, it was mentioned that the system possesses certain flaws that only a coach will be able to pick up on—in this case, how aggressive players are on defence versus how aggressive the system thinks they are.

While nothing will truly replace the human element, the converse can be just as useful in the right situation. SportVU will be able to make tough calls on contact fouls a lot more dependable. However, this means the NBA will also be allowed to analyze the efficacy or legitimacy of certain rules if, say, players consistently aren’t called by refs on something the system picks up.

Regardless of how the real coaches use these stats, SportVU also bodes extremely well for fantasy leaguers. Real time updates, expanded stats, everything that can make a league more fun is there and, soon, readily available. On top of that, it is worth noting that 2K Sports, producers of fine video games such as NBA 2K14, are already a client of Stats LLC. Not only are player character stats being updated in real time astoundingly possible, but certain intangibles can now be added to make virtual players behave that much more like their real life counterparts. Scary.

These are only a few of the possibilities for the new stats the NBA will be culling from SportVU. As with most things, it can only get better with age as more pieces of data are collected, quantified and packaged for us back home and in the stands.

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