Big Data's Indelible Effect on the NBA, with David Stern

The NBA gathers massive amounts of gameplay information through special cameras installed in its 29 arenas. Over the past several years, teams have learned to glean insight from the data and apply it to on-the-court strategy.

When you serve as leader of an organization for as long as David Stern did, you're bound to encounter massive change in multiple realms. The 30-year NBA commissioner, who last year spoke to Big Think on embracing diversity, appears in today's featured Big Think interview focused on big data's indelible effect on professional basketball:














Stern mentions at the outset how the NBA decided to install SportVU cameras in each of its 29 arenas. These cameras, developed by analytics organization STATS, create in-depth accounts of every play in a game. For example, they can capture player positioning as well as ball location for every dribble, pass, and shot by way of X/Y/Z coordination. This is then translated into hard data which, after a large sample is gathered, can then be analyzed to better evaluate players and temper game strategy. 

Stern mentions that you can sift through all the SportVu data you'd like at the NBA site. This link will take you to Golden State Warriors' guard Steph Curry's advanced stats page. From there you can run through data concerning his passing, rebounds, and shooting. Much of this information was picked up through SportVu and similar devices designed to quantify the action of a basketball game. From there, you can further analyze the data in manners such as the map below, taken from a pair of big games Curry had in 2013:


Now it should be noted that this map represents a small sample of Curry's shots and is in no way a reasonable set of data from which to draw conclusions. But let's say, hypothetically, that we could assume this information would remain consistent over a full season. Aside from it meaning that Curry would be the greatest basketball player ever, we can glean that he does most of his damage from beyond the 3-point line along the center and right of the court. What this data allows for is a way for teams to shift the way they defend against Curry or, on the other side of the ball, for Curry's coach to align the offense in order to make sure that he's able to toss up as many 3-pointers as possible. 

Stern explains in the  interview how ten years ago the league's statistics were primitive in comparison to what they are today. Each franchise's front office now sports a squad of statisticians whose job is to crunch data in order to hone strategy and field a more competitive team. This new focus on analytics represents a major change in the way the game and its players are evaluated by fans and professionals alike. It's very "Moneyball," though larger and much more orange. 

As technology and data continue to improve moving forward, Stern predicts that we'll look back on 2015 as primitive compared to where we'll be in 2025 and beyond. It's the dawn of a new age, he says. Analytics are here to stay.

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