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The Associated Press is reporting that ALL NBA arenas will be equipped with SportVU cameras, an insanely intricate motion tracking technology that will provide data at a level that will literally change the game forever. 

I’ve been following this for a couple of years now: An in-arena camera system that can track individual player movements down to the dribble, and transform it into some sort of measurable data. I first wrote about it last July, then updated the post when the Grizzlies hired advanced stats trailblazer John Hollinger away from ESPN to be the team’s VP of Basketball Operations.  Back then, I included this excerpt from another article:

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.

Yeah. It’s gonna be like THAT now.

Last season, when got a chance for a video interview with Hollinger, I asked him about it and how such data could be translated into useful info (skip to 3:54 of this clip; or watch the whole thing, it’s good!):

When I asked Hollinger about it, he basically said that while that info could be useful, it would provide such a tsunami of data — one that would require massive IT resources to sift, sort and organize the data into something useful. I mean, sure you could track how fast LeBron James runs when he’s flying down the court on a break. But will that data actually help you keep him from scoring? Or is it just trivial minutiae?

Well, I have to believe that the NBA wouldn’t be installing these systems without that kind of IT infrastructure in place. And as for the Grizzlies, it appears they were somewhat ahead of the curve in hiring Hollinger — who must already be cracking the code on how to use this new flood of data.

It’s very exciting . . . and yet, a part of my heart sinks.

Let’s be real: Science is part of our everyday lives, even if we don’t know or pay attention to it. Basketball is no exception. Even though we couldn’t chart it before now, there’s a consistent arc to Ray Allen’s shot that can be measured in degrees. As brilliant as an Allen Iverson or Kyrie Irving crossover looks — particularly when ankles are being broken — there are scientific principles in play. Things that those guys can do instinctively such as hesitating, jerking left before driving right . . . well, now we will be able to attach a number to those things. And in theory, it means that statisticians may become as important to team success as players.

I know few people will care about that, and even fewer will even notice. But something about knowing that there may eventually be a scientific formula to winning a game, a series . . . a championship . . . I dunno, it kinda ruins the magic for me. It’s like watching a great illusionist and asking yourself, “How did he DO that?” Sure you’re curious, because what you just witnessed was amazing. But do you REALLY want to know exactly how it was done? Would that not diminish your amazement just a tad?

Then again, statisticians aren’t on the court. And championships aren’t won on spreadsheets and line charts. Knowing Kevin Durant will dribble right twice before pulling up from 5 feet beyond the arc doesn’t mean you can actually stop him from nailing that game-winning three.

The game will always be decided by players — even if their play is enhanced with super-sophisticated technology.


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4 Responses to SportVU: Changing the Game

  1. CarlCRNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the article, Lee. Could it be that it is mainly for the computer game people? Maybe the NBA is going to come out with their on game to compete with those like EA Sports has. To have this digitized data on every player could really enhance the game to be more life-like.

  2. Lee Eric SmithNo Gravatar says:

    Hadn’t thought of it that way, Carl . . . certainly that makes a ton of sense.

    But man! I was looking at some stuff on the SportVU site? It had breakdowns of who drives to the basket the most, along with how many points they score per drive, who needs to drive to the basket more . . . Somewhere, I’m imagining Hollinger telling Joerger that Conley needs to drive 10 times a game to increase the probability of winning.

    Granted, Lionel Hollins could have told Mike that last season, probably did dozens of times. Just seems next level to know that we will be able to attach a number to that this season.

    • soulbreakerNo Gravatar says:

      i think(hope) that info in this way with stats manager will not be the winners or losers of any game, relax that´s never gonna happen. The idea of numbers is learn about the true nature of the game, what player is really good, what player look good but his team can´t win, what players play better together, stuff like that. You can learn about your team your players and what is the best system for them, and what type of coach you need for that. One example of this is Suns pre and with Kerr, Kerr though that the team need defense and rebounding and try with Shaq(??) and with a coach more slow pace(Scott i think), obviously was a disaster wasting the last years of Nash. But for the team that kind info is used in thinks like the Gay trade, not directly in coaching

  3. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    From the ESPN article:

    “And the players aren’t the only ones who will be watched by the eye in the sky. Hellmuth said new executive vice president of basketball operations Rod Thorn will be able to use data on referees to more completely evaluate their performances.”

    So does this mean Joey Crawford will finally be sent to the soup kitchen line? Come on, NBA- do the right thing. 😉

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