http://www.nba.com/2013/news/features/d ... index.html
...The potential is obvious, as it was when the league started testing out SportVU at the 2009 Finals between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers.
"It was very interesting," said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's vice president of operations and technology for NBA Entertainment, and the driving force behind the league's involvement with SportVU.
During those '09 Finals, "there was a call made on goaltending," Hellmuth said. "And we weren't able to crunch it. We saw this goaltending call and we thought it was a tight call, but a good call. Later that evening, at like 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, we were actually able to see the track of the ball and see that it was descending -- at two-twenty fifths of a second. And that referee had made the call, and it was the right one ... for all of us, it was kind of an 'a-ha' moment, that we were able to confirm it."
SportVU was born out of the Israeli military in 2005 by scientist Miky Tamir, who was working for Elbit Systems, a defense electronics company that provides products and develops systems in a variety of military applications. The product that eventually became SportVU initially was designed to track the trajectory of missles after launch, to see if the missles went where they were supposed to after they were fired.
Fortunately (or, unfortunately, depending on how big a geek you are), there were people working at SportVU who were avid soccer fans.
"A couple of them were getting out of the military and they were big soccer players, and they were like, what are we gonna do? We think we could use this to track soccer players,'" said Brian Kopp, vice president at STATS, which bought SportVU in 2008. "I had joined a couple of months before and they were like, 'we have this thing for soccer; see if we can figure out how to use it for other sports.' And five years later, here we are.'"
With soccer's long and open fields, with the resulting ability to focus on players operating in space, a system like SportVU was ideal not only to track the players' statistics, but also how much and how long they ran in a game. Tracking that data could allow a team to see how a player performed as the game went on. Did he get tired after running the equivalent of three miles during the game? Did he maintain his speed in the second half? The possibility for new, advanced stats were endless.
STATS began installing SportVU at UEFA Champions League matches in 2008. Soon after, Kopp brought Hellmuth to a match and made his pitch. "We were saying, 'can you imagine this in basketball?,' " Kopp said.
"I never stopped looking at systems that could accurately track players and the ball and produce a really clear, good data set," Hellmuth said. "STATS had a track record of producing stats for players and the ball, and they had an analytic tool called ICE (a proprietary data integration system) which gives you all of the basics of the platform. That track record of success led us to believe that this is the best system out there ... it's for the basketball operations people at each team, it's for the team operations crew, and on NBA.com, it's for the fans, too. It was the triple play for us."
The usual suspects, teams comfortable with poring over advanced analytics -- like Boston, San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Dallas, among others -- had already been using SportVU. Toronto developed "ghost" technology (Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote about this last March) that would show where players actually were on a given play, with the "ghost" overlapping and showing where they should have been.
Toronto was all in on SportVU. Their analytics people met with Harvard University professors who were crunching the data into more manageable bites.
"Two years ago, I was in Detroit presenting to the Pistons and [general manager] Joe Dumars," Kopp said. "I was showing him some of the dribble stuff. He was saying, about one of his guards -- I think it was Will Bynum -- he said 'I'm always telling him he's dribbling too much. Now I can show him the data.' Some of the teams have said the best part is not just the coach telling him, but being able to show him. Now I can show it to them with actual facts."
The data is tracked within two or three seconds of capture. The spotters get their feed about a second later if they need to make any changes to the identification marks by the software. Sometimes, in scrums where several players are clustered, even though the player's heads remain visible, the system can temporarily lose track of who's who. (The cameras have zoom-in features that also help in such cases).
Within 90 seconds, the raw tracking data is sent back to STATS, which applies advanced algorhythms to the data to determine whether an action seen by the camera was a dribble, pass, touch, etc. That data is then linked to the play-by-play of each game to make sure everything matches.
"Once they're combined, we can populate in-game reports -- how many passes, how many touches," Kopp said. "We have the ICE application available on an iPad, or computer. Teams can have access during the game. The 60 to 90 second (time frame) is the delay before delivering the data to a user -- the team, or the arena if it wants to display it."
The next morning, STATS runs even more complicated algorhythms on the data of all the games leaguewide. The entire data file of every game is delivered to every team in the league by 7 a.m. the following morning. You can see the non-proprietary numbers yourself on NBA.com on the Player Tracking link.
There is already a scouting application available through STATS that will allow NBA teams to begin collecting the new data on players in college, and be able to transfer those numbers once they're in the league.