Taking Data Analytics to the Hoop
Discover how tracking optical data from the basketball court is changing the game for NBA organizations
The Golden State Warriors got off to a fast start in the 2014–15 National Basketball Association (NBA) season. The team is following up on its 47–35 and 51–31 regular season win-loss records during the previous two seasons, respectively. From their fans’ perspective, the Warriors had compiled a dreadful 28–54 average regular-season record during the four-season stretch from 2008 to 2012.
What sparked the team’s remarkable turnaround? Quite simply, the Warriors enhanced its utilization of information from data that is now available to all NBA teams. Beginning in 2011, the Warriors were among the first of five NBA teams to install STATS SportVU cameras in their home arenas.1 The SportVU system provides optical tracking data that renders a comprehensive view of game performance. It comprises six cameras aimed at the stationary 94-by-50-foot basketball court that deliver x, y, and z coordinate positions for each player on the court. Each camera operates at a rate of 25 frames/second.2
Beginning with the 2013–14 NBA season, STATS LLC and the NBA expanded their partnership in a multiyear agreement to install the STATS SportVU Player Tracking technology in every NBA arena, allowing all 30 NBA teams to use the technology.3 Even James Naismith—a physical scientist, doctor of medicine, and inventor of the game of basketball—could not have envisioned the systematic examination of the activity among the 10 players on the court made possible by the SportVU system. This advanced technology tracks and measures each player’s position, speed, spacing from an opponent, and ball possession, and makes the data available for analysis.
But a team’s management must want to leverage these data sets, and the Warriors have taken a leading-edge role in capitalizing on this player-tracking data. Kirk Lacob, assistant general manager for the Golden State Warriors who also leads the Warriors’ analytics staff, has said publicly that the team wanted to be pioneers because it felt that having the information could enhance its decision-making capabilities.4
Using analytics to shore up the defense
For example, the Warriors had a business problem to tackle in 2013: competitors were making too many three-point shots against the defense. The Warriors teamed up with Silicon Valley start-up MOCAP Analytics, a third-party organization that specializes in bridging the gap between coordinate data and basketball jargon.5 Using player metrics, the analytics team took what it viewed as the root cause of the problem and approached the coaching staff. Despite what Lacob called “an inherent freeze to analytics” on the part of some coaches, he stressed the importance of listening to their needs for the information that results from the analysis.6 To help reduce the success rate of three-point shots from its competition, the team used insight from the data analysis to take corrective action when defending against perimeter shooting.
MOCAP Analytics applies useful, objective, and measured conclusions to insider basketball terms such as force down; midrange/iso, for midrange jump shots and isolation looks; pick and roll; and spot up. It also provides the translation that was necessary when facing the Miami Heat during the 2013–14 season and determining the Warriors’ high-scoring, half-court set against the Heat defense.7 The Warriors also received heat map visualization results from the MOCAP Analytics platform that provided insight on important operational matters, such as point guard Stephen Curry’s ball touches.
The front office of the Warriors organization has embraced optical tracking coordinate analytics, and has applied the results to other personnel matters. For example, customized workout regimens for each player were tweaked based on data from game performance reviews. Some players were determined to have adequate upper-body strength, while other players needed to enhance their flexibility and conditioning. And in applying the information to predictive analysis, the Warriors can use it to start a player trade conversation with another NBA team by showing, through the numbers, how a potential trade may benefit both clubs.
Taking the court with optical data tracking
Presently, the arenas that house the home courts for each NBA team are outfitted with the SportVU tracking system, and all NBA teams have ready access to the high volume of player tracking data drawn from their home-court contests. And the league makes this data available to fans through its NBA.com and NBA TV channels.
The NBA even used the system to track player and team matchup data during the playoffs for the 2013–14 season. For example, SportsVU data showed that going into the playoffs the San Antonio Spurs topped the league in ball movement, a statistic that shows the frequency of passing the ball between offensive players. Prior to the availability of the SportVU system, ball movement was difficult to track. Traditionally, the assist ratio was used, but it was less than accurate for ball movement tracking because assists don’t always reflect how much or how little passing contributes to the assist. Also, recording assists was at the discretion of official game scorers.8
The SportVU system offers a clear, concise picture of ball movement and revealed that the Spurs moved the ball more than 15 times/minute.9 The SportsVU-derived data showing the Spurs’ achievement in ball movement may in part explain the team’s championship victory over the Miami Heat in game six of the 2014 NBA Championship series.
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1 “Hoops 2.0: Inside the NBA’s Data-Driven Revolution,” by Jim Hopkinson, Wired.com, April 2011.
2 STATS website, Technology-Basketball, SportsVU Tracking System.
3 “NBA Expands Partnership with STATS LLC to Unveil Player Tracking Technology for all 30 NBA Teams,” STATS LLC press release, September 2013.
4 “Golden State Warriors at the Forefront of NBA Data Analysis,” by Rusty Simmons, SFGate.com, September 2014.
5, 6 “MOCAP and Golden State Warriors Announce Partnership,” MOCAP Analytics News press release, March 2013.
7 MOCAP Analytics, Teams page for the MOCAP Method.
8, 9 “Measuring Ball and Player Movement,” by John Schuhmann, Seku Smith’s Hang Time Blog, October 2014.