NBA franchises invest vast sums of money in player salary each and every year. Given how costly injuries to key contributors can prove to both on-court success (in terms of wins losses) and off-court bottom lines (in terms of gate receipts and merchandise sales), it stands to reason that organizations would have a vested interest in doing just about anything within their power to protect those investments by keeping players in sound enough working order to remain on the court as much as possible.
The movement toward advanced statistics had led to a seemingly ever-expanding collection of information about what happens on the basketball court, as well as the development of new tools and methods to analyze all that data. That movement has continued in non-Xs-and-Os ways, too, with organizations stepping up their efforts to better understand what's going on inside their players' bodies in the hope of gaining new insight into how fast players get tired, how fatigue impacts their productivity, how coaches could adjust rotations to maximize players' output while potentially decreasing the chances of players suffering injuries that might be tied to fatigue, such as joint and ligament incidents, and so on. Teams can now get at some of that sort of stuff through the SportVU optical tracking system installed in all 29 NBA arenas — and, as of Thursday night, fans can find out stuff like how far a player ran and the average speed at which he moved for each individual game — but the amount of such data teams collect could soon increase exponentially.
Back in August, Kelly Dwyer discussed news that eight NBA teams were experimenting with small devices that players wear on their bodies that measure their physical and physiological exertion levels during practices and workouts to give coaches and training staffs a real-time picture of what the workload is doing to their bodies, and when it might be time to pull back. Now comes the next step: As first reported by Grantland's Zach Lowe, players on four D-League teams will soon begin wearing such devices during games:
Nearly two-dozen NBA teams use the devices, manufactured by three companies, during practices. But no major U.S. professional league has allowed for their regular use during games, the league says. The devices will measure all the time and distance things the SportVU data-tracking cameras are already getting at — player speed, distance traveled, cuts, accelerations and decelerations, and more. It will also track player jumps, something SportVU cameras don’t yet do, the league says.
“As the research-and-development arm of the NBA, the NBA D-League is the perfect place to unveil innovative performance analytic devices in-game,” said NBA D-League president Dan Reed. “The revolutionary data captured gives teams a new opportunity to maximize on-court productivity while optimizing player health and peak player performance — key elements to player development and team success.” [...]
The devices weigh one ounce, and players wear them under their jerseys, using a small disc to attach them. Players can wear them either on their chests or on their backs, between their shoulder blades. Teams will choose among devices from three manufacturers: STAT Sport, Zephyr, and Catapult, an Australia-based company that has become popular in the NBA and several other sports leagues.
Four teams will begin using the devices first. The other 13 D-League teams should have the tech by the end of this season, the league says.
The D-League introduction will serve as something of a trial balloon for potential integration into the NBA down the line, but if and when the tech might come to the big leagues remains an open question.
As Lowe notes, and as has been noted in several past considerations of the biometric technology, gaining access to this sort of treasure trove of physical and physiological information has far-reaching implications, including some that aren't quite so positive as the potential to keep players healthier.
If, as Catapult's Gary McCoy told TrueHoop's Andrew Lynch, the technology provides something akin to "CARFAX for the athlete," then it would stand to reason that franchises would use the information much as car buyers use the analogous reports in the process of deciding whether or not to buy a particular used vehicle and, if so, how much they're willing to spend on it. That, of course, would be a big deal for players and their agents, especially if the result of them could substantially alter the market for players' services and/or the amount of money they'd be able to make in said market. And what if a player doesn't want to wear the device because he believes doing so, and thus sharing all sorts of medical information about him with everyone who has access to the data, would violate his right to privacy? That could constitute a major labor issue, and a potentially contentious collective bargaining session between the league and the National Basketball Players Association, down the line.
Should the two sides be able to come to an agreement about the most fair and equitable use of such biometric information, though, the potential advancement it could provide in injury prediction and prevention, more intentionally designed training programs, and general upgrades in teams' ability to keep players healthy figure to be staggering. As ever, the teams who can fastest and most effectively figure out what to make of all that new information on heart rate, exertion levels and fatigue profiles would have a competitive advantage over those trailing the pack; prior reports indicate that the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks have been working with it for a while, which could give them a head start on the rest of the "nearly two-dozen" teams Lowe says have been experimenting with the beeper-sized biometric trackers during practices. It ought to be fascinating to see what the D-League trials turn up, and whether players and their employers really are on the verge of better living through biochemistry.
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