Not long ago, if the Los Angeles Clippers had wanted to figure out how to best defend Golden State Warriors star guard Steph Curry, they might have sent a scout to a game or watched video clips. For their recent first-round playoff matchup, they had another way.
As of this year, every NBA team has access to sophisticated tracking data that can tell them the position of the ball and every player on the court for every second of every game of the season. The data, provided by a system of cameras developed by a company called SportVU and installed in every NBA arena, is starting to revolutionize professional basketball, influencing everything from game strategy and player conditioning to how fans interact with the sport.
"It's a real game changer," said Ben Alamar, a professor of sport management at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., who works as a consultant to the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. "It's allowing us to ask questions that we really couldn't ask before."
The NBA's new camera system is only the latest example of the power and pervasiveness of big data — the collection of large sets of small tidbits of information to explore everything from the farthest stars to individual consumer desires.
SportVU was founded in Israel in 2005 by technicians who had worked on optical missile-tracking systems for the Israeli military. After Stats acquired SportVU in 2008, it redesigned the system to track basketball.
Because the SportVU system tracks players over time, it can determine how fast they move, how often they change direction and how much they run during a game. It can precisely track how well players shoot from particular spots on the court. The system also can help assess individual and team defense, giving insight into how well a particular player guards another or how well a team does when it is defended in a particular way.
Often, the data reinforces what coaches already know, experts say. But it is especially helpful in scouting opponents, allowing coaches to know their rivals as well as their own team.
Warriors executives said they used the SportVU data both during the season and in their just-concluded playoff run, and that it revealed the places on the floor from which their opponents shot well and where they did not. According to data from the NBA's website, Clippers star Blake Griffin takes the vast majority of his shots at or near the basket, where he's an excellent shooter. But he also takes a lot of long two-point shots in the arc around the foul stripe; despite favoring that area, he's a relatively poor shooter there.
The data from SportVU has helped teams determine that the 3-point shot is one of the most efficient ways to score points and has underscored the importance of taking uncontested shots, said Steve Hellmuth, the NBA's director of operations and technology.
Fans can access some of the data generated by SportVU on the NBA's website. They can see diagrams showing how well and how often players shoot from particular spots on the court and can find data on how well certain players shoot when guarded by particular opponents.
For fans, "having this kind of detailed information opens up a wealth of insights into the sport," said Hellmuth.