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The New Age of NBA Analytics

Motion-tracking cameras, designed to analyze player performance like never before, will be installed in all NBA arenas next season. Though the Spurs have already been using the technology for a few years, the announcement may usher in a new era of analytics and how the league as a whole looks at the game.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It's September 2013, or, as it'll soon be known, Month Zero in the Year of the Gorgon: When It All Changed. No, it's not the machines that are taking over -- it's the statisticians. The opinions you once formed for yourself about athlete performance will now be made for you on Excel spreadsheets by faceless analysts hiding behind velvet curtains. Adjust your aluminum hats and hold on tight.

Well, that might be a slight overreaction.

As was reported last week, the NBA will install sophisticated camera systems, provided by the company STATS, in the arenas of all 30 NBA teams next year, which will help front offices analyze player performance in a whole new way.

With this announcement, the NBA becomes the first major American sports league - and the first basketball league in the world - to officially put this technology into practice.

STATS' SportsVU cameras were first used in the 2009 NBA Finals between the Lakers and Magic. The next year, the Spurs were one of five teams (along with the Rockets, Mavs, Thunder and Warriors) who brought the system into their respective arenas.

By last season, 15 teams had subscribed to the technology, each paying $100,000 for the cameras and sophisticated software, and it's believed that the remaining 15 teams were awaiting the league to come along and foot the bill (which it appears they will be now be doing).

The Technology

STATS' SportVU system utilizes six cameras to collect X, Y, and Z data regarding the movements of the ball and each individual player (and official) around 25 times per second throughout the game.

The data is sifted and digested through a complex set of algorithms, which can be further refined by teams seeking to learn more specific things about player performance.

Where are the cameras? This article describes their location in the T-Wolves' Target Center (though their positions may vary slightly from one arena to another):

"You won't spot them, these six cameras barely bigger than the size of two fists. To see them involves a ride in a freight elevator and a walk out onto the precipice of the arena's highest level. You must look down, which is where the cameras' tiny eyes are trained, down onto the court where the players look no bigger than tiny Lego men. It's almost frightening - not only the height but also the scope of what these nondescript cameras can do from so far away."

One interesting aspect of SportsVU is that teams can receive the information in real-time, so how it influences in-game strategy will be something to follow in the coming years.

How the data will be used

Because the system provides so many raw numbers for teams to analyze (roughly one million points of data per game), the way it is analyzed will vary greatly from team to team.

Basically, though, the data will start out in its simplest form (physical and visual stats like dribbles, shots, time of possession, distance run, speed, etc.) and, from there, teams will be able to extrapolate them contextually however they see fit. Some coaches may just look at how much distance their point guard covers in one defensive set, or what frontcourt combinations are most active late in the game, while others may develop entirely new performance metrics.

Of course, the advantage early on will go to which teams use the sophisticated information in the best way, assuming they use it at all. It'll be natural for some coaches to harbor skepticism towards something novel that they're not familiar with (Lionel Hollins, we're looking at you), but it'd be folly for them to ignore the technology's potential. Rick Adelman, who's been coaching in the NBA since 1983, has had his son, assistant coach David Adelman, interpret SportVU's data for him.

In a recent Grantland article, Zach Lowe (who has followed this the development and integration of this technology closely) looked at various ways the data could be used, including everything from monitoring referee performance to how teams negotiate contracts.

I won't go too far into the examples he cites (though it's a must-read if you're at all interested in this), but I will share a clip he used in another article, which shows how the data from a Raptors-Knicks game is scrutinized and then analyzed. The video is of a play that leads to a made Jason Kidd three-point basket, with the bold circles representing the actual Raptors players' positions and the light ones representing their ideal defensive positions.

Really, the possibilities for how the data will be assessed and manipulated seem quite open at this point.

How it might affect the fans

There are all kinds of fans out there. Some couldn't care less about the more analytical side of the game, while others are stats-junkies doing deep dives into minutiae in order to understand the game as much as possible. Through the efforts of the latter, we've seen a range of (relatively) new stats become part of the NBA fan's vernacular, from Usage Rate and Plus/Minus to Player Efficiency Rating and True Shooting %.

Yet, fans (and teams) still lack the contextual analysis needed to tell them exactly what it is players are doing wrong and what they're doing right.

One key component of the agreement is that all the information will be exclusive to the league and its teams right now (while the ref stats will remain exclusive to only the league), which means the fans will be waiting on data being handed out to us like scraps to the family dog after dinner.

We can likely expect for the NBA to make some of the information available, including some stats on games transmitted on NBA TV or through apps, and it'll be interesting to see which metrics broadcasters choose to introduce first.

Obviously, we'll also be able to make our own deductions about why teams make certain decisions. Yet, any "insider info" we receive will be up to the league.

How it might affect the Spurs

As previously mentioned, the Spurs were among the first teams to embrace the technology, and have been using it for the past few years (coincidence or not, the three teams to represent the West in the Finals the past three years have been among the handful that were using the technology).

Before this year's Finals, Brian Kamenetzky wrote this article, which pondered whether SA could utilize SportVU to better their chances against Miami. Did it have anything to do with the space Spurs defenders gave Lebron and Wade? Did it affect Manu's start in Game 5? Knowing Pop, it wouldn't have had any singular affect on his strategy. Yet, knowing Pop, player analytics wouldn't be something he'd ignore, either.

Such analytics will likely continue to be, for the Spurs, one more tool they'll look to refine over time. But like any tool, it'll be just one of the components of the PATFO's decisions, not to be leaned on too much, but not neglected either.

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