HoopsHype Statistics rumors

October 7, 2014 Updates

So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Silicon Valley is transforming how teams scrutinize, optimize and fundamentally think about their players -- or that Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California, contends that the NBA is leading society into the biometric revolution. "We've been inundated with all these companies coming up with different things to look at and test," says Gregg Farnam, longtime Timberwolves trainer and the chairman of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association. "It's the explosion of data and data collection." ESPN.com

But what might come as a surprise is how significant that explosion has been, and how far its blast radius might soon reach. The literary specter haunting sports' burgeoning Information Age is no longer Michael Lewis and Moneyball but George Orwell and 1984. The boom officially began during work hours. Before last season, all 30 arenas installed sets of six military-grade cameras, built by a firm called SportVU, to record the x- and y-coordinates of every person on the court at a rate of 25 times a second -- a technology originally developed for missile defense in Israel. This past spring, SportVU partnered with Catapult, an Australian company that produces wearable GPS trackers that can gauge fatigue levels during physical activity. Catapult counts a baker's dozen of NBA clients, including the exhaustion-conscious Spurs, and claims Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as both a customer and investor. To front offices, the upside of such devices is rather obvious: Players, like Formula One cars, are luxury machines that perform best if vigilantly monitored, regulated and rested. ESPN.com

"We need to be able to have impact on these players in their private time," says Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro. "It doesn't have to be us vs. you. It can be a partnership." A lovely sentiment, at least in theory. But how long will it be until biometric details impact contract negotiations? How long until graphs of off-court behavior are leaked to other teams or the press? How long until employment hinges on embracing technology that some find invasive? "Employers dictating the health care of their employees is a conflict of interest that cannot be overcome," says Alan C. Milstein, a leading bioethics attorney and sports litigator who often represents NBA players. "I just refuse to believe that the purpose of monitoring on any long-term basis is the health of the employee. If the purpose is to predict performance, that's not a health care purpose. That's an economic purpose." ESPN.com

Andre Iguodala'S TV used to cackle into the early morning, the laugh track of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air echoing in the semidarkness of his master bedroom. For years, this was the All-Star swingman's post-midnight routine: watch reruns around 2 a.m.; pass out around 4; wake up around 8; drag self to gym; repeat. Iguodala traces the insomnia back to the University of Arizona, where he'd toss and turn over his pro future. But it was only last season, with his 30th birthday staring him in the face, that the newly hired Warrior surrendered his problem to an employer. "I told them that I needed to see a sleep therapist ASAP," Iguodala says. "And it's funny: Keke told me he'd been thinking about the same thing." Keke Lyles, Golden State's director of athletic performance, had already been researching what amounts to an open secret about NBA slumber: Players sleep as lightly as undergrads during finals week but nap harder than Spanish plutocrats. Iguodala's typical game-day siestas, for example, ran three to four hours. "Even if they've been out all night," says Grizzlies trainer Drew Graham, "most of them take naps and think that's enough. They see the other guys do it." ESPN.com

Such is the line, precarious as it is, that NBA teams are pledging to walk. And such is the line that players, whose union will have biometrics on its list of priorities during collective-bargaining-agreement talks in 2017, might ultimately refuse. But to hear the proponents of this revolution tell it, they're not so much sprinting toward Orwell as they are grinding their way to incremental improvements. "That's what the reality is," Lyles says. "We want to fine-tune things. If we do minor, little tweaks here and there, maybe a guy doesn't pull his hamstring." Or maybe, at the end of the fourth quarter, a foul defending a game-winning shot instead becomes a block. That much optimization, the upside of so much technocracy, is the carrot currently incentivizing the 30-year-old Iguodala as he staves off departure from the game he dearly loves. In the meantime? "I just hope we don't become robots," Iguodala says, "where they're feeding us the same thing, every day, and then it's time to flip the switch and go to sleep." ESPN.com

But with a big enough cache of data? A training staff could generate algorithmically individualized prescriptions for rest and movement. It could act pre-emptively, based on probability on top of past results. "The more we can objectify what guys are doing," Lyles says, "the more accurately we can make recommendations or change what we do." Change what they do -- as in benching a starter before he suffers a projected injury. Or trading him away for that same reason. Or cutting a backup because of a suspiciously consistent spike in fatigue level after 2 in the morning on road trips. In which case each player should answer a question that everyone, regardless of occupation, might soon consider for themselves: Would you be better served, economically, by your employer's knowing more or less? "They'll bring guys in and work them out and be able to see if they're at a bigger risk to hurt their knee or whatever," says Mavericks forward Brandan Wright. So when it comes to contract negotiations? "Honestly, I think it'll hurt guys," Wright continues. "I think that's where it's headed." ESPN.com

When asked by ESPN to elaborate on blood analysis, Cuban declined further comment. But interviews with several Dallas players indicate that the team's expanded testing policy is neither obvious nor rosterwide. Guard Devin Harris recalls giving blood only in the preseason as part of the standard team physical; perhaps by design, other plasma-related details remain vague. "I don't know what they do with it once they have it, but they definitely take it," Harris says. "And I know they talked about taking blood throughout the season for certain stuff." ESPN.com

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