After falling to the eventual NBA champs during the Eastern finals, the Toronto Raptors are hungry for a championship title. Thursday’s draft will be crucial in crafting a winning lineup, and when it comes to deciding who makes the team, the Raptors will be able to consult their newest recruit: IBM’s Watson. The partnership dates back to February, when the Raptors’ parent company Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment announced they were partnering with IBM, making the Raptors the first NBA team to use the Watson supercomputer to analyze players. “Watson doesn’t answer questions of who the best trade pick would be—rather it compares them on different dimensions,” explained Jon Lenchner, the scientist who led the IBM Sports Insights Central project.
For example, if the Raptors were measuring college basketball prospects, Watson could quickly crunch the numbers and display a comparison of their stats on shooting, assists, and rebounds. Compare that to drafts of past years, in which the Raptors would use whiteboards with player stats printed on magnets, and call up statisticians each time they wanted new information, recalled Lenchner, who visited the Raptors’ headquarters while IBM was developing the software. In the days before Watson, the whole process was much more laborious and time consuming.
The Sacramento Kings are set to open a new $507 million stadium in October. Inside you’ll find screens that are nearly as long as the court itself (84 feet) as well as high-capacity Wi-Fi systems intended to provide blazing fast internet for all in attendance. In addition to tweeting, snapping and providing the occasional status update, the Wi-Fi will provide fans with something new entirely: virtual reality replays of all the action. Now, no matter where you’re sitting, you can don a VR headset and view 360-degree replays of the action as if you were sitting courtside, according to Paul Jacobs, vice chairman and co-owner of the team. Jacobs is also the executive chairman of mobile chipmaker Qualcom, and he wants to provide an up-close experience that’s unlike anything many of us have ever seen.
The Sacramento Kings, led by owner and former tech executive Vivek Ranadive, are certainly one of the most tech-savvy franchises in sports, from accepting Bitcoin to partnerships with Uber to the drones at the Golden 1 Center construction site — so it’s no surprise that the team plans on utilizing chatbots to improve engagement with fans.
Few NBA teams have turned technology to their advantage quite like the Warriors. “You can play on the probabilities or just stand pat,” says Kirk Lacob, an assistant general manager who oversees the team’s analytics staff and is the son of co-owner Joe Lacob. “We choose to take the risks.”
But as the team learned to use the data, its winning percentages started to climb. They won 57 percent of their games in 2013, and 62 percent the following season. In 2015, the Warriors won 82 percent of their regular season games (compared with an eyebrow-raising 89 percent in the season just ended), before going on to stun competitors, fans and the league during the playoffs. “They took a strategic gamble that took a while to matriculate, and it is paying off,” says Dean Oliver, who literally wrote the book on basketball analytics. (His book is titled “Basketball on Paper: Rules and Tools for Performance Analysis.”)
It’s easy to focus on an athlete’s physical condition, but professional sports teams know the brain is just as important. That’s why the Warriors also fit players with electrodes attached to the face and hands. Made by Omegawave of Finland, the electrodes measure the electrical activities of each athlete’s brain. That data is crucial for determining both mental and physical fatigue, something the players themselves have trouble recognizing. “You may come to the gym one day and want to say, ‘I’m sore, I really don’t feel like working out,'” says Warriors forward Harrison Barnes. “This will tell you how [you’re] feeling because the data says it all right here.”