The National Basketball Association yesterday announced a contract with sports information company Stats to install player-tracking camera systems in every arena beginning next season. (The news confirms previous reporting by Zach Lowe of Grantland.com.) The Stats technology, called SportVU, uses six cameras to capture the positions of every player and the ball 25 times per second. Fifteen teams, half of the league, already had the cameras as of last season. Now, instead of team-by-team contracts, Stats has a multiyear deal with NBA for an undisclosed sum.
Player tracking and motion capture are at the vanguard of the now ubiquitous use of data analytics in sports. With SportVU, the NBA becomes the first major U.S. league to invest in a uniform system. “It’s enormously important because of its accuracy and the depth of the detail of the information,” says Steve Hellmuth, the NBAs vice president in charge of operations and technology. “It’s an essential tool for getting a deeper understanding of the sport.”
Beginning next season, all 30 NBA teams will get complete SportVU data from every game. Stats will provide the raw X-Y coordinate logs as well as reports that integrate the data with play-by-play information. “While the data itself can be very complicated, and there is a lot of power in it,” says Stats Vice President Brian Kopp, “the output could be as simple as looking at a report at halftime to see how many times did a player touch [the ball] in a certain area.” (For a fuller sense of what the tracking data can reveal, read this deep dive from Grantland.com’s Lowe.)
It will take several seasons worth of data and hundreds of hours of tedious analysis before we find out what nuggets can be gleaned from SportVU and how dramatically they influence team strategy, player evaluation, and game broadcasts. Teams will do most of that number-crunching themselves and guard their findings closely. The league, however, is open to sharing the data more widely. “I’m expecting shortly to get a request from some MIT students who are interested in doing some analytics,” Hellmuth says. “In that case it’s a mutual decision between Stats and the NBA to release the data.” While publishing such a large trove online is difficult, the ultimate goal, Hellmuth says, is transparency.
Whatever we eventually learn from SportVU, it will be part of a larger shift in focus away from the outcomes of any given play to the processes behind them. The end of every NBA possession is binary: basket or no basket. Luck plays a large role in which it will be. The flow of player movement which leads to that end, however, is near infinite in its variations and almost entirely within a team’s control. The goal is to uncover, down to the millisecond, which movements correspond with the preferred outcome.