Bigger than LeBron: How SportVU Will Change Basketball


Image via Sport Techie

Image via Sport Techie

You’ve probably been sleeping on one of the biggest prospect in basketball history. But instead of a 17-year old out of Akron, the next big thing is a set of cameras and software. Developed by Chicago-based STATS, LLC, just six cameras placed strategically around a basketball court are promising to change the way basketball is played.


The technology is called SportVU (pronounced sportview), but in the NBA you might hear it referred to simply as “player tracking.” The Israeli founders intended the technology to be used on the battlefield for the IDF. Soon SportVU was brought in as a way to track soccer matches. Because of the multiplicity of leagues, clubs, and tournaments where international soccer is played, however, it was difficult to get universally adopted. Thereby, data for soccer become incomplete; incomplete data, in turn, isn’t all the useful. And the cameras were rarely installed on the stadium, meaning motion-capturing cameras would need to be precisely set up to capture the action and translate it into data.

Not that it was entirely a waste. You can still check out some of the neat data gathered in USA World Cup play in STATS, LLC VP Brian Kopp’s interview with NPR (for instance: two of the top three distance runners were on Team USA), and the lessons of soccer are helping in developing tools for translating the service for American football.

The more advanced SportVU stats are often reserved for NBA teams or notable publications, like Grantland

The more advanced SportVU stats are often reserved for NBA teams or notable publications, like Grantland

When STATS, LLC acquired the SportVU technology in 2008, they changed course and began pitching the material to individual NBA teams, where it was picked up by stat-enthusiastic front offices like Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Boston. After a short trial run with these and a few other NBA teams (15 by the end of the 2013 season), it was installed in all NBA stadiums for the 2013-2014 season. So unlike soccer, even when a team is playing away, you can still track a player’s performance precisely.

And boy can you track that player’s performance. Basketball has always been behind baseball in the world of advanced sports statistics—the MLB’s pitchf/x, for example, is a significant precursor in the field. While basketball’s “true shooting percentage” is a useful and growing metric, it’s still not getting the attention or ESPN airtime like baseball’s shift to “on-base plus slugging” (OPS).

SportVU, however, does a pretty good job measuring any and all stats imaginable, creating a data set 25 times a second. For instance, below is a video of action in a Knicks-Raptors game translated by SportVU software.

Notice, for one, that all player movement is pretty precisely tracked, even the stutters. Secondly, note the lines between players and their defenders, allowing for more precise defensive tracking (like, say, how well Kyle Lowry might deny passes to Raymond Felton). Thirdly, note when the offensive players light up. After picks they’re turning green and with the final Jason Kidd 3pt catch-and-shoot, you have him turn orange. So then you have even more information on shooting and offensive movement. This one play alone could be compiled into a season-long data set of how effective:

  1. Carmelo is at setting up open targets,
  2. Tyson Chandler’s picks are at creating space,
  3. Kidd is on the 3pt catch-and-shoot,
  4. Raymond Felton is on the drive, and
  5. DeMar DeRozan is at denying passes after a pick and roll.

Wow. (Carmelo, by the way, has one of the highest field goal percentages after pass. Despite his reputation as a bad passer, his passes—whenever they do happen—convert into buckets.)

The craziest thing in the sample video, provided to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, are the blank circles of defenders around the court. These “ghost players” represent what the computer guesses, based on over 140,000 plays by Toronto alone, would be the ideal defensive movement of the players. This simulation is created in conjunction with the Toronto coaching staff, so it is by no means objective. Nevertheless, it reveals just how much more aggressive the Toronto players should have been around the court. If, in turn, being too aggressive causes players to cover more ground and fatigue quicker—brilliantly—the system is going to take note of that too.

The data is growing. The NBA is making some of the processed data available on the (unfortunately) difficult to navigate stats.nba.com. Most importantly, though, the SportsVU guys are working on ways better translate all the data into sense. As Kopp says in an interview with Complex, “the goal is to become part of the language of basketball,” to bring to basketball the same sea change we’ve seen in baseball over the past decade and a half.

Take for instance Rim Protection, a stat available to view on stats.nba.com. It measures the opponents FG% (a simple shots made/shots taken) when going towards the rim (a little trickier) while a defender is within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the defender. The NBA wrote about it for a blog post on the value of Roy Hibbert on the court: he at that time led the NBA in Opponent FG% at the Rim, aka Rim Protection. However, as Kopp says, “you shouldn’t have to explain [the stat] for 30 seconds. It should be something that when you say it or explain it briefly that people get it.” He wants to change the lexicon. The benefit, in turn, comes for players like the Bulls’ Joakim Noah, who barely gets 1 block a game (compared to Hibbert’s 3). This would theoretically put him out of contention for the Defensive Player of the Year award he would end up winning. But when he was on court, opponents were getting far less attempts at the rim, and he was in the top five at holding opponents to a low FG% when they did make it through the paint.

The company is also at work on new stats, like an algorithm to measure who is most effective in whichever man-to-man matchup (e.g. is Kawaii Leonard really the LeBron kryptonite we all thought, and if so, how?). And hypothetically, STATS could refine the analysis to see when it’s best to Kyle Lowry to jump the pass, like in the motion capture below, or when it’s best to play conservatively.


What does SportVU mean for basketball? Firstly, the game would be better off by talking about rebounding percentage over just rebounds, uncontested and contested FG% over just FG%, and especially assist opportunity percentage and points per assist over just assists. That would necessitate a culture shift that was slow to come to baseball (it took almost twenty years from Bill James publishing his first writings on advanced statistics until you have the first GM embodiment of sabermetrics in Billy Beane) and surely the same situation will play out with basketball. Yet the technology is almost impossible to ignore in the short term. Coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs front office pulled in another NBA championship relying on these stats to find talent and form offenses. The Washington Post and B Sports both have found the use of advanced statistics useful in analyzing and explaining the success of the Spurs against the Heat this past NBA Finals. Winning is going to get harder, and the team execution will be getting more precise.

Additionally, SportVU has the potential to change how the NBA tracks injuries. The effects on player performance and salaries is obvious of course—we can see who is playing well and how many wins that translates to. Injuries have always been a trickier matter. Through a long and often injury-plagued season, it is tough to tell when a player is tiring out in a game or in a season. With SportVU measuring player speed at intervals throughout the game.

Look at the perennially side-lined Derek Rose. In his games back from leg injuries, the SportVU system will be able to tell not only how soon he slows do, but also how quickly he cuts, how aggressive he is on driving, and ability to get out on a sprint. That could change how players are managed throughout there careers, even, and possibly extend the longevity of a star player by years.

Only data could have predicted the Nets would be a success last year.

Only data could have guessed the Nets would mesh last year.

To say SportVU is unprecedented would be an overstatement—programs have sought to analyze player movement and performance for teams before—but to say that it will change the NBA seems conservative right now. LeBron changes the way teams play basketball, yes. You have to watch for him, protect the paint, and double cover when necessary. SportsVU, on the other hand, is reshaping how we, from front office to street court, think about basketball altogether.

Every advancement works to turn basketball from a sport to a science, and all signs indicate this will lead to more effective and exciting play for the fans—and possibly a better experience for players. And while too much data is burdensome, the efforts to sort through it may very well define the winning teams in the near future.


Attribution

How SportVU Came to be the NBA Analytics Game Changer,” Bryan Douglass, Sport Techie.
The Man Behind the NBA’s Revolutionary Player Tracking Technology Reveals What Really Matters In The NBA Finals,” Maurice Peebles, Complex.
The SportVU Follow-up: Answering the Most Common Questions and More Ghost Raptors,” Zach Lowe, Grantland.


  • Bryan Douglass

    Nicely done, Tony. Insightful and entertaining read.

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