Keeping Score

Big Data Takes Big Step Forward In The NBA

Want to know how far, and fast, your favorite NBA player ran during a game? Or whether he actually can grab a rebound when he's near one? A fan-friendly stats site has lots of news answers.

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Noah Graham / NBAE / Getty Images

Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers moves the ball up-court against Steve Nash of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center in Los Angeles, Oct. 29, 2013.

Assists, the key basketball statistic used to measure a player’s passing proficiency, is a fairly flawed measure, if you think about it. You throw a nice pass to a wide-open player, and that player makes an open jump-shot or layup, you get an assist. If he clangs the shot off the rim — not your fault — you don’t. Your value, as measured by assists, is often beyond your control.

Wouldn’t it be beneficial to know how many “assist opportunities” your favorite NBA player created? The ones his teammate converted into baskets, plus the one his teammates botched, plus the ones that led to free throws? Sure, this statistic still relies somewhat on teammates — they have to get open. Or on the aptitude of the defense — if the opponent has signed a non-aggression pact, it’s easier to pass the ball. But a player’s assist opportunities are a far more telling measure of his passing performance.

Barring any last-minute glitches, hoops fans will have access, starting on Friday, to such passing stats, and a whole new set of data delivering new layers of insight into basketball. On NBA.com’s expanded statistics page, fans will be able to see and sort info from STATS LLC’s SportVU Player Tracking system. In all 29 NBA arenas — there are 30 NBA teams, but remember, the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers share the Staples Center — six cameras are installed in catwalks, tracking the movement of every player. A software program ingests all the data and spits out statistics like assist opportunities, the distance each player travels during a game (on Tuesday’s opening night, Blake Griffin ran 2.71 miles, tops among the six teams that played), and a player’s defensive impact (the Orlando Magic made just three of nine shots against Indiana’s 7’2″ center Roy Hibbert while Hibbert was defending the rim).

Rebounds also get a makeover. The total number of rebounds a player compiles often depends on factors outside his control. If the opposing team is shooting badly, for example, you can snatch more bricks off the boards. What’s more relevant: if a player is near the ball, at what rate does he go and grab it? “Rebound Chances” measures the number of times a player is within 3.5 feet of a rebound during a game: from there, SportVU calculates a player’s “rebound percentage,” based on the number of boards he actually grabs.

TIME got a sneak peak at the NBA’s Player Tracking site; it’s informative and easy to navigate. Other subcaterogies include a player’s performance when he drives to the basket, and how effective he is when he just catches the ball and shoots. In Miami’s first game, a 107-95 win over Chicago, Shane Battier, the king of finding himself open as Miami’s star players drive to the basket, shot four-for-four from three point range after catching, squaring, and firing away. A personal, if somewhat random, favorite: the data tells you how fast, on average, players were moving in a game. Congratulations to rookie Tony Snell and veteran Mike Dunleavy, both of the Chicago Bulls: you were the fastest players on Tuesday night, each moving an average of 4.9 miles per hour.

The teams have access to even more minutiae — the NBA plans to slowly run roll out more sophisticated player tracking numbers to fans — and can request custom reports from STATS. While 15 teams had SportVU cameras last season, after STATS signed a deal with the NBA this offseason to equip all 30 teams, the information is now much more robust. “You can almost come up with a way to quantify anything you can dream of,” says David Griffin, vice president of basketball operations for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

While front offices and coaches are taking analytics more seriously in the NBA, don’t expect an end to decision making based on intuition. “Oh Lord, I don’t think so,” says Griffin, when asked if gut-feelings are going out of the game. “Ultimately, empirical evidence answers questions that intuition brings, the ones you know to ask.” Says Brian Kopp, senior vice president of sports solutions at STATS, “The numbers are not meant to replace intuition. Where appropriate, they challenge it. In some cases, they confirm it.”

NBA executive vice president of operations and technology Steve Hellmuth, who spearheaded the SportVU deal from the league side, recalls talking to one coach about his plans to incorporate this new information into his game plans. The coach said some players, in his mind, could handle multiple bits of information better than others. “You have to plant those messages, while keeping the players fluid at the same time,” says Hellmuth. “That’s the art.”

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