The NBA’s Missile Tracking Statistics

The NBA is rocketing to the top of the sports analytics world with technology used to track missiles

For years, the speed and pace of basketball have made it nearly impossible to gather statistics on a player’s performance other than what could be seen with the naked eye. Starting this season, the NBA is upending that rubric with a technology called “SportVu.” Using motion-capture cameras and unique algorithms to track every player’s movement on court, plus the ball, SportVu generates innovative, deep data that reveals nuances in a player’s game previously only guessed at.

The result is sure to revolutionize how the game is played, coached, and appreciated by fans. Various NBA teams have used SportVu in the past four years, but now the league is footing the bill for all 30 clubs to produce a complete data set.

Anything and everything on court can be measured. SportVu can determine, for instance, how often Rajon Rando of the Boston Celtics dishes off a pass that leads to a two-point basket, a three-pointer, or a free throw, establishing a new statistical category called “total points created by assists.” Need to know how to shut down LeBron James? Find out if he scores more often off the dribble or pass when a defender is within five feet, four feet, or three—and then guard him accordingly. The system can even analyze the arc of missed shots versus made, which players can review to help improve their shooting technique.

Almost any stat a coach can think of is at his disposal to sort, dissect, and utilize and put his best blend of talent on the floor.

“This is going to give coaches insights into how [certain] players can potentially play together and how they can improve,” says Steve Hellmuth, Executive Vice President of Technology & Operations at the NBA. “But it’s so new they’re really just at the start of the road.”

The technology itself has its roots in the Middle East where it was used by Israel’s defense forces to track missiles

The setup of SportVu is deceptively simple. Six tiny cameras weighing not much more than a pound each are mounted in the catwalks of the arena with three cameras trained on each side of the court. Every 25th of a second, the cameras snap an image of movement with designated algorithms of X/Y for players and X/Y/Z for the ball. Those images are initially processed with on-site servers and then sent to STATS, the Chicago-based company that owns SportVu. The data is then combined with the play-by-play feed to generate a report within 90 seconds of a play.

The technology itself has its roots in the Middle East where it was used by Israel’s defense forces to track missiles. In 2005, SportVu, then an Israeli company, adapted the technology for soccer. STATS purchased SportVu three years later, and led by Brian Kopp, it developed a system for basketball.

“The hardware is off the shelf—well, you can’t go get it at Best Buy” 

“We started from scratch,” says Kopp. We added more cameras, multiple angles and created one unified stream of data. The hardware is off the shelf—well, you can’t go get it at Best Buy — but we made few alterations. Everything is really in the software.”

Hellmuth views the software, which SportVu calls “ICE,” as the realization of a long-held goal of delivering automated statistics for the league and the web. “I’ve been on this trail since 2003,” Hellmuth says, referring to an earlier NBA tracking system he tried. “From a processing and Moore’s Law perspective, the cost of doing this came down significantly,” he adds. “With STATS, it is entirely the algorithms that interpolate the data and their refinement that bring accuracy and interest to the statistical set.”

Coaches receive the stats as customizable reports similar to what you might see in a box score. So far, Kopp is aware of only a few coaches last season who used SportVu data at halftime, and then typically for trend analysis such as number of times players got the ball in the post, and how many passes were made on each possession. The more in depth stuff comes after the game when STATS can run a data crunch based on a full 48-minute game and in context with aggregated numbers.

 ”It doesn’t have to be overwhelming and geeky”

“There’s a lot of data,” says Kopp. “It doesn’t have to be overwhelming and geeky. It could be unique things people haven’t seen before.”

Hellmuth points to novel uses for the reports. For instance, training staffs will be able to monitor the distance a player runs during a game or practice, as well as his speed and V cuts (acceleration and deceleration), which can indicate fatigue or level of recovery following an injury. General managers might drill down on precise player skills to use for roster building or in contract negotiations similar to a Moneyball approach.

Then there are the zebras. The league’s refs will also be tracked to judge their positioning and consistency in being in the right place at the right time to make the right call.

For a superstar like Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who is celebrated mostly for his offensive talents, the distinctive stats generated by SportVu are sure to add new luster to his rep. Last season, Durant finished 22nd in rebounds per game (7.9). But he was tops in the league in “rebound chances”—grabbing a missed shot whenever the ball was within 3½ feet of his reach. “That’s a crazy interesting stat that confirms Durant is an incredibly effective rebounder,” says Hellmuth. “And it wouldn’t exist without this system.”