>+thunder%29″ rel=”nofollow” title=”Read more on Oklahoman”>“The world of player tracking for me is the ultimate stat system,” said Steve Hellmuth, executive vice president of operations and technology for the NBA, in an interview outside Chesapeake Arena during Game 2 of the NBA Finals. “It enters the NBA into the world of big data.”
These are the kinds of detailed NBA statistics that people may soon see and analyze as more teams start using the company STATS’ advanced tracking system known as SportVu, a system developed in Israel using technology originally for tracking missiles.
In one game against the Boston Celtics in February, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook dribbled the ball 645 times. In another game in March, Kevin Durant ran 3.34 miles during a double overtime game against the Timberwolves.
Their system captures the X/Y coordinates of all the players and refs–along with the X/Y/Z (3-D) coordinates of the ball–25 times every second (or 72,000 times a game). Algorithms take into account all sorts of variables to keep the system accurate, from the lines on the court to the reflections of flashing billboards. Another layer of software at a central server puts this raw data together into something meaningful. Information as specific as player ball touches and dribbles can be calculated within 60 seconds of being spotted by SportVU cams. Stats can generate these values in simple, automated reports. And then there’s a third layer of what’s going on: a layer of deep connections. NBA staffs have access to all their own raw data (think huge spreadsheets), and in an information sharing agreement, they have access to everyone else’s raw data, too. That means every team can mine all of the information collected in 10 courts worth of home games across the NBA. This layer is where the teams get very quiet about what’s really going on. Because if sports are about getting an edge, no one wants to broadcast any edge they’ve discovered.
You could call SportVU the new Moneyball, but that would probably sell SportVU short. “What’s interesting about the Moneyball analogy is that they were using data everybody else had and putting a new twist on it,” says Brian Kopp, a vice president at Stats, the company that owns SportVU. “We’re doing that, but also entering into the equation data no one had before. It’s almost Moneyball Plus.” Stats pretty much owns the IP on player stats across sports. Whether it’s the NBA or the NFL that you’re reading about on ESPN or CBS, all those player metrics are being provided by Stats (which is oddly enough, half owned by News Corp and AP). And what they don’t track themselves, they license exclusively from the pro sports themselves.
The technology was originally developed to track missiles. 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.
That’s exactly what Golden State hopes to do. Just a few hours before Schlenk took me high above the Oracle Arena court, he’d been in contact with a Southern California data-mining company that he believes could make good use of the team’s raw data. “We want to make sure we’re giving coaches something that’s useful. We don’t want to give them something that’s going to waste their time,” Schlenk says. “All due respect, if you give them a sheet of paper that tells them how far a guy ran, is that really going to help them prepare? No. But by next year, and certainly once this season ends, we’ll have a chance to dig into those numbers. And if we join up with this company, hopefully we’ll be able to find something and say, ‘This is important.’”
Time to fess up: It’s not really about the cameras. You might think that a slick cross-continent video-delivery and data-analysis pipeline would depend much on the quality of the cameras it’s using, but Stats brass doesn’t think that. In fact, they won’t disclose the make and model of the cameras they use. For them, it’s all about the data. “The power of our system is in the software, not the hardware,” Kopp says. Indeed, it’s this custom software, anchored by SportVU’s proprietary algorithms, that parses the data being collected 25 times a second from each equipped arena. The software even deciphers and identifies every dribble and pass, based solely on optical movement of the ball and its relative distance to the players. “Once we have the data ingested and processed, then we have a number of queries and programs we’ve written to generate those reports and those CSV files,” Kopp says. “We’ve made it so that process is fairly automatic.”
Just one problem: Kopp had to convince NBA teams that it’s a program worth joining. Without team participation, there’d be no data to collect and the effort would be fruitless. And besides, teams have had access to play-by-play data for decades: simple, textual rundowns that efficiently map how a game played out. A brief scan of a one-page printout as you’re running into the locker room at halftime, and a knowledgeable coach can determine intermediate-level metrics like assist-to-field-goal ratio and turnovers-per-minute on the fly. “You don’t want to come in and say, ‘Look at all this cool technology. Look at all this data it can spit out,’” Kopp says. “People think that’s cool, but teams had one of two reactions. One is, ‘That’s great, but I don’t understand what it means.’ The other was, ‘What am I going to do with that?’” Kopp set out to approach those teams he felt would be most receptive to new technology: “It’s not like we offered this to all 30 teams.” Those charter members — guinea pigs? — were the Houston Rockets, billionaire Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks, the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Travis Schlenk, the team’s director of player personnel and resident stats geek, has already been up here three times this season, so you’d think this would be no big deal for him, but his sweaty palms are grasping the railing the same as mine. He’s right, though. About six feet down, affixed to one of the giant concrete beams supporting the Oracle Arena ceiling, is a nondescript yet professional-looking videocam staring down at the eastern half of the court. There are five more of these cameras strategically placed within Oracle Arena, and while a sellout crowd of 19,596 watched the hometown team destroy the playoff-bound Portland Trail Blazers by 24 points that evening, these eyes in the sky were streaming high-quality video to servers in the Midwest. The system is called SportVU, named for the Israeli startup that developed the tech. Stats, the Chicago-based data-crunching outfit in charge of this whole operation, is hoping a six-team pilot program conducted this season will usher in a new era of advanced basketball analytics.