NBA 2013-14 Season: New SportVU System in Arenas to Improve Player Tracking

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NBA 2013-14 Season: New SportVU System in Arenas to Improve Player Tracking
Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

On Thursday, the NBA announced the expansion of its partnership with STATS LLC, a tech company that produces a top-notch camera system capable of quantifying and recording unprecedented basketball data.

Beginning with the 2013-14 season, STAT's six-camera system, known as SportVU, will be installed in every NBA arena to "calibrate and measure the movements of all players and the ball on the court."

The league's official release describes SportVU as a constant stream of live information "based around speed, distance, player separation, and ball possession for detailed and targeted analysis of players and teams."

Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's executive vice president of operations and technology, told Howard Beck of the New York Times, "This really allows us to analyze our game in a way that’s never been possible before."

Beck explains the technology in further detail, writing,

SportVu, developed by Stats LLC, records data points for all 10 players, the three referees and the ball, every 30th of a second, measuring speed, distance, player separation and ball possession. Every step, every dribble, every pass, every shot, every rebound — really, every movement — will be recorded, coded and categorized.

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The software's seminal use came in the 2009 Finals between the Lakers and the Magic; six teams installed it during the 2010-11 season (Boston, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Golden State, Oklahoma City); and the number jumped to 15 teams this past year.

The partnership with the NBA dates back to 2006 when STATS LLC became the Official Data Distribution Partner for delivering statistics to news and media outlets, teams and broadcast units.

In a recent Grantland article, Zach Lowe explains that the $100,000 price tag had been a preventative issue for many teams implementing the technology. Of course, now the NBA will cover the cost.

The improvement in player tracking carries a few significant implications for next season. First, SportVU provides increased detail in advanced statistics—such as open or contested rebounds and whether or not passes lead to assists.

Commentators should be able to draw more definitive conclusions on a team winning the battle on the boards. The Knicks fan—who won't stop whining about Pablo Prigioni passing up every opportunity to shoot—can view live statistics on the guard's assist generation.

Secondly, SportVU's findings should be echoing throughout the halls of NBA front offices. Though some of the information is already recorded by teams through an arduous process known as "pen and paper," all 30 franchises will have immediate access to any piece of information imaginable. 

As Beck expands on the point, "General managers will surely exploit the more sophisticated statistics when negotiating contracts with player agents. Not all assists, points and rebounds are created equal — and teams will soon be able to demonstrate that vividly."

Coaches will also be able to know after a given game whether or not certain offensive or defensive schemes are efficient. They can analyze how aspects like floor spacing and player movements are created by sets and how they in turn lead to shot opportunities.

STATS CEO, Gary Walrath, told the league, "With SportVU, the new vernacular of the NBA will be speed profiles, offensive play types, defensive matchups and court coverage maps."   

A look at SportVU in action

Lowe believes it is more profound, stating that the data will help teams answer some of basketball's deepest questions, like strategies for defending different pick-and-roll situations or quantifying how many players should crash the boards. 

Toronto, one of the teams that have already used SportVU, offered Lowe an inside look back in March 2013. He says that the technology was able to produce "computerized 'ghost defenders' that reacted in optimal ways to every offensive action," and that, "The team could then overlay camera recordings of actual game play to see how closely Toronto's real players mirrored the actions of their ghosts."

He also writes that "Reports released by STATS include information on how fast players run, how often they dribble, how far they run during games, which players touch the ball at the elbow most often, and which players drive from the perimeter to the basket most often."

Doug Benc/Getty Images

The cameras will also track the referees, analyzing and recording their every call. The data on the referees could be tremendously helpful in selecting who is chosen to don the white-and-black stripes during the highly scrutinized postseason. 

Finally, the expanded use of STAT's software will prove invaluable to medical staff and will allow coaches to track any inch of movement lost or gained by a player once he returns to the court following injury or surgery. Per Beck's report: 

“If a player is coming back from an A.C.L. or a foot injury, a lower body leg injury, what you want to track is their accelerations and decelerations throughout the game, basically how much they are cutting?” said Brian Kopp, the vice president of strategy and development for Stats. “Because that shows you how much pressure and load are they putting on their legs.”

That information can help guide trainers in formulating a player’s postgame and off-day regimen.

“It’s a missing piece to that overall puzzle,” Kopp said.

In the NBA, the importance of the word "transparency" cannot be overstated. Players and coaches beg for more of it, referees need it but fear it and fans applaud it. We learn of injuries within a few minutes of their occurring, we receive vindication after hollering that an official blew a call and we enjoy the up-to-the-minute coverage of collective bargaining.

Needless to say, we were wrong to think there were no stones left unturned in quantifying basketball and improving its transparency.

The NBA becomes the first major professional sports league in the United States to take statistical quantification, recording and analysis to this level.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The decision to implement SportVU is groundbreaking. Its use could be an extremely positive turning point to further the league's prowess. It is an international brand, it is a social media power and it now makes an unprecedented technological move.

It will also be interesting to see if its success will inspire other leagues to make a similar move.

The most popular quote this upcoming season could be, "Analyze this." 

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