There was a bit of predictable, snarky chuckling about this piece on the ESPN.com’s TrueHoop blog Wednesday that imagined an NBA in 2022 in which teams could track, in real-time, all sorts of things about a player’s physical state — various chemical levels, changes in vertical leap, decreases in running speed, etc.
We’re a ways off from the reality described in that piece, but the league is headed in that direction, and one the driving forces is a state-of-the-art in-arena camera system developed by STATS LLC. A half-dozen teams purchased and installed the system last season, and 10 are using it this season; the league over the All-Star break made noises about adopting it someday for all 30 teams. (The 10 teams, by the way: Houston, San Antonio, Boston, Minnesota, Milwaukee, New York, Washington, Toronto, Oklahoma City and Golden State.)
We’re only scratching the surface of what this thing can do, because it tracks every movement on the court to a very precise level. It can tell you how fast a player was moving on a certain possession, how far a player runs during a game, how much Jose Calderon’s shooting percentage declines when a defender is within X feet of him upon release, how high in the air the ball was when Kevin Love rebounded it, whether Kevin Durant shoots better after taking one dribble or four, which player’s passes are more likely to lead to open shots, and lots more. The system, once refined even more, will produce so much data that the real challenge will be sorting it in useful ways.
The folks at STATS have been kind enough to send along a few examples of the kinds of data they can shake out of the system, though of course the data they’ll send to media will not be the kind of thing the savvy clubs using the cameras would ever want to share. Still, it’s interesting.
For instance: Want to know the answer to the age-old debate over who the fastest point guard in the league really is? Well, STATS can’t answer that definitely yet, since only 10 of the league’s 30 arenas have the cameras installed. But those 10 arenas feature some pretty quick point guards — Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Jennings and the quicker-than-you-think Calderon. (John Wall, for some reason, was left out of this report).
But none can touch Parker in an open sprint, at least not so far this season. Parker has reached a high speed of 20.9 miles per hour in one stretch of in-game sprinting, easily the highest speed any of these guys have registered. Rubio is next, at 19.4 miles per hour, and the rest of the crew falls into the 17 range. Chicago has not invested in the STATS system, so we only have a few games worth of data on Derrick Rose; he reached a peak speed of 17.0 miles in San Antonio last month.
What’s really interesting is how similar their other speed and possession-related numbers are. All the above-mentioned guards tend to hold the ball for about seven minutes each game, per STATs. They each tend to run the equivalent of between 2.0 and 2.5 miles per game, though Rondo ran a ridiculous 3.2 miles during Boston’s overtime win Sunday against the Knicks. They all average around between 78 and 88 touches per game.
One difference: Rondo and Lowry dribble a bit less than the other four. Rondo averages 4.4 dribbles per touch. Lowry averages 4.6, while the other four mentioned above all bounce the ball between five and six times per touch on average.
The STATS crew sent out a separate report tracking whose passes typically lead to baskets or high-percentage shots. The report found Paul Pierce to be the most “productive” passer on whom the system has more than a minimal amount of data. In the 21 games in which Boston has played in a camera-equipped arena, Pierce has thrown 705 passes. The players who received those 705 passes attempted a shot 241 times and hit 137 baskets — good for 57 percent, the highest conversation percentage of any passer the STATS folks have measured this season. Pierce was credited for assists on 110 of those 137 baskets.
Interesting note: Three of the top 10 passers by this measure — teammate field-goal percentage on shot attempts taken after one of their passes — play for San Antonio: Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and DeJuan Blair. The Spurs rank only 12th overall in assist rate, or the percentage of a team’s baskets that result directly from credited assists, per Hoopdata. The appearance of these three San Antonio players on the STATS list, but not of Parker, is probably indicative of how well San Antonio moves the ball in general, and specifically when Parker isolations and pick-and-roll plays don’t immediately result in good looks.
Again, this is just the beginning. The teams using this data are probably already doing fascinating things with it, though the league for now mandates the 10 teams using the system share data with each other — one reason the Mavericks, who were among the first teams to adopt it last season, have opted out of the deal this season. Some of this data might seem like useless trivia, and some of it will indeed end up being little more than that. Some of it will tell us things we already know; Durant surely shoots a higher percentage off catch-and-shoot plays, when he doesn’t have to dribble, than he does after bouncing the ball a few times.
And you could argue how much it really matters that Parker is, by this measure, the fastest point guard in the league, though it seems like something worth knowing. But as the cameras, computers and teams using them get better at recording data and sorting it, we are going to learn so much more about the NBA.