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The NBA will use the SportVU camera system to track referee performance

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Three NBA referees conspire to rob your favorite team of a win (Isaac Baldizon/ Getty).

The NBA continues to embrace new technologies, enacting new systems and programs to attempt to collect and analyze the most accurate data regarding player performance. In late August, news broke that the league would pay to install the SportVU tracking system in all 29 NBA arenas. As reported by our Dan Devine in March, SportVU tracks player movement in a manner that allows teams to collect granular data regarding the distance a player travels in a game, spacing, and even how closely an individual hews to ideal movement over the course of a possession. It's a vaguely "1984"-ish version of basketball analysis, or maybe just one version of our potential future.

On Thursday, the NBA officially announced their plans to install the cameras. Yet, as reported by Zach Lowe of Grantland, the NBA may have footed the bill for this system for reasons other than tracking players. They want to take a closer look at referee performance:

Half the league’s teams had already purchased the camera systems at about $100,000 per year. The league's move to pay for the remaining 15 teams caught a lot of folks close to the process by surprise. It won’t tout it, but one reason the league acted fast was to immediately enhance its ability to monitor referees — always a touchy subject. The cameras represent the most precise way to grade the three on-court officials based on how consistently and early they get into the league’s three set positions — called “lead,” “slot,” and “trail” — and whether they make appropriate calls from those positions based on their exact sight lines. This is the next stage in seeing which officials are the best, and thus deserving of high-stakes assignments, and in quantifying that in ways that are hard to dispute.

“We will use whatever data and means we can to improve our referees,” says Steve Hellmuth, the NBA’s executive vice president of operations and technology. “The refs haven’t been tracked before. Now for the first time, they will be.” [...]

The league has long hoarded data on which individual referees make particular foul calls, something you won’t find in the play-by-play and a key piece of information a few teams have paid outside consultants to track. The plan for now appears to be for the league to keep the camera-related referee data to itself, a move that will not please teams.

Although Lowe is correct that team execs and coaches — like, say, regular referee critic Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks — would like to see this data for themselves, it's not terribly surprising that the league office would keep the results private. If the goal of this tracking system is to see how referees make calls, then it's essentially an internal review carried out over the course of many months. It would be nice for fans to see more specific figures on which referees do a good job, but it's also possible that early data would be incomprehensible or incomplete. While fans want to see results eventually, it's possible that the NBA will need time to figure out what this data means. After all, no one was upset that teams kept (and continue to keep) their own SportVU data to themselves.

However, while we typically consider this kind of information in terms of what it tells us about players and referees get wrong, we can also consider how it might influence our sense of how much people can possibly get right, as well. Even the best defenders are responsible for lapses in rotations, just as the best referees fail to get in proper position or make obviously bad calls. If we look at this tracking data on the high end, we can get a sense of which level of efficiency can reasonably be reached. Perfection may be an improper goal.

As new metrics and systems affect basketball, it's important to remember that a measurement is meant to increase understanding of the subject, not just note a particular event. The range of data often tells us more about an individual's performance than anything else.

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