A fantastic article today on some really impressive technology that is being used in the NBA by a number of teams. And it looks like it could fit for NHL use very soon. Not for everyone, but I thought a few people here might find it interesting.
New technology and statistics will change the way we understand basketball, even if they also create friction between coaches and front-office personnel trying to integrate new concepts into on-court play. The most important innovation in the NBA in recent years is a camera-tracking system, known as SportVU, that records every movement on the floor and spits it back at its front-office keepers as a byzantine series of geometric coordinates. Fifteen NBA teams have purchased the cameras, which cost about $100,000 per year, from STATS LLC; turning those X-Y coordinates into useful data is the main challenge those teams face.1
Some teams are just starting with the cameras, while others that bought them right away are far ahead and asking very interesting questions. Those 15 teams have been very secretive in revealing how they've used the data, but one team that has made serious progress — the Toronto Raptors — opened up the black box in a series of meetings this month with Grantland.
The future of the NBA, at least in one place, looks like this:That's Jason Kidd hitting a 3-pointer off a Carmelo Anthony pick-and-roll in the first quarter of Toronto's February 22 home win over the Knicks; the Knicks are in blue, passing the little yellow ball around, and the Toronto players are colored white. It looks simple, but the process of getting there took a bunch of people, including three Toronto front-office employees, more than a half-decade of work. In simple terms: The Raptors' analytics team wrote insanely complex code that turned all those X-Y coordinates from every second of every recorded game into playable video files. The code can recognize everything — when a pick-and-roll occurred, where it occurred, whether the pick actually hit a defender, and the position of all 10 players on the floor as the play unfolded. The team also factored in the individual skill set of every NBA player, so the program understands that Chris Paul is much more dangerous from midrange than Rajon Rondo, and that Roy Hibbert is taller than Al Horford.2
That last bit — the ability to recognize individual player skills — is crucial for the juiciest bit of what the Raptors have accomplished: those clear circles that sort of follow the Toronto players around and have the same jersey numbers. Those are ghost players, and they are doing what Toronto's coaching staff and analytics team believe the players should have done on this play — and on every other Toronto play the cameras have recorded.3 The system has factored in Toronto's actual scheme and the expected point value of every possession as play evolves.4 The team could use that expected value system to build an "ideal" NBA defense irrespective of the Toronto scheme, but doing so today would be pointless, since part of the team's job is to sell a sometimes skeptical coaching staff on the value of all these new numbers and computer programs, says Alex Rucker, the Raptors' director of analytics.
"You need that coaching perspective," Rucker says. "But we are still looking for where the rules are wrong — areas where there are systemic things that are wrong with what we do on the court. But any system needs to comply with what the coaches want, and what the players can do."
Thanks in part to the large amount of overlap with NBA and NHL buildings in the same city, the Toronto situation may change soon
if SportVU gets into the hockey world as Kopp expects.
"We were hoping to start this year, but because of the lockout we didn't. We did some initial testing, and the players themselves aren't very hard to track. There's a lot you can do with player
movement and positioning, and I know hockey is at least opening their eyes to analytics," Kopp said. "I know there's been this thought, 'Well how can you analyze it when it's so fluid?'
"But if you can actually measure the fluidity, then you're getting somewhere. Of all the sports that are going to be next, I think hockey would be up there."