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Ball Don't Lie

Motion-tracking cameras will be installed in all 29 NBA arenas for 2013-14, report says

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey instructs his players (Jim McIsaac/ Getty).

The stats revolution has changed big-time sports forever, replacing much hearsay and assumptions with the sort of cold hard data that ends arguments (or at least concretizes them). While diehard fans have taken to advanced tickets and breaking down available game tape, NBA teams understandably have access to far more data. One of those tools is STATS LCC's SportVU tracking system, which assesses player movement and tabulates a variety of in-depth data.

Previously, SportVU was an opt-in service for NBA teams willing to pay a yearly fee. According to a report from Zach Lowe of Grantland, the league will ensure that the cameras are installed in all 29 NBA arenas for the 2013-14 season:

Exactly half the league's teams used the STATS LLC SportVU cameras last season after a trend-setting half-dozen had them installed for the 2011-12 season — or even earlier. The cameras record every movement on the court — of players, officials, and the ball — several times per second, so that subscribing teams have been able to track the positioning of players in new ways. In a Grantland exclusive in March, the Toronto Raptors showed how they have used the data to (among many other things) build computerized "ghost defenders" that reacted in optimal ways to every offensive action. 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. [...]

The cameras cost about $100,000 per year, and the expense is one reason 15 teams hadn't yet subscribed. Some of those teams were waiting in hopes the NBA would foot the bill, and the league has apparently decided to do so sooner than many of those teams expected. Installing the cameras in all 30 arenas will expand the data to include every game played, providing teams with a more complete and reliable data set. It also raises the possibility of the league using statistical nuggets from the cameras during television broadcasts. A few teams have used in-game data at halftime to show players specific examples of things like rebounds they didn't contest aggressively, or evidence they weren't running as hard as usual. A few more will likely do the same next season.

As Lowe notes, the SportVU system effectively allows teams to track their players' productivity, effort, and tendencies in real time. It's an effective tool for figuring out what's working on the court and which players may fit together best, if also something vaguely reminiscent of George Orwell's "1984."

However, it's an open question as to how well teams can translate this data to changes on the court. In the Raptors piece Lowe links above, coaches and players appear reticent to adopt the vast majority of suggestions gleaned from the SportVU data. It's tempting to say that's because they're basketball old-timers with an outdated manner of approaching the game, but that line of thinking also got them important roles on an NBA team. People can't simply unlearn established patterns because data tells them to, because they likely developed them for very good reasons and saw great success. It's not as if these habits are entirely bad.

So, even if SportVU data has a potentially innumerable number of applications, its short-term impact could be comparatively minor. Human beings are complicated enough that logic cannot always be wielded as a cudgel. This data matters, but it could take a while for players and coaches to transform it into instinct.

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